In the past several years, numerous works have been released calling churches back to a polity built on a plurality of elders. Much of the effort has been directed toward demonstrating the biblical argument for an eldership, and some resources offer counsel on how churches can transition to an elder-led structure. Other resources define and describe the role of elders in the church. How should one understand the qualification passages in 1 Timothy and Titus? What must elders do? How should churches develop elders?
These questions and more have been addressed. In The Plurality Principle: How to Build and Maintain a Thriving Church Leadership Team, Dave Harvey—president of the church-planting ministry Great Commission Collective—offers something new and desperately needed in the church. He shares how elder pluralities can function in a manner that serves the church well. While many of the books written on eldership deal with elders as individuals, The Plurality Principle focuses on the team dynamic.
In The Plurality Principle, Harvey has one nail to hammer: “The quality of your elder plurality determines the health of your church” (15). His goal is to share with ministry leaders what he has learned about how to define, experience, and assess a healthy plurality of elders. To accomplish this task, he breaks his work into two sections: building a plurality and thriving as a plurality.
The Plurality Principle: How to Build and Maintain a Thriving Church Leadership Team
Essential to every healthy church is a biblical model of leadership. In the New Testament, church leadership is built around a team of elders working together, each bringing his own unique skills and gifts to the cause of shepherding the flock God entrusted to them. However, in many churches today the principle of plurality in leadership is often misunderstood, mistakenly applied, or completely ignored.
Dave Harvey encourages church leaders to prioritize plurality for the surprising ways that it helps churches to flourish. This book not only builds a compelling case for churches to adopt and maintain biblical elder pluralities guided by solid leadership but also supplies practical tools to help elders work together for transformation.
Key Ingredients for a Healthy Plurality
Harvey proposes five key ingredients to building a healthy plurality: each pastor has to know his role, be willing to come under authority, learn humility, traffic in nuances, and be willing to think about his gifts and position through the lens of what serves the church rather than his personal agenda. It is evident that these requirements come from significant experience in ministry.
Clearly defined roles on an elder team is essential to healthy dialogue and cultivates an environment of deference. The mingling of authority and humility can be a difficult dance to learn. Harvey summarizes it: “We have to learn to lead under some, alongside others, and over still others” (30).
The mingling of authority and humility can be a difficult dance to learn.
This may be one of the most difficult skills to learn as a shepherd. Often, pastors/elders are leaders over specific ministries in the church. This means they have a team looking to them for direction and leadership. But leadership of a specific ministry is different from leadership of an entire church. Leading the church as an elder plurality is where most of the leading alongside happens. It’s at this leadership level that true pluralities exist.
Harvey argues that leading alongside requires a “first among equals.” The biblical support offered for this concept is abbreviated and more observational than argumentative. His theological points are concise and precise, and he’s careful to demonstrate the submission of the Son to the Father in the incarnation, thus separating himself from charges of holding to eternal functional subordination.
Harvey also recognizes that leadership on an elder team is not synonymous with headship. This is important because there is no one-to-one correlation between the family and the household of God. While Scripture does at times relate the two (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:4–5), it is important to maintain a distinction.
But living out the “first among equals” reality is not so simple. Churches can err by placing undue emphasis on the first or on the equals. Emphasizing first can lead to domineering leadership. Harvey doesn’t discuss the undue burden this can force on the senior leader. The team becomes too dependent on the man up front. Everything lands on his desk, which can quickly lead to burnout and is a form of abdication by the other leaders on the team. One concession Harvey makes is assuming that one man must occupy the pulpit (66). I wonder what he’d think about implementing a team teaching model, so that the concept of plurality would be present and modeled even in the ministry of the Word.
Emphasizing equals can lead to indecision, confusion, and lack of care. This demonstrates again the need for clearly defined roles. If no one is tasked to lead, then the team will either default to whoever used to lead or the loudest person in the room, or follow numerous leaders in numerous directions. Emphasizing either first or equals can lead to a significant health crisis in the life of a plurality, and the consequences can be devastating.
Developing Healthy Pluralities
In the latter portion of the book, Harvey helps leaders develop healthy pluralities. He outlines four essentials for a healthy team culture: a context for care, defined accountability, regular time spent together, and humility. Most noteworthy are his comments on defined accountability. In an article titled “The Pattern Among Fallen Pastors,” Garrett Kell cites a study of 246 men in full-time ministry who experienced moral failure, noting that none of the men was involved in any kind of real personal accountability. Harvey’s warnings and practical wisdom in this section should be embraced by all who read it.
Harvey concludes by saying, “And so we take the risk and live devoted to this biblical vision of plurality, not because we have perfect communion—we’re still flawed and fallen—but because we know deep in the recesses of our souls that the only leadership story worth living is a life where we lead together” (146). If you want to be a healthy church, if you want to experience deep joy in ministry, then you must tend to the health of your plurality. As the elders go, so goes the church.
If you want to be a healthy church, if you want to experience deep joy in ministry, then you must tend to the health of your plurality.
Plurality Is Not the Savior
Harvey rightly notes that plurality isn’t the only essential ingredient in a healthy church; nor is it a silver bullet for fixing all our leadership issues. In fact, implementing plurality will lead to a unique set of challenges. But plurality is biblical and a good gift God has given to the church, to produce the kind of humility and wisdom required for leading well.
We have witnessed many church-leadership tragedies in recent years. It is grievous. Let’s be clear: plurality is not the savior. Only Jesus is. In his kindness and grace, though, God has given us wisdom in his Word. Understanding and applying this wisdom will help strengthen and protect our churches.