Recently I was at a gathering of church planters and I had a conversation with one planter which made me think again about how we view church leadership.
I’m thinking about planting a church myself, so I am interested in the opinions of others around vision and especially how that relates to church structure. I was in conversation with one planter and I asked him about leadership in his recently established church. I wanted to know what sort of leadership structure he had in place and how it was working. As it turned out, the leadership structure was very similar to that of an established church. It was fairly hierarchical, had different team members assigned to various ministry areas and ultimately responsibility for the church fell on the team leader.
Privately, I was a little disappointed.
I had assumed that because it was a church plant there would be a little more creativity and room for experimenting with new designs and systems for leadership. But as I spoke with many of the planters in the room, most seemed to be replicating established church models. So I shared with the planter who I was speaking to, my thoughts around shared leadership in a church. I explained that there could be a team of say, three pastors who each have different roles yet no one pastor/leader would be seen as the sole leader. He told me that this what was a team was for, to share leadership.
Slightly frustrated I said that I understood that, however, I asked, ‘Why do we need the one leader to bear the sole responsibility for the leadership of the whole church’? Why couldn’t we have shared leadership even at that ‘level’? He thought about that for a while and said, ‘Because people want that ‘one guy’ kind of leadership. They need that one person to focus on who they trust to lead them and to be inspired with the vision.’ That left me thinking for some time about the way that we practice leadership in the church today. It seems to me that our structures and styles are the same as those of established churches which basically mimic a corporate structure where the pastor is the benign CEO and everyone else follows the vision with some input, but certainly not with the commitment, purpose and passion that the pastor has. Shouldn’t a church plant be the context to break down some of this uncreative thinking and experiment with new models? Even if people are drawn to the ‘one guy’ leadership model, does this mean that we should implement this in the church or can we teach people and live out a better way?
Here are some musings on shared leadership which I think challenge us to think a little more creatively, especially if we have the gift of a clean slate as many planters are given. By shared leadership, I am referring to sharing power, responsibility, authority and functions as a leadership in a church. This can be applied to the ‘senior/team leader’ in a church or to the broader team. Whatever context, I think we can be a little more radical in the way we approach leadership in the church. In my opinion, shared leadership can only help the church to function in a manner that is more true to the way of Christ than our corporate business models usually display.
What would happen if we modeled ourselves on the relationship between the three persons in the Godhead?
We are on sacred ground when we try to understand the relationship between the three persons in the Godhead. I am aware of this. We will never fully understand the mystery of the Trinity nor will we be able to emulate the dynamics between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, we can see from Scripture a dynamic between the three that indicates mutuality, joy, interdependence and equality. Those who move towards indicating that there is a hierarchy in the Trinity inevitably fall into heresy as clearly, there is no ‘boss’ in the godhead. We see the dynamics of the three persons in Luke 10:21 where Jesus rejoices in the strength of the Holy Spirit giving thanks to the Father. Clearly it takes a team to accomplish the mission of God. If this is the case within the Trinity, could we not see this as a model to emulate as we lead our churches?
Instead of the lone ranger approach we would model mutuality, interdependence and equality among the leadership. We will never be able to reach the perfection of the relationship evidenced in the Godhead, but as God’s church this ideally should be the model to strive for, rather than hierarchy. Often people point to the ‘one person has to make the final call’ argument to back up their notion that mutual leadership does not work. I think this argument is fallacious, sloppy and again, appeals to worldly notions of leadership and power. If we are in Christ and practicing surrender on a daily basis, then we ought to be able to make decisions together rather than always relying on the one same person for this.
Developing a contextual Ecclesiology
In his excellent book Church Planting, Stuart Murray writes ‘ A better response might be to take the opportunity to look afresh at a biblical and historical models of leadership through the lens of postmodernity, in an attempt to develop forms of leadership that are both contextually appropriate and theologically undergirded. We may do this, aware of the lens we are using and not uncritical of this worldview, but open to the possibility that God might be active in this and calling for parallel changes in the churches. What form of leadership is appropriate for communities of resident aliens?’  How can we boldly develop an ecclesiology for new churches which are contextual? In the West and especially in urban settings, we can discern a suspicion towards hierarchy and authority. Would it not then make sense to develop models which are exhibiting shared leadership in order to better connect with our communities? This of course, as Murray notes is not done uncritically nor does it absolve responsibility in leadership but as we read Scripture and as we exegete our culture what new, dynamic ecclesiologies could emerge which move us towards being shaped by the missio Dei?
Shared leadership and the problem of loneliness and stress at the top
When I was the senior pastor in an established church I found it to be a very lonely experience. Sure, we had an incredible and gifted team and a wonderful broader leadership in the church. However, I could not escape the ‘all roads lead to the Senior pastor’ mentality that most people held. I don’t blame the congregation for this, our systems in the Church today are so normative that this perspective on leadership is as pervasive as the very air we breath. I recognize that leadership has a loneliness element to it. However, it need not be the case if leadership is shared. The statistics on pastoral burn-out, moral failure, stress and depression are very high. Could shared leadership help dissolve this problem to some extent?
We keep our lust for power in check
It is in our nature to desire power. This is a human trait that Christ died to save us from. We desire to control, dominate and shape things into our own image, in short, we want to be God. This lust for power, and we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that it is anything less than that, is a more insidious temptation and practice in churches than any sexual temptation. Christ modeled for us on the cross a humility that subverts this sinful tendency. Michael Gorman writes about a counter-cultural form of power that the Christian leader can practice called cruciform power stemming from the surrender of Christ on the cross. He says therefore, that, ‘Power as it is normally understood and experienced must be approached with great suspicion.’ I agree with this. Worldly forms of power must be critiqued through the lens of our crucified Lord.
Do we have the courage to put this kind of power into practice? Intriguingly Gorman says that this redefinition of power means that we experience it as a weakness in daily life. This has three paradoxical consequences 1) The experience of power is no longer limited to the powerful 2) Normal experiences of power prove to be something else 3) Experiences of weakness can be in fact experiences of God’s power. This is indeed a strange kind of power!  Often shared leadership is perceived as ‘weak’ and counter the ‘strong leader’ myth. However, if experiences of God’s power feel like weakness then should we not be aiming to move towards shared leadership as a normative function in the practice of power?
We model diversity of gifts to the congregation
When power, gifting and expectations in leadership are concentrated in the one person in a church, what we are implicitly saying to our congregation is that one person is able to do it all. When we model shared leadership we are sending the message that no one person has all the capacities to lead a church. We are humbly admitting that we need help. We are conveying that we are helpless without the support, contribution and leadership of others. In my opinion this can only be a healthy message to send to our churches.
Murray states, ‘Appropriate and effective leadership is widely recognized as critical for successful church planting. What is less widely recognized, but of considerable significance is the opportunity for ecclesiological renewal in the area of leadership, if the patterns of leadership evolving in new churches are allowed to challenge established practices and understandings.’ 
Do we need some fresh, uninhibited, contextualised and biblical expressions of leadership to emerge today? I think so. And if there is any place this can happen it is in church plants where innovation and a cutting edge mentality is meant to thrive.
I’m not conveying it will be easy or that failure will not be involved as we try creative approaches which deconstruct worldly views of power.
However, I do think it’s worth at least trying for this transformation rather than perpetuating the established structures that exist today which desperately need the refreshment of the Spirit to breath new life.
1. Stuart Murray Church Planting: Laying Foundations, Waterloo: Herald Press, 2001.p221
2. Michael Gorman Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, Michigan; Eerdmans, 2001,397
3. Murray, 224
[Photo: JAS_photo, CC via Flickr]