Shared leadership is biblical leadership.
Well, that’s mostly true. But what good would it be to start a blog post with a generic and non-divisive statement? The reality is that the preferred and primary model of leadership we have in the Bible is one of shared leadership. There are exceptions, but none of those lend itself to a strong argument for solo leaders. Paul left Titus on the island of Crete without much leadership help, but the whole purpose for leaving Titus behind was so that he could remedy that situation (Titus 1:5). There may be times, like when planting a church without a core team (something I did and highly recommend others against doing so), that there may be no option for shared leadership. But like Titus, it’s a situation that should only be temporary. Sure, there are other leaders in scripture who didn’t share responsibility, but it didn’t often go well. Kings and judges fell into pride and sin, and consequently made decisions that could have and probably would have been avoided with wise counsel (1 Samuel 15; 2 Samuel 11; 1 Kings 11; and pretty much the rest of 1 Kings, 2 Kings, and the whole book of Judges). Prophets, while not in the same leadership category as kings, faced loneliness, burnout, and depression (1 Kings 19:4 and the entire book of Jeremiah and Lamentations for examples).
At times we see leaders in the Bible recognize their need for shared leadership, or more shared leadership, and make the course correction. Moses knew he couldn’t do the task God was calling him to by himself (Exodus 4:13). Yet at some point found himself trying to do it all alone. Moses was called out for his self-reliance and wisely changed course, which turned out to be the right decision (Exodus 18). In the early days of the church in Acts, the disciples were working as a team yet realized they needed even more help (Acts 6).
Mostly, however, what we find in the Bible is a model of shared leadership. God designed the tabernacle and temple to be run and led by many (Exodus 28-29; 40:12-15; Leviticus 8). Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs for ministry (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1). Paul, and other writers of the New Testament, clearly believed in a plurality of leaders (for just a sampling, see: Acts 14:23; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 1:1; 5:1; Hebrews 13:14, 24; James 5:14). This is to say nothing of the proverbial statements about strength in numbers and the wisdom in counsel from others (Proverbs 11:14; 12:15; 15:22; Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
There are many ways to establish shared leadership in our churches. A plurality of elders is perhaps the most common way churches establish shared leadership. For 10 years I was the planter and Lead Pastor of Element Church in Aurora, and this is the model that we employed. Other churches utilize a hierarchy of staff leadership. Often staff-led churches, and many times elder-led ones too, incorporate deacons who serve as well. While deacons in most churches are not technically leaders by the way we structure their roles, they do help to alleviate some of the tasks of church life, care, and ministry. I like the way David Platt has communicated it: “Elders are servant leaders, while deacons are lead servants.” And then there is a lesser known, and even less utilized way of shared leadership: co-pastoring. By this term, I don’t mean multiple pastors on staff in a traditional hierarchical pyramid who are all working well together toward a common goal. By co-pastoring, I mean two pastors who are truly equal in authority, title, and compensation; genuinely, two Senior/Lead Pastors.
As I mentioned before, for 10 years I was the lead planter and pastor of Element Church in Aurora, CO and served as a first-among-equals with the elder team. I had one vote, like each of the other elders, but led the team in establishing priorities and agenda. In the summer of 2022, I handed off the leadership of the church to a new Lead Pastor and became the Co-Lead Pastor of Valley Life Church in Fraser, CO. I joined Dustin Wagley, who had served as the sole Lead Pastor for the last 9 years before my arrival. The story of how this all came to be is too long for this article, though I would love to tell you more of that story over a cup of coffee. In this post, I’m not suggesting that co-pastoring is the only way, the right way, or even the best way for your particular church situation. What I do want to do is highlight my experiences and encourage you to consider a different way of experiencing shared leadership.
The value and benefits of shared leadership, aside from its promotion in the Bible, has been well covered by many others. Things like balancing each other’s weaknesses, lightening the workload, providing accountability, etc. A great example would be Alexander Strauch’s, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership (see esp. Ch. 2, “Shared Leadership”). Co-pastoring, however, provides some unique strengths and advantages. One of those is that the senior leader of the church no longer carries the full burden alone. I know that an elder team can unanimously make a difficult decision and a church staff can stand together in full unity with one another on a particular direction. But at the end of the day, it’s the senior leader who bears the most weight of difficult decisions. I’m not saying it’s right, but that’s just the way it is. Church people may share complaints with a junior staff member or ask an elder for more clarification, but it’s the senior leader that is usually held accountable and who fields the hardest conversations. Recall the last difficult decision that was made at your church: what to do about mask mandates, having to fire a church employee, or, heaven-forbid, not holding services on Christmas morning, etc. What if the structure of leadership in your church required that anyone who took issue with that direction had to bring their concerns or frustrations to two people? They couldn’t just walk into your office, catch you after the service, or even shoot you a text to discuss it, because you weren’t the only person at the end of the line. No matter how much they respected the authority of the elders or the unity of the staff, there wouldn’t just be one person who people turned to when difficult conversations needed to happen.
Another great advantage of a true co-pastoring model is the freedom it gives for senior leaders to take a break. I’ve been in full-time vocational ministry for almost 20 years. In that time, as best as I can recall, I’ve never taken more than one consecutive Sunday off. I know, the red lights flashing and the red flags waving in your mind should be there. It’s not healthy and I’m not proud of it. But any of you reading this who have spent much time in vocational ministry know exactly how easy it can happen. I didn’t want it to be this way.
In 2019, I had planned to take the entire month of June off. It had been 8 years of church planting and I had recently finished my second Master’s degree. I needed it. But as time got closer, it just didn’t seem like good timing. Our church was growing, we were hiring new staff, in the midst of some great changes in ministry, and doing a total rebranding. Maybe next year.
Well, it didn’t take long for me to decide that next year, 2020, wasn’t a good time for the senior leader to disappear for a while. For sure, 2021 would be the year. I started making plans and setting mock travel itineraries for our family. Then two of our elders announced to me in the spring of that year they were moving out of state, I had to let one staff member go, and another staff member felt God calling them in a new direction.
In 2019 and 2020 I led a preaching cohort in our church to raise up future communicators and preachers. In 2021, all but two of them no longer lived in Colorado (Thanks, rising home values!), one of them no longer was part of our church, and one still wasn’t ready for the task. So, I did the best I could and took one Sunday off in June. That would be the last weekend I didn’t preach for the next 52 Sundays.
Fast-forward to October 2022. Dustin and I, the co-pastors of our church, and our elder team start discussing giving Dustin a 6 to 8-week sabbatical next year for his 10-year anniversary at the church. The discussion lasted a whole of 3 minutes. It basically went like this: “Sounds like a great idea. It’s well needed and deserved, and with our current structure of leadership the church won’t miss a beat (of course we would miss his presence). Plan the trip and enjoy the time.” How long of a discussion would there be and how many months of planning would it take for your senior leader to take a sabbatical?
Maybe the least measurable but most significant strength is that co-pastoring models and requires humility. Let’s be honest, there is a sense of pride that comes with being in charge; at least when things are going well. When my wife and I announced that we were leaving Element Church to move to Fraser and co-pastor we got a lot of the same reactions by other pastors as well as from people who have never served in vocational ministry. Why would you do that?
Our church in Aurora wasn’t a megachurch and I wasn’t being called by publishers and conferences to share my successful secrets. But on the outside, there was no reason to leave. We planted the church and beat the odds to survive and become financially self-sufficient. We were growing in attendance, giving, salvations, baptisms, and community impact year-over-year. And I had what most people want, I was in charge. I mean, of course our church had elders, but people still see the Senior/Lead Pastor as the man in charge.
One of the hardest parts about this transition for me was letting go of Element Church. I knew the right theological answer: it’s God’s church. I thought I believed it, until it was becoming a very real option of letting it go. I realized I was holding on to it with proverbial “closed fists.” Sure, part of it was because we planted it. My kids aren’t quite old enough to be going off to college, but I imagine it’s much like letting your kids grow up and go out on their own. We birthed the church, we nurtured it, we took care of it when it was hurting, we celebrated when it grew and developed, and now it was time to let it go. But through this process and transition, I realized the struggle I had wasn’t just because of how much I loved the church. It was also because of how much I loved leading it.
Letting go and leaving Element Church taught me some valuable lessons about my heart, idolatry, and what true under-shepherding for the Great Shepherd means. Co-pastoring is allowing me to live out those lessons daily.
Since stepping into a co-pastoring role, it’s becoming hard to count the number of conversations I’ve had with others; explaining what co-pastoring is, how it works, and why I chose to do it. It’s also growing increasingly hard to count the number of pastors I’ve talked to about it who haven’t walked away wishing they were in a situation like mine. The list of churches and pastors that I’ve talked to who are now exploring this as a viable new leadership model continues to grow.
No matter the structure of your current church leadership, we all carry more weight and burden than we’d like, we all find it hard to give away tasks and leadership, and we all know we like being in charge a little too much. You may have never thought about this style of church leadership before, but maybe it’s time to rethink our roles as leaders in God’s church.
Are you feeling the burn?
Pastors and Ministry Leaders, you are not alone.
We have Regional Directors and Convention Staff who are here to help. They are seasoned ministry leaders who understand the unique challenges of ministry. They can help you develop a plan, find resources, and build teams to help you avoid or recover from burnout. Ministry is demanding at every level. Every minister needs someone.