Principles for Transitioning to Multiple Elders

Earlier this year, our congregation officially moved away from the long-standing pattern of having only one pastor to embracing a plurality of pastors.[1] This was an intentional process that took several years to accomplish. The reason I led our church in this endeavor is because I'm convinced multiple elders is biblical, and, being biblical, it was full of practical benefits. Below, I want to list and explain six principles that guided me and can also guide other pastors who seek to implement this same change.

Communicate Convictions

Before I came to my church, I informed the congregation of my biblical convictions on matters of church polity. I was upfront about what I thought the Bible taught on this subject and even gave the search committee a copy of my philosophy of ministry, encouraging them to distribute it to the church. In that document, I explicitly stated my views of church government. This is what it said:

“I believe the Bible affirms congregational rule with a plurality of elders who lead, oversee, and equip the church for ministry and a group of deacons, who serve the elders and the body by handling the physical matters and material needs of the church.”

I wrote a lot more than that, but that’s a good summary statement. I also emphasized, in writing and in person, that this was not so critical an issue that I would divide the congregation over it. A plurality of pastors is important, but not as important as a united church.

So what do you do if you failed to communicate this with your church beforehand? There are literally hundreds of changes a pastor makes in the course of his ministry that never get discussed with the search committee. So, just because you didn’t flesh out your biblical convictions on this matter doesn’t mean you can’t ever transition to it. If this is where you find yourself, just follow the rest of these principles.

Teach on It

I am convinced that expository preaching is the best way to preach. By expository preaching, I mean preaching through whole books of the Bible and making the main point of the biblical passage the main point of the sermon. If you do this, you will have plenty of opportunities to show from the text how a plurality of elders is God’s norm for the church. It won’t feel like you’re advancing a hidden agenda because you’re simply addressing the text for that week. 

I also taught on multiple elders in our "Exploring Membership" class. I leveraged this opportunity to explain what the Bible says about the way a church should be structured and informed the incoming members of the direction we were headed.

Distribute Resources

In addition to preaching on this subject, I was intentional about disseminating information and having informal conversations about it. There were a couple key resources I passed out to members to read and discuss. One was Alexander Strauch’s booklet, Biblical Eldership: Restoring the Eldership to Its Rightful Place in the Church and the other was Mark Dever’s book, A Display of God’s Glory: Basics of Church Structure. Both of these books were concise and compelling. And both of them can be accessed online for free. After members read that resource, I talked with them about it and answered any questions they had.

Train Future Elders

There’s only one thing worse than not having a plurality of elders, and that’s having a plurality of unqualified elders. It’s foolish to have elders just for the sake of having elders. Instead, you need to ensure that the men appointed to that office are called, qualified, and competent. In order to do this, you need to invest in men who show potential and spiritual fitness to serve in this office.

I did this by starting a pastoral training program that was open to any male member of the church who aspired to pastoral ministry. I assigned them books to read and gave them opportunities to teach, along with other opportunities to serve. Now that we have a plurality of elders, this program has evolved into a formal residency in which we train future pastors. If you’re reading this, you should consider checking out and even applying for the Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church.

Move Slowly

One of the marks of a successful church replanter lies in his ability to exercise tactical patience. In short, tactical patience means implementing change at an appropriate pace. If a leader gets too far out in front, he is often mistaken as the enemy. So moving to a plurality of pastors is a good goal that is worth pursuing, but it’s important to not get in a rush. It took me four years and fifty-one weeks to make the transition. And for some it might take even longer.

Pray

Attempting any change without consistent prayer is a recipe for disaster. I literally prayed for several years for the Lord to help conform our church’s polity to the pattern seen in the New Testament. And the reason I believe we were ultimately successful was because God answered these prayers. I know we always tell people to “pray about it.” But seriously, don’t neglect this essential aspect.

[1] The terms pastor, elder, and overseer are used interchangeably throughout the New Testament to refer to the same leadership position. This means that a pastor is an elder, an elder is an overseer, and an overseer is a pastor. In Scripture, these terms are synonymous (see Acts 20:17-28 and 1 Peter 5:1-3).