When you talk about church structure, my friend Ryan Townsend says that it’s kind of like talking about the plumbing at your house. No one comes over to see it, but everyone notices if it’s broken. And broken plumbing can lead to a big, embarrassing mess!
My 19-year-old Ukrainian-born son, James, may be the exception to this rule. He loves to fix things, and he enjoys pointing out problems in people’s homes—often unsolicited. We recently commissioned him to go help his aunt and uncle get their house ready to sell. Upon arrival, James texted us: “Lots of problems. Plumbing. Expensive.”
That’s a pretty good description of some church structures. Problems abound. Many of which come from a lack of healthy church eldership and membership. And when it comes to changing these foundational issues down the road, it can be costly, painful, and overwhelming.
In our pastoral intern program at our church, we spend significant time on “plumbing.” We want our guys to have deep convictions about eldership and membership, and even be ready to pay the price to implement these things.
Building a healthy church structure is hard work—harder than crafting a clever vision statement or coming up with a cool church name. But it’s far more important.
Building a healthy church structure is hard work—harder than crafting a clever vision statement or coming up with a cool church name. But it’s far more important. It’s hard work because it requires thorough assessments, long conversations, clear communication, a willingness to let go of control (especially if you’re viewed as the “senior leader”), a willingness to be challenged, and more. But it’s needed, and it’s worth it.
We want our church planters to get excited about biblical leadership structure, not for the sake of structure itself, but so that the church can be both missional and pastoral. Your structure can either help or hinder (1) how the flock is cared for and (2) how the church lives on mission.
From Pyramid to Plurality
We planted our church with a plurality of elders. I wanted to avoid the “pastor and his staff” model that has one guy atop the pyramid. We wanted a plurality of elders/pastors caring for and mobilizing the congregation, under the leadership of the true senior pastor, Jesus Christ, who alone sits atop the pyramid.
We don’t even want to plant a church unless we had more than one pastor. We often tell aspiring planters, who you plant with is more important than where you plant. In other words, team is more important than location. Under most circumstances, I believe one can endure and thrive in any location with the right team.
Further, we need to shift our thinking on this profile more generally. For several years, “the man” was overplayed in church planting. The idea was that, in order to be a church planter, you needed to be an alpha male, Ennegram 3 macho-man. Hopefully we can see the problems with such an idea.
I long for a revival of awareness that emphasizes the need for a team of people to plant a church well—composed of missional men and women, and shepherded by a plurality of humble, wise, godly pastors. I believe this will fuel the planting of healthy churches in every nook and cranny of the globe.
We find numerous examples of plural eldership in the New Testament. Elders are seen in the churches of Judea and the surrounding area (Acts 11:30; James 5:14–15); in Jerusalem (Acts 15; 21); in Derbe, Lystra, and Antioch (Acts 14:20–23); in Ephesus (Acts 20; 1 Tim. 5:17–25); and in Northwest Asia Minor (1 Pet. 1:1; 5:1).
(It’s interesting, by the way, that while many challenge the notion of a plurality of elders/pastors, no one seems to advocate for a single deacon model. We need a plurality of both.)
Acts 14 is crucial for church planters. Before Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, from their first so-called missionary journey, Paul returned to strengthen the souls of the disciples. What did he and Barnabas do on this return trip?
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21–23, emphasis added)
How can Paul feel good enough about a church to leave it to exist without him? What did he want to have in place? Notice the three foundations: (1) apostolic instruction—”the faith”; (2) pastoral oversight—this is the first appearance of elders in Gentile churches, and what occurs seems to set the trend for what becomes the norm; and (3) prayerful trust in God.
Parity and Plurality
I’d like to offer one final consideration to those already bought into this model, and it pertains to the “first among equals” idea. For some who have plurality, their elders operate like a board. They’re not shepherds. I don’t recommend this approach. Others see their elders as pastors, but there’s a hierarchy in authority and/or importance. I’m not a fan of this either. I’m for a team of pastors who have equal authority and importance.
We recognize that not all elders are equal in gifting, biblical knowledge, and experience—1 Timothy 5:17 indicates this in regard to teaching. But there’s more to shepherding than teaching and preaching.
For many who advocate for the “first among equals” model, however, the inherent assumption is that one pastor is better at every shepherding issue or has more authority over every issue. To such thinking, I’d want to ask, “Why do you assume that the guy who’s more capable in teaching will also be more gifted at care-giving, counseling, administrating, or mobilizing?” These are vital aspects of shepherding, too.
We want our church planters to get excited about biblical leadership structure, not for the sake of structure itself, but so that the church can be both missional and pastoral.
But how does this actually work? Don’t you have to have a “first among equals”? At our church, we say this: We have a first among equals depending on the issue. Here are some essentials for making that happen:
- Humility and trust. If you’re a control freak, this won’t work.
- Patience and self-control. You may not like the pace at which things happen in plurality.
- Love. You have to bear with one another in love; you’ll know each other’s flaws as well as anyone else in the church.
- Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. You don’t have to voice a strong opinion about everything.
- Respect for one another. You have to value the perspectives of everyone.
- An awareness of each other’s strengths. This is essential in order to know when and how to defer to each other.
So in our efforts to plant churches, let’s not just seek to plant churches—let’s seek to plant healthy churches, led by a healthy team of pastors, for the good of the church and the advancement of the mission. This will require us to give due consideration to this less celebrated aspect of church planting.