There has been a growing acceptance of the importance of having plural leadership in churches and this can be a big help to encouraging healthy accountable churches. Many churches now emphasise team leadership and Brethren and some Baptist and Presbyterian churches have appointed several elders to lead. However, just appointing a group of leaders does not guarantee that you genuinely have plural leadership and in and of itself will not guarantee protection against abusive relationships and culture.
So, here are some things that are not plural leadership.
- Where one leader appoints a team who work for him so that he is the senior leader. It is very difficult for subordinates to challenge the boss.
- Having one elder (usually the pastor) who is “first among equals” the concept comes from a Latin phrase primus inter pares. The idea is that whilst notionally a team of equals there is in fact one leader who is afforded particular respect and privileges. To give an example, the UK prime minister is officially first among equals meaning he is simply another of Her Majesty’s servants but what that means in practice is that he appoints the other ministers, has an official residence, greater pay packet and special protection. The risk with the idea of first among equals is that it leads to the pastor having control and veto over the agenda.
- At the opposite end of the spectrum, plural leadership does not mean that pastors work for the elders to do their bidding. Whilst individuals can take power and become abusive, it is also possible for leaders to in effect suffer abuse at the hands of a clique who really call the shots.
- A group of mates. Leaders need to build relationships as friends and that gives them permission to disagree strongly. However beware of getting into a situation where the leaders are simply a group of friends or even relations who have grown up together and hung out together. You end up with group think as leaders look like, think like, talk like and act like each other.
- A committee. There are a few reasons for this. First of all you end up with committee based decision making by voting. You can also end up with pastoral care by committee. Whilst plurality means there should be lots of checks and balances on relationships and good advice, I still believe there is a good Biblical principal in keeping those involved in the issue to the minimum necessary. Whilst major issues due to complexity, impact or requirement for discipline need all elders involved I suspect many church members would be uncomfortable with the idea that something they shared for prayer and advice might get discussed by a wider group of people.
- A gathering of the tribal leaders. In other words, leaders are not there to represent a constituency in the church. They serve the whole church together. This also means that leadership should not be about competing centres of power. We also should not have a situation where leaders simply seek to follow and protect their own agenda. The aim should be unity of purpose and mind reached through prayerful, biblical deliberation.
- Something to hide behind. A plural leadership will exercise collective responsibility. It will also ensure that a multitude of gifts and perspectives are brought together. However, a leader should fully own the collective decision as their own and not hide behind the group. Further, the collective nature of leadership does not permit me to simply push an extreme position in expectation that the group will moderate the extremes. Nor, should I hide behind plurality as an excuse for not working on aspects of my sanctification.