One aspect of the eldership candidate process at my church, Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, Illonis, is required reading. Currently, as part of the elder candidacy training, I am reading The Shepherd Leader by Timothy Witmer with another elder, Brian Malcolm. The book has been a fantastic and refreshing look at biblical eldership and what it means to shepherd the people of God well: to know what it means to protect, feed, lead, commit to, and dwell among the flock.
Over the years I have been involved in churches that vary in leadership structure. I have seen two dominant structures in the church today with varying degrees in-between. Neither, in my opinion, are sufficient or biblical. While generally unpopular, I would like to reintroduce a third alternative that has both a historical and biblical foundation. But first, the improper structures:
Pastor as Pope
In some churches a single pastor runs the whole church. Every decision goes through him and he has the final say on everything. The mentality is that the Senior Pastor has been ordained by God and affirmed by the church to have all encompassing spiritual authority.
At worst (and I have seen it at its worst), the individual over spiritualizes every decision and conveys the message that to disagree with him is to disagree with God. At its best… well, to be honest I have personally never seen this done well. What I have seen is control, manipulation, and vast insecurity in the life of the Senior Pastor. In this model, a pastor rules the elders and/or church.
Pastor as Pawn
Another model that is dominant in the church today is that of pastor as pawn. This is where the eldership (or church body) functions much like a corporate board. They hire and fire the pastor, and the pastor reports to the elder board and receives yearly evaluations. The pastor operates as an employee where everything they do is reviewed by others and scrutinized.
At worst, the individual has no authority and simply speaks every Sunday but can never really preach since they are not really allowed to shepherd. At best, a high level of accountability is present that was missing in the previous model. In this model, a pastor is ruled by elders and/or the church.
What, then, is the biblical picture for pastoral authority and leadership positioning?
Pastors in Parity
A better and more biblical model is when a team of elders serve and shepherd together with equal authority. This is the teaching of plurality and parity. In this model no one individual has all control or authority. When one is allowed to rule over the rest, it will undoubtedly be abused. So instead of one (or three) elders who have sole authority, all elders are seen as the spiritual shepherds of the church. The word parity is not used often in the church today. It essentially means equality. So the church is not to be run or function as a “one-man band” but as a collective group of individuals that share equal authority. Alexander Strauch writes:
By definition, the elder structure of government is a collective form of leadership in which each elder shares equally the position, authority, and responsibility of the office.
In this structure, accountability is present. In this, a shared work load is spread out among the elders. The title of pastor and elder are synonymous, the only difference is seen in function and pay, not status and authority.
The dominant models in the church today are that of pastor as pope or pawn. Either the pastor rules over the elders and church, or the elders and church rule over the pastor. Looking at Scripture, we see a model of elder plurality and parity. Among the elders in the church there must be an equality, honesty, and trust that seeks to work together to shepherd the people of God for the glory of God.
Want to go further? Check out these resources:
The Shepherd Leader by Timothy Witmer
Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch