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The Danger of Leading Alone

For a church to be healthy, the pastors must be healthy.

From 2007 to 2010, we co-pastored the Life on the Vine Christian Community in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, together with Geoff Holsclaw. Matt was the preacher and the pastor. Dave preached and pastored too, but was more often the apostle (gatherer) prophet. Geoff was the teacher-administrator. From our different perspectives, we learned first hand the importance of nurturing healthy relationships as pastors. This means handling conflict incarnationally: taking a posture of being among, with, and in submission to those with whom we live out the gospel. We learned this first, however, through cultivating our relationships with each other as pastors. Only in working out our own co-pastor relationship did this truth work its way into the many relationships among the people of Life on the Vine.

Often church structure can calcify unhealthy emotional systems of pastors, especially senior pastors who lead alone. The senior pastor in particular can set the temperature of the congregation. The congregation and associate pastors will submit to his or her decisions and way of handling difficulties and conflict. This means that the emotional health of a congregation is tied to one man or woman; they are subjected to his or her character deficiencies, weaknesses, and blind spots. His or her reactions to conflict, ways of discerning, sensitivities and approaches to handling crisis become how the church operates.

When we started co-pastoring together we brought to our relationship a complex arrangement of ideas, visions, agendas, hopes. It was a recipe for a power struggle. Two dominant leadership options were available to us:

1). Geoff and Matt could submit to Dave as the lead and founding pastor of Life on the Vine. We could give him input but he would make final decisions.

2). We could have a democracy. There were three of us and each of us could have an equal vote. We all knew, based on previous church experience and a growing sense of self-awareness, that there existed in us a capacity for self-deception, egocentric leadership, and our own unhealthy emotional responses setting the temperature of our church.

We chose a third way: with Dave’s encouragement and careful leading, we decided it was better for our church to enter into a relationship of mutual submission as co-leaders as the means to invest in the health of our congregation. This was the most difficult and most fruitful relationship we ever entered into. This relational commitment taught us two major lessons.

Lesson One: Trust vs. Self-willfulness
Because of our experiences and spiritual giftings, Dave and Matt would often see the same situation in two completely different–and sometimes competing–ways. Training leaders, leading meetings, scheduling and planning church events, how to handle conflict, all of these created tension and brought into focus our divergent personalities. The choice of mutual submission between us as pastors became the means God used to strengthen our congregational “immune system.”

Dallas Willard is frequently quoted as saying, “What God gets out of me isn’t what I do, it’s the person I become.” What God got out of us as pastors was the people we became through mutual submission to his work in each other.

As we lived out the reality of mutual submission in co-pastoring we found it to be best for our congregation and for our spiritual formation as pastors. But how could we tend to the kind of persons we were as pastors and not become self-preoccupied, egomaniacal narcissists? The answer, we discovered, was trust: submitting ourselves to each other in love and vulnerability. We learned to trust that the Spirit speaks and works not just in each person individually but in His church. We learned to test our agendas, preferences, opinions and sensitivities based on giftings to the Holy Spirit. Through the discipline of mutual submission we found ourselves becoming the kinds of people who increasingly trusted the Holy Spirit and each other. This vulnerability and trust became the posture and attitude out of which we sought to lead our congregation into health and wholeness.

Lesson Two: Embracing Conflict as Sanctification
In their book, What Pastors Wish Their Congregations Knew, Kurt Fredrickson and Cameron Lee observe: “In the end, what makes for a healthy church is not just how we respond to the conflicts that erupt, but the kind of relationships we cultivate before an eruption happens.” Conflict went from something we sought to manage or minimize to an opportunity to grow, learn, submit, love, die, and rise to new life. Conflict became ground zero for the seed to find fertile soil in our pastoral relationships, and then with that imagination, in the life of our church.

We have learned that conflict is the means by which God moves a congregation deeper into His mission. In order for conflict to be used by God however, we as pastors cannot control it. Instead we as pastors must become vulnerable, carrying a posture of submission always as a model to one another following Matt chapter 18. In so doing, we allow conflict to ferment in the Spirit. If the conflict is about us, we must listen and submit. We must reflect back what we have heard, and then give our observations and then submit by saying “is this how you see it?” In this place of mutual submission a coming together happens. Jesus becomes present and a binding and loosing” is shaped where we discern together where to go from here? (Matt 18:15-20). It is the very Kingdom of God breaking in.

When we as pastors find ourselves participating in such relationships, the burden of managing conflict is taken from us. The power relationship is put into the hands of God. The act of submission places one into God’s power, what the Spirit is doing–and asking everyone else to test it. This is at the very heart of what we have learned together about pastoring in Christ’s authority not our own, but in healthy relationships.

Do you have experience with leadship as mutual submission? Leave a comment and tell your story: