LESSONS ON LEADERSHIP, PT. 4:
PLURALITY VS. SINGULARITY?
One the trickiest situations within leadership, has to do with how many people should be leading the church. Many people and cultures would strongly suggest a singular or monarchial type leader for the church while others would suggest a plurality of leaders. Which one is correct? Which model is the wisest? And what does the Word of God says about this? This entry will suggest that the Scriptures prescribe a plurality of leadership as being the wisest and most widely practiced model for leadership for the church.
Going all the way back to the Old Testament, we see that elders or a plurality of leaders led the nation of Israel (Gen. 50:5; Ex. 3:16; Lev. 4:15; Num. 11:16; Deut. 5:23). Later in the New Testament, we see the mention of Christian elders being appointed in Acts 11:30. This pattern continues throughout the book of Acts as seen in Acts 14:23 in which Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church.” Elders are also exhorted to lead well as they are summoned by Paul at Ephesus in Acts 20:17 as well as encouraged to watch over their flock in Acts 20:28.
The writings of Paul also encourage the plurality of leaders to oversee the church. Paul addresses the plurality of leaders in Philippians 1:1 in the statement “including the overseers and deacons.” The Pastoral Epistles also emphasize this kind of plurality as seen in 1 Timothy 5:17 when he tells a young Timothy, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” In Titus 1:5, as the church at Crete is being rebuilt, Paul encourages Titus to “appoint elders in every town.” Paul even uses other terms to describe the plurality of leaders as seen in passages like 1 Thessalonians 5:12 where Paul states “to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonishing you.”
Other writers of the New Testament also emphasize the plurality or group structure of leadership. The writer of Hebrews exhorts the church with the statement “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account (Heb. 13:17).” The Apostle James also makes mention of plurality with his circumstantial question “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord (James 5:14).” The Apostle Peter also gives us a glimpse of this plurality of leaders in his statement “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed (1 Peter 5:1).” Even John shows a plurality of leaders in the Apocalyptic of Revelation where 24 elders are mentioned (Rev. 4:4; 4:10; 5:8; 11:16; 19:4). The Bible clearly gives us this model of plurality for leaders throughout the Old and New Testaments.
If the Bible is so clear about this, then why are there so many pictures of leadership in the church that function contrary to this prescription? I would like to offer 3 possible reasons. First, the CEO business model of church leadership is fairly prevalent in a lot of churches. This may be due to the structure of a mega-church for example, which can be very large in size. Often times, this kind of church and leadership is built around 1 celebrity type pastor who may be very charismatic or especially gifted in speaking. This kind of leader may also be a strong visionary with a dominant personality. So as a result, he may want to function as a singular leader mainly due to his personality. One of the pitfalls of this kind of leader though is that he may have little to no accountability. The reason is that the structure (which is usually top-down and hierarchical) doesn’t allow for this. This can be a sure fire recipe for disaster as demonstrated by failures in church leadership in the past. The danger is that if the single leader falls, then the entire church could also come down with him since there is no clear replacement for him.
Another possible reason for this kind of singular leadership structure may be due to cultural influences. Due to either a long history or tradition of a culture, it may be more acceptable to see leadership more from a monarchical or regal perspective where the leader is the king! Many cultures are built on this kind of hierarchical premise. Due to this, there are no problems in accepting this kind of leadership practice. This even includes the context of the church! It would be important at this point to be countercultural and to try to understand some of the important biblical principles such as servant-leadership (Mark 10:45) and plurality of leaders (Phil. 1:1) that transcend cultural norms. This is certainly a challenge for many but a necessary practice since the Bible does speak truth into all cultures and should be the standard by which the cultures follow for its own practices including leadership.
The last reason is that it is much easier to be at the top by a singular leader and to be in control of everything. This idea could be linked to the earlier mention of power and control. This kind of structure may initially seem to be more expedient for the singular leader to do everything himself rather than to involve other staff members. That way he knows that it is done “right” and he doesn’t have to worry about others making mistakes. This, however, is a very short-sighted approach to leadership because it does not empower nor train others for future leadership possibilities. Also, for the leader, it does not allow for the development and modeling of good delegation skills. The greatest danger in this practice is that it does not prepare the next generation of leaders (2 Tim. 2:2). Leadership should be a shared endeavor. That way, if something ever happens to the current leader, there would not be a huge void left in the leadership.
The question now extends beyond the different possible pitfalls to why it is wise to have a plurality of leaders over a church vs. a singular leader. The first advantage is that there is greater accountability within a plurality structure over a singular leader. This is necessary in areas of integrity, finance, family, decisions, spiritual encouragement, faithfulness and many other areas as well. The structure of plurality should create a built-in accountability for the pastors and elders to make sure that they are not straying from the vision and mission of the church. It also protects the leaders from possible attacks from outside of the church and even from the congregation members. Plurality can also keep a pastor/teacher in check doctrinally as well as in their lifestyle. When there is no accountability, then trouble will be lurking just around the corner.
Another important benefit of a plurality of leaders is the utilization of different spiritual gifts from the leadership. We see in 1 Corinthians 12:7 that each member of the body of Christ has been given this “manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” When the leaders are utilizing their spiritual gifts, this models to the congregation what they also should be doing in the church. It provides an example of being a Christian. Not only that, but the plurality of leaders can also contribute through their gifts in making decisions and guiding the church in a more effective manner. No single leader has all the spiritual gifts nor should try to be the body of Christ by himself. For that reason, the dependence on other leaders who are using their gifts to edify and build up the church at the leadership level is a beautiful picture of God’s ultimate design.
Closely related to this last point is that a plurality of leaders can also share the responsibility and sometimes the burdens of the ministry as well. This can most clearly be seen through the shepherding of the people. When the church grows and increases in size, no single leader can easily carry out the responsibilities of preaching, administration, shepherding, counseling, visitation, missions, etc., let alone take care of all the people. So a strategic plan for growth and the future comes in the training and setting up of multiple leaders with differing spiritual gifts in order to share the burden and responsibility of the ministry. This will allow for greater growth for the future and certainly greater effectiveness presently. Ministry is difficult in the first place. To do ministry alone for a long time can lead to burnout. God’s prescription of multiple leaders or a plurality is not only wise but also strategic for the future.
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that you now go out and hire a bunch of staff guys to come and minister with you and thus you now can say that you have a plurality of leaders. You probably have very qualified saints within your own church congregation. They are you lay people. As a pastor/leader, you will now need to train and develop them for future leadership possibilities. This is one of the pastor’s job descriptions according to Ephesians 4:11-12, “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.” This process takes a very long time to do. My estimation from my own ministry experience is that it will typically take at least 3 to 5 years to train and develop your own leaders. So it would be best to start today. Pick out a few possible people and then walk with them in a life upon life discipleship relationship. Watch them grow spiritually and develop in their character and faithfulness and continue to coach them over this period of time. And then pray that God would give them both the desire and ability to become the servant-leaders that He desires for the church.