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Practical Benefits of Plurality Leadership #2

More than a decade ago Oceanside Christian Fellowship terminated “Bill,” one of our paid pastors. Bill’s poor use of time and his lack of productivity had generated not a little frustration among others at the church, who were carrying more than their weight in their respective areas of ministry.

A move to a new facility, which called for sacrifice and a servant’s attitude on everyone’s part, sharply accentuated the latent resentment that had been building among the staff. We knew that something was seriously wrong when another staff person—one of our most productive and effective ministers—began to explore the secular job market outside the church.

I was part-time at the church and had little first-hand exposure to the dysfunction in the office, though I do recall being quite annoyed when Bill showed up late, week after week, to our Wednesday elder meetings.

The elders had made an attempt to address the issue along the way but, frankly, we did not take the initiative we should have earlier, so that the situation had deteriorated unnecessarily by the time we set up a meeting with Bill and the rest of the pastor-elders.

For several hours we went back and forth with Bill. There was next to no ownership on his part. Here were six of Bill’s fellow elders raising serious concerns about his work as a pastor and church employee. He responded by rationalizing his behavior and telling us that we had it wrong on every count.

Bill pretty much determined his own future at OCF when he maintained, “I take a long time to make a decision, but when I do decide, I am almost always right.”

A series of follow-up meetings led to Bill’s termination. The atmosphere around the office changed dramatically for the better.

I had said some very pointed things to Bill in the course of that initial meeting. All of my statements were objectively true. In the heat of the discussion, however, I did not share my convictions in a loving way.

After Bill left the room, as we sat around planning our next steps, several of my fellow pastor-elders told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had been hurtful in my comments. They insisted that I owed Bill an apology. The rebuke was hard to hear. It caught me completely off guard.

Our natural tendency in a situation like this is to retreat into a defensive posture. I was tempted to rebuff the critique and to go back over the things I had said in the meeting, one by one, demonstrating that each point I made was true. After all, it didn’t seem like the two remaining elders had a problem with how I handled myself.

What kept me from defending my behavior, however, was the relationship I had with the men who challenged me about the tone of my comments that day.

As OCF’s pastor-elders, we meet every week, early on Wednesday morning, to pray for one another, for our families, and for the people in our church. We have been doing so for years.

I know these men well enough to trust them with my life. They know me, too. They appreciate my strengths. And they are quite aware of my weaknesses. I recognized that these guys would only rebuke me with my best interests—and the best interests of the church—in view.

So we set up a meeting, and I humbly apologized to Bill for the hurtful manner in which I had framed my words. I assured Bill that I stood by the content of what I had said. But I told him that I deeply regretted the way in which I communicated it to him. I asked Bill for his forgiveness, and he graciously responded in turn.

That Would Never Happen In My Church

A year or so later, one of my Korean students at Talbot School of Theology, Jonathan, came to interview me during office hours. Jonathan had received an assignment in another course that required him to interact with several pastors about their approach to ministry.

One question on the survey asked, What does a leader need in order to be successful? I replied that a pastor needs (among other things) three kinds of relationships to succeed long-term in local church ministry: (1) mentors to guide him, (2) peers to serve alongside him, and (3) younger disciples to raise up as future leaders.

Jonathan and I proceeded to discuss each of these relationships. He was particularly intrigued by category #2, since Korean pastors generally lack peer relationships in their congregations. To illustrate the importance of a community of leaders, I told Jonathan the story about the hard experience I went through during the painful process of Bill’s termination (above).

Jonathan’s response was revealing. When I finished sharing how I had been rebuked by my fellow-elders, and how I, in turn, apologized to Bill, Jonathan immediately asserted, “That would never happen in a Korean church.”

It is not hard to see why. Pastors in traditional Asian congregations do not have the kind of peer relationships that characterize OCF’s board of pastor-elders. The pronounced social hierarchy and relational expectations of an honor culture guarantee that no one would ever rebuke the behavior of a preaching pastor in the presence of other men in the church.

Nor would a Korean pastor entertain the prospect of “losing face” by apologizing to another person in the congregation for the way that he had handled himself in a meeting. The social context of ministry in traditional Asian culture simply does not allow for such a scenario.

The result, of course, is that a pastor in a Korean church like Jonathan’s has much more latitude, behavior-wise, than any Christian ever ought to have. Here, I suggest, the cultural values and social codes of a traditional honor culture have decidedly compromised the relational contours of the Gospel.

Things are hardly different, however, in many of our corporate style Anglo churches in America. In my experience it is a rare event for a senior pastor to get called on the carpet for anything short of blatant sexual immorality or, perhaps, an equally serious moral compromise, such as embezzlement of church funds.

Hurtful treatment of associate staff? Subtle manipulation of the truth in the service of slick and effective ministry? Sadly, in numbers of congregations that’s just the price of doing business. As long as the pews are full of people, and the offering basket is full of money, the pastor is doing just fine, thank you.

The Social Context Of Ministry

These stories underscore the importance of leadership structures and organization in our churches. The socio-cultural context of ministry has tremendous ramifications for the ways in which leaders leverage their power and authority in the local church.

It is a simple fact that some ways of doing church encourage the healthy exercise of ministerial authority. Others do not.

Many instances of authority abuse in our churches can be traced directly to systemic cultural values—and resulting social contexts—which obstruct, rather than facilitate, healthy, other-centered leadership. This is true whether that abuse is enabled by a group’s traditional honor values, or by an American business culture that treats a senior pastor like the CEO of a large corporation.

All of the above strongly commends the team approach to local church ministry, with its ability to provide some healthy checks-and-balances for the exercise of authority among our pastoral leaders.

The temptation for God’s people to adopt secular leadership values and practices is hardly new. In one of his most memorable teachings, Jesus pointedly contrasted (a) the way authority was exercised in the surrounding culture with (b) the servant approach to leadership that he expected of his followers:   

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42–43).

We live in a much different world than Jesus and the early Christians. But the threat of cultural accommodation remains the same. What kind of structure today will be most conducive to Jesus’ vision for servant leadership among his followers?

A secular business model, with a single CEO-type leader at the top?

A traditional honor culture’s unassailable social hierarchy?

Or the New Testament’s plurality approach, with a team of pastors sharing authority with one another?

The answer, I think, is obvious.

Being rebuked by my fellow-pastors for my behavior at that meeting years ago was not a pleasant experience. But it was a necessary one.

Your OCF pastor-elders will tell you that we treasure the accountability that the plurality approach naturally provides, as we share the ministry together. I certainly do. It is one of the greatest benefits that team leadership gives us at Oceanside Christian Fellowship.

NOTE: Much of the above was adapted from Joseph H. Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the  Early Church and Why It Matters Today (Kregel, 2007).

Posted by Joe Hellerman with

Practical Benefits of Plurality Leadership

Our first three posts surveyed the biblical data supporting plurality leadership:

1. The churches in the New Testament were each led by a team of pastors.

2. Jesus’ teachings about divine Fatherhood and natural fatherhood most naturally support the plurality approach.

3. Team leadership best reflects (and models to the congregation) the relational heart of the Christian faith.

We turn now to consider some practical reasons for having a plurality of pastors at OCF.

Even if the Bible supported a variety of approaches, I would still opt for a team of leaders over one lead pastor. Plurality leadership benefits both leaders and church members in some very important ways.

Team Ministry Undercuts “Celebrity-ism”

A colleague of mine was hired to consult with the elder board of a Southern California megachurch with a large ministry and a massive campus. These leaders wanted to make sure that Walt understand their church’s  “cultural DNA” at the outset. With great pride they informed him, “This whole ministry is designed to serve and support the gifts of one man.”

American culture used to have heroes. A hero is a person whose life serves as an example for others. Abraham Lincoln was a hero. So was Martin Luther King, Jr.

Few of us have heroes anymore. We have traded heroes for celebrities. A celebrity is a bigger-than-life person whose followers generally have no lives of their own. They live out their lives vicariously through the lives of their favorite celebrities.

Celebrity-ism is patently foolish when your favorite celebrity is a Kardashian. But it is downright dangerous when he is a spiritual leader whom you put on a pedestal and imagine to be a sinless saint of some sort.

Israel cried out, “Give us a king!” (1 Samuel 8:6). Against his will, God gave his people what they wanted. A real superstar. Saul was the handsomest and tallest man around (9:2).

That didn’t work out very well, did it? It never does.

The antidote to celebrity-ism is shared ministry. The following story from my own pilgrimage as an OCF pastor pretty much says it all.

I love to teach the Bible. But when I finish preaching on Sunday, I am spiritually exhausted and emotionally vulnerable. One morning after the service I was walking up an aisle to leave the auditorium. Someone ran up and told me how much they liked the message. They concluded, “I just love it when you preach, Joe!”

I began to feel pretty good about myself. Until I walked through the lobby toward the front door, where I heard someone say to Denny O’Keefe, “When is Brandon preaching again? I really like it when he preaches.”

Ouch! After I got over myself, however, I thought, “Exactly! This is precisely why we have a teaching rotation on Sunday mornings. At OCF no one becomes a celebrity.”

We all have our preferences and favorites, in every area of our lives. But where OCF’s preaching is concerned, we hope that you will learn to come to church for the message—not for the messenger.

Hear the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Christian leadership. Bonhoeffer shares timeless truths that are painfully fitting for an evangelical culture that continues to be enamored with large, visibly successful ministries and big-name church leaders:

“Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community; indeed, it poisons the Christian community. The desire we so often hear expressed today for ‘episcopal figures,’ ‘priestly men,’ ‘authoritative personalities’ springs frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority, because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive.” (Life Together, 108, my italics).

Note the italicized phrase: “a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men.”  Powerful stuff. But so very true.

You won’t find spiritual celebrities at Oceanside Christian Fellowship. But you will find plenty of heroes. OCF’s heroes are the spiritually mature Christians in our midst, whose lives serve as an example to the rest of us: the O’Keefes, the Yetters, the Schramms, the Hutchisons, Margy Emmons, and many more!

Astute readers will notice that I failed to mention our #1 spiritual hero, whose life will always be a perfect example to the rest of us at OCF. Interestingly enough, he would have been labeled a failure as a megachurch pastor. His congregation dwindled from thousands to just eleven guys during the course of his ministry. But we will always be proud to call him our Senior Pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship.

His name is Jesus. He is our hero. And someday he will even become a celebrity of sorts: “Every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is  Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).

Next week we’ll consider a second benefit of the team approach, namely, the accountability it provides for those in pastoral leadership.

Posted by Joe Hellerman with