Some Reasons Why the Lone “Senior Pastor” Might Not Make Sense Anymore

At Life on the Vine, we recently added a fourth pastor. Some people told me such multiple leadership would never work. There would be no single face to attach to the vision of the church. Therefore the church would never grow.
Balderdash (is that a word?). The church continues to grow. Signs of healing, new mission, new souls finding God abound.

I now preach approximately half the time. On a typical Sunday morning, the preaching is approximately 25 minutes. But you should know that at our church the gathering does not gather to just hear the preacher. The worship gathering does not culminate and focus on the preacher delivering a masterpiece. Our time together is meant to be a gathering fully engaged with meeting and responding to God, all He has done, what He is saying. And then we are sent out from here collectively into mission. And so honestly, many times I think I’ve blown the sermon really badly, yet the time together did not miss a beat. The proclamation of the gospel reality over us all is important, but it is not the isolated core of the service. We come to worship to hear from and respond to God corporately.

Much has been written about Missional church leadership. Frost & Hirsch (and Dwight Smith) have advocated the APEPT model of leadership from Eph 4. Roxburgh has another brilliant description of these principles. I myself have argued that we must dump the CEO- pastor-leader that the church has too often modeled from the secular business. I have argued that “the CEO-pastor-leader” is a construction that only makes sense in the Cartesian worlds where man is in control (this world is misogynist if you ask me), where leadership is technique driven (ironically I would argue, that even Greenleaf makes NT servant-leadership into a technique to achieve desired results at the hand of the leader in control), and people are units in a sociological structure devoid of the organic nature that we see characterizes the gifted nature of the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12: 4-31). Because of all this I have argued that missional leadership must be multiple, organic, recognized and affirmed within and among a body (not determined from above in a smoke filled room by a CEO and board of the mega corporation it oversees).

Again, many have said this could not be done. But from the beginning at “the Vine” there has always been more people pastoring/leading than just me. I admit I was at the outset the most visible leader. But from the very beginning I’ve been bi-ministerial having other jobs and getting income from other sources than the church. This enabled us to quickly add many more leaders on the staff in a church that now has about 150 people (we started withy 10 people). And so the idea of a senior pastor at “the Vine” has never quite fit.

So out of our experience, here some reasons why the “senior pastor” role won’t work at Life on the Vine church.

1.) Because it doesn’t make sense to build a church around a personality. People start coming to hear that one guy (most often it’s a guy) And as the crowds get bigger, this pastor becomes distanced from the congregation at which point he loses the ability to speak into people’s lives that he knows. Instead, as the crowds get bigger, he must get less specific and more generic so as to optimize his speaking into more people’s lives. Soon he becomes a talking head on a screen, a personality people come to hear almost like the proclamation of the gospel is some form of entertainment or consumption. And when he burns out or leaves, half the congregation splits as well, and the people who remain are left holding the bag for the big mortgage the personality left behind. If I left “Life on the Vine” as pastor, I believe it wouldn’t miss a beat. In fact, last summer, when I didn’t preach all summer the church grew by 20% over the summer.

2.) Because there are no supermen(women). No one pastor has all the gifts. (1 Cor 12:14) Indeed most pastors have gaping deficits in their abilities to carry out the ministry. With multiple pastors, the whole ministry of the church is fed from the many gifts. And all are invited to participate in the empowerment of the gifts as modeled by the many faceted leadership. The fact that the ministry of the body of Christ is not one man/woman resists those who make church all about receieving passively from the ministry of one person. My personal belief is that there should be women pastors as well. Because there are things I could not ever see or understand that a woman can. In our church, I am strong on preaching for growth and sanctification, in training leaders for ministry, in leading a vision for a missional emerging church. I have deferred to and learned from those who have gifts of prayer, faith, preaching, teaching, organization, artistry, and mission. I see how Frost & Hirsch’s APEPT model characterizes our ministry.

3.) Because isolated pastors can become blinded to their own lacks and get tunnel vision and become egomanical. But multiple pastorship in submission to one to another work against this. I can think of three times in the last two years where I was leading the church in a tunnel vision fashion and one of the other pastors called me on it and the resulting turn reinvigorated the church body. I never would have seen these things if I had not been in mutual submission to these other co-laborers in reverence to Christ as Lord.

4.) Because pastors cannot lead alone. The pressures and demoralizations are too great. But leading alongside others enables enormous edification, uplifting, carrying burdens and continuing discpleship of the leaders in community. I had a burn out last year. Geoff got me through. I’m doing great, the church grew stronger.

5.) Because pastors benefit from being bi-vocational … or should I say bi-ministerial (since being in the secular workplace is ministry). Pastors who have jobs outside the church can get to know non-Christians or spend time in non Christian setting and workplaces rather then being entirely bound to the church. Dan Kimball speaks to this in his new book (thanks to Scot McKnight’s review on his blog). Up until last year, I had always worked outside the church. Now my other job is at a seminary. But I will forever be affected by the many years I spent working outside the church and I will ever be seeking non Christian connections.

6.) Because it models the diversity and interrelatedness of the Body. The same as number .2) but for a different reason. The notion of a senior pastor puts up a false impression that one person is especially qualified and elevated to ministry. But with multiple pastors, he/she does not stand alone. The whole body is with him/her one and the same, ministers of the gospel in and outside the church as a way of life.

7.) Because it keeps pastors from becoming fake images which inevitably leads to moral failure and/or disappointment. With multiple leadership in mutual submission to each other in Christ, there can be no temptation to put any of the pastors on a false pedestal as an image of the perfect Christian. For everybody knows too much. Given the mutual intersubjectivity of the leadership, and the smallness of the church, there is no reason to try to act like an archetype for everyone else to immitate.

9.) Because it is hard for pastors to foster servanthood when they are put on a pedestal separated from the people. All pastors should have to clean toilets, serve the poor, and vacuum floors after potlucks. We should see ourselves in submission to the Body of Christ not over it. (Mark 10:42-45). This “amongness” is not possible as a senior pastor.

10.) In summary, because the senior pastor position is an impossible position to live up to. Therefore by accepting this role, we are setting ourselves up (and the church) for inevitable failure.

I could think of other reasons. And I am sure that in other contexts and ways of being the Body of Christ, the senior pastor position may still have validity. But for our church, in seeking to be missional, these reasons seemed to siuggest the senior pastor position won’t work. Are there other reasons? Can senior pastor make sense in emerging missional contexts? Are there some good examples out there.

For the furtherance of God’s mission in Christ into the world …

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