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Is "Senior Pastor" a Biblical Title?

Biblical title

I serve as a senior pastor in southwest Florida. Yes, 75 degree days in February is the picture of suffering for the Lord.

Now, one of the unique things about Summit Church is that there is no senior pastor. Our church is led by a team of five elders. We also don’t have a ‘first among equals’ version of that. In other words, our elder structure is not one where the elders lead, but we still have a point person we’re all looking to, who, for the most part, has the decisive vote. Rather, each elder is ‘a first among equals in their function.’ What that means is that in the areas that they oversee, they are seen as the leader even as others have a voice. In areas where all church decisions are being made, there must be unanimity within the elders. (The structural name we at Summit have given it is interdependent leadership.)

Obviously, this is not a model that we are terribly familiar with in the American church (though the rest of the world is actually quite familiar with it). The CEO senior pastor is most prevalent here in the United States. I want to explore that a little. Most pastors when they read or hear about what we are doing, almost always say, as their first comment, “Yeah, but it doesn’t work.”

That’s a fascinating response to me (even if it’s also not accurate). Let me encourage you to ask questions and give comments in the comment section after reading this. I think we could see some really fun discussion here on this topic.

Now, here at my church, we don’t believe our way of leading the church is the only way and that any other way is sinful or unbiblical. So hear me clearly: We aren’t saying if you aren’t structured this way you are bad.

But as someone who was pretty unfamiliar with this kind of church leadership coming into this setting, it’s been fascinating to participate, observe and lead within it. When I was praying through coming here, the Lord really revealed this to me: This kind of leadership structure calls out the best in me and convicts the worst in me as a leader.

It was out of this curiosity that I asked my friend Matt Tebbe to join me in a conversation on this topic of interdependent leadership. Matt is a pastor and a really good friend of mine. He’s one of the most articulate and thoughtful people I know … and is someone who believes strongly in this kind of church leadership. He’s also someone who has lived this out practically.

So I asked Matt to interact with me on a few questions in an interview format to dig into this and to explore if the senior pastor thing is a biblical model of leadership or not.

DOUG: Matt, before we gear up, let’s define some terms. How would you define interdependent leadership?

I’ve never used the phrase ‘interdependent leadership’—not because I’m opposed to it or disagree with it, but in the context where I co-lead with a team of pastors, we always framed our relationship as ‘mutual submission’ (Eph 5.21). By way of background and context, I served on a team of three pastors for over four years where we lead as co-pastors in mutual submission to each other. This was the most difficult leadership arrangement I have ever been involved with. But I am convinced now more than ever that it is thoroughly necessary for the future of the church’s witness to Christ that we (church leaders) explore and experiment with this kind of leadership. It is biblically supported, missionally prophetic and formatively vital to our character and our communities.

But I would understand interdependent leadership in the linguistic world of relationships defined by our reliance (or lack of) on others. Independent = we have our own discrete relational/authority spheres that do not overlap. Dependent (or co-dependent) = a relational/emotional leadership system where the desire to cause no offense and have across the board consensus on decisions leads to group think, gridlock and a highly reactive environment to change. Interdependent = leaders rely on and function with each other in overlapping and interconnected relational and authority spheres.

DOUG: As you dig into the scriptures and have studied this, do you feel like this is clear and mandated for how the church should exist? Or is it one way that church leadership can exist, perhaps your preferred way, but the typical American senior pastor-esque model is biblical as well.

I’m not convinced there is a mandated leadership flow chart in the NT—I believe the NT to be a compendium of missionary texts that reveal how God’s people organized themselves for the sake of discipleship and mission in diverse contexts. We have wisdom, not law. We have timely truths that are timeless in their wisdom, rather than timeless truths are that mandate a timely rule to follow. That being said (and I may have lost a few people in that hermeneutical rabbit trail), I am persuaded that leadership in mutual submission one to another is how we see the apostles leading, how Christ led, and creates a posture in which the Holy Spirit flows through so that Christ may reign supreme as Lord and Chief Shepherd of our churches. Texts that shed light on this dynamic: Philemon, Philippians 2 (mutual submissive leadership is entirely and prophetically kenotic in nature), Acts 15 (the Jerusalem Council—how Paul, Peter and James submitted one to another), the 5-fold ministry giftings in Ephesians 4.7ff, and that’s just a smattering of references.

The paradigm of senior pastor, I would argue, finds its deepest philosophical moorings in a business-model mindset. We’ve become the kinds of people who carry late-modern assumptions about key questions (i.e., What are humans for? How do we get things done? What is more important: connection or efficiency?) in our subconscious. We then read these assumptions into the NT text—Paul becomes a CEO, Jesus a guru, etc. Simply put: I think the way many senior pastors are asked to function in local churches reveals the cultural captivity of our church to the principalities and powers that function the structures of power and money in our society. We’ve accomodated and capitulated to the logic of leadership that makes an idol of Power, Influence, Wealth and Authority-as-Relational-Leverage that runs most of our political and corporate entities in our world. (Those who I didn’t lose with the hermeutic bit are surely lost and/or angry with me now!)

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Doug is the Director of Communications for 3DM, and organization devoted to building a disciple-making culture in the local church.