The Benefits of Collaborative Leadership

6 ways plurality serves the church

When I felt called to ministry, I had no idea that being a pastor would become an essential means for exposing my sinful heart. Looking back on that early ministry experience that I described above, I can now see that I was undergoing a kind of open-heart surgery. I think what was happening in my heart is well described in James 3:16: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” Just think about it. I had an opportunity to partner with and serve alongside a guy more experienced than I was—a guy who was trusted throughout the church and endowed with pastoral gifts. That was a slam dunk if there ever was one. But to my shame, I questioned his leadership and the wisdom of his appointment. My pride confused and corrupted me in an exceptional way. Anarchy reigned within me.

Little did I know these events were unfolding in a way that would profoundly shape my vision of ministry. My first experience of plurality—leading with another guy through a difficult situation—reached in and squeezed my disordered heart. Much to my dismay, what was inside my heart came spilling out. But that was the point. God had a plan.

If you’re new to working with a team, you’ll soon see how often plurality uncovers and forces you to deal with the heroic dreams and fleshly desires you have for ministry. When you think about it, this makes sense. To serve as part of a healthy elder plurality, a pastor must know his role, be willing to come under authority, learn humility, traffic in nuances that are neither black nor white, and be willing to think about his gifts and position through the lens of what serves the church rather than his personal agenda. Leading in community puts us under a holy spotlight. We have to learn to lead under some, alongside others and over still others.

But it’s all part of God’s plan and protection. In fact, he will insist upon experiences of love or submission that will either break us free from our self-sufficiency or crush us beneath it. Plurality will expose our false identities, our preferences and prejudices, our high opinions of our own gifts, and our ungodly ambitions.

Had I known all of that back then, I’m fairly certain I would have chosen car sales.

But I didn’t. Instead, God used that first ministry experience to expose my heart. It happened one day when I was sitting in the other leader’s office. I was arguing with him—once again—over something irrelevant and unnecessary. At one point in our conversation, he stopped, became quiet and solemn, and gently asked:

“Dave, isn’t this just about your pride? Isn’t this just about your unwillingness to serve and humble yourself before someone who may have more experience and be better suited for this role right now?”

That’s when it happened.

As I write these words, they may seem like the usual questions of a verbal sparring partner. But the words of this man’s mouth had an arresting effect. God suddenly entered my personal space and authorized that twofold question as if it had been spoken directly by the Holy Spirit. It was one of those rare moments—and, quite honestly, I haven’t had many— where the clarity of a simple question felt like the convicting voice of God’s assessment. The man’s words became a sledgehammer that broke open my soul. This was about my pride, my self-glory! A wave of conviction crested over me. I knew he was right. Nathan stood before me saying, “Thou art the man” (2 Sam. 12:7).

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A torrent of tears welled up within me. It was a beautiful moment, but I cried ugly—like a naked soul before a holy God. My greatest need in that moment was not to find the right role; my greatest need was repentance. I needed to humble myself.

My friend—I can truly call him that now—wondered whether this was some kind of breakdown. Should he call 911? Indeed, as I went back to Scripture, God was breaking down pride, selfish ambition, lofty opinions and self-righteous assessment, both of me and of this other leader. My problem was not physical; it was spiritual. And when God flipped on the light, it illumined the road to repentance.

As an aside, I’m the kind of Christian who believes this sort of stuff still happens. In fact, I wish it happened more often for me, and I hope the same for you. But the most amazing thing about this experience was how God adjusted my perspective. God flipped my view so that I began to see things differently. In the days that followed, I immediately recognized that my friend was the right man to lead the church. And he did.

God’s Purposes in Plurality

As we study the Scriptures, we see that a plural-leadership model is foundational for the local church. Plurality not only reflects the coequality, unity and community expressed by the Trinity (2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4–6; 1 Peter 1:2; Jude 20–21). It not only is the prominent and essential feature of New Testament church polity. But it also serves the church in at least six other ways:

1. Plurality embodies and expresses the New Testament principle of interdependence and the diversity of gifts among members of Christ’s body (Rom. 12:4–6; 1 Cor. 12).

2. Plurality acknowledges human limitations by recognizing that no one elder or bishop can possess the full complement of gifts God intends to use to bless and build the church (1 Cor. 12:21). This approach, in fact, discourages narcissistic personalities who look to exercise unique and exclusive authority or control within a team.

3. Plurality creates a leadership structure where men must model the unity to which God calls the whole church (John 17:23; Rom. 15:5; Eph. 4:3, 13; Col. 3:14). Plurality calls forward timid leaders to share the weight of governing responsibility.

4. Plurality creates a community of care, support, and accountability that guards the calling, life, and doctrine of the leaders (1 Tim. 4:14, 16; Titus 1:6–9; James 5:16). Where plurality truly exists, pastors and elders remain appropriately engaged, loved, guided and harnessed together.

5. Plurality provides a mechanism to deal wisely and collaboratively with the institutional necessities of the local church.

6. Finally, plurality contradicts the idea of a singular genius and replaces it with what the Bible calls an “abundance of counselors” (Prov. 11:14; 24:6; see also 15:22) who collaborate, lead and guide the church together. This isn’t simply a clever constitutional maneuver. It’s a recognition of the New Testament pattern. According to the biblical authors, the authority for the local church was given to the entire eldership, not just to one gifted leader. In other words, the responsibility inheres in the group, not the man.

The strength, unity and integrity of this shared leadership model infuse the church with durability for its mission and care. The church can’t afford to sidestep this vital issue. Plurality is God’s means of leading the church to fulfill its purpose, but it’s also a means of growing its leaders.

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The Rest of the Story

As time passed, my friend realized that he was not gifted to lead our elder team in a way that would ultimately be fruitful for the church. It was another mark of his consistent humility. So the senior leadership role fell to me, the last man standing. When I think back, the whole thing makes me smile. Some men are born leaders, others are appointed by vote, and still others have leadership thrust upon them. For me, I suppose I’m in the thrusted category—I was the only guy left. Appointment through the process of elimination! Suddenly several hundred people were waiting for 29-year-old Dave Harvey to get up and lead the next Sunday service.

But the story isn’t over, because a few months later the original senior pastor returned to our staff. He took his place next to my friend, who had also been the senior pastor of our church. Somehow, in an inexplicable twist of providence, I inherited two older men, both of whom were 10 years my senior and had already led our church. It seemed to me that this could easily become either a sitcom or a disaster flick—I just didn’t know which. After all, these experienced guys were neither timid nor overly impressed with their new lead man. They certainly supported me, but they also had opinions, preferences and clear ideas about how the church should be run. Somehow, we needed to find unity as a team; we needed to learn what it meant to collaborate.

For me, being the leader of this group meant thinking hard about God’s point and purpose in plurality. I began asking questions like these:

• What does it mean to lead a church through a team?
• What does it mean to be a senior leader within a plurality of pastors/elders?
• How do you build a healthy plurality among a group of elders or leaders?
• How do you lead men who are older than you and have more ministry experience than you do?

Both of the other men were exceedingly patient with me, and their experience aided my training as their leader. Over time, I began to truly recognize a hidden truth about local church ministry. Sharing leadership with other men was going to achieve things I never expected. Our pursuit of plurality was neither an academic ideal nor a trendy leadership technique; nor was it merely a means for getting stuff done. Plurality was going to become an extraordinary means of grace for each of us—a grace that would deepen our experience of God, reveal our hearts in unique ways, bring clarity to our roles for service, ensure that each of us experienced genuine care, and make ministry a source of deeper delight.

My first experience of eldership plurality switched on the light bulb for me. That’s when I learned that the quality of the leadership plurality determines the health of the church. I knew that failing to lead alongside these men would mean weaker souls and a weaker church. It would mean potentially forfeiting the mission. But succeeding with them would ensure a level of God-glorifying success in our spiritual lives that would spill over into the lives of the congregation.

Content adapted from The Plurality Principle by Dave Harvey. This article first appeared on Crossway.org; used with permission.