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Is "Senior Pastor" a Biblical Title?

DOUG: Practically speaking (leaving hermeneutical jibber jabber aside), what was most encouraging about mutually submissive/interdependent leadership for you? What was most frustrating? Give us some practical examples.

Mutually submissive leadership—outside of my marriage—was the single greatest sanctifying experience of my life. What encouraged me most: It was a real life crucible of relationships in which my ego/flesh/false self/need to be right and win were consistently crucified. I don’t think I’d know the difference between the voice of God and my own personal preferences without the experience of mutual submission in leadership. I learned how to trust that the Holy Spirit is given to the church and not just to me—that I could trust that God wanted what’s best for our church worse than I did, and I didn’t have to press or grasp control but could trust the other guys I led alongside. There were three of us: two 30-year-olds and a 50-year-old. The 50-year-old was the planter of the church and carried the gravitas in the community—but he consistently and regularly emobodied Phil. 2 for us: Though he was in his very nature Powerful as the eldest and founding pastor, he didn’t seize the Power and use it to his advantage but emptied himself and made himself nothing. He used his authority in our community to empower the two 30-year-olds. He ‘leveraged’ (if you will) his own clout and standing in our community on our behalf. This did two things, at least: 1—There was a lack of anxiety or insecurity in my standing as the newest and youngest of the co-pastors. It stripped me of my need to compete for approval or validation. And 2—It gave me a model of how to ‘use’ my authority for others—to empower and lift them up. It taught me how to be like Jesus.

Frustrating: Things moved slowly. Often we would talk around important decisions or problems we’d faced in the church and I wanted to settle the matter and move on. My preference for efficiency died a long, slow death. Also, I think at times we failed to lead decisively. I’m not sure we ever were able to strike the balance (achieve the synthesis?) between a mutual submissive pastorate and leading in definitive, directive ways (L1). Our default with our congregation was always L3 (consensus building). This led to some frustrating conversations with congregants who thought we weren’t being truthful about our power and authority, or who wanted us to deliver definitive statements on issues facing our church. Another frustrating aspect was my propensity to want to keep score. We didn’t go with a voting system or anything like that. If the other two pastors felt strongly about something I would usually submit to what they thought best. And that arrangement held for all of us. But, obviously, we got some decisions ‘wrong’ (elders, church policies, etc.) and this led to the impulse to assign blame or seek to justify self in that age-old ‘I told you so’ way.

DOUG: No ‘system’ is immune from having an achilles heel if for no other reason than every system of leadership is led by human beings. You’ve talked a little about what you think the achilles heel of the CEO-type church might be. What do you think the achilles heel for interdependent leadership might be? What’s most in danger of happening?

There are several achilles heels which occur to me with mutual submissive leadership.

  1. It is chosen out of fear of being the person who has authority. Leaders can simply hide behind the consensus because they fear failure or the responsibility of having the buck stop with them.
  2. Trust. If leaders will not trust each other—really, die every day, trust each other—then it can/will devolve into passive aggressive power plays.
  3. Most people in the congregation don’t want it. Sure—they may like the idea of it and agree with the theology of it—but as soon as it costs them (a decision they know you agree with them on but the other pastors don’t and so it’s not enacted, something really bothers them in the congregation and they want you to unilaterally act on it immediately, etc.) they will demur.
  4. People don’t understand it until they’ve experienced it. I remember my first year as a co-pastor I would repeatedly get frustrated by the relational dynamic of mutual submission because it was so foreign to my default. In exasperation I would say, “Just tell me what mutual submission is so I can do it!” and Geoff and Dave would respond blithely, “What do you mean? We’re doing it right now!”
  5. The final danger is that a team would give the appearance of mutual submission but deny its power. Either consciously or unconsciously, one (or more) persons would withhold themselves from the relational space of submission. This only works if everyone dies first. No demands, no withholding, no ‘do you know who I ams?’ … the core commitment is to die and trust and that works when everyone ‘submits’ to it.

We will probably spend some more time in the months that follow looking at this a bit more, but a big thanks to Matt for taking the time.

As you read this, what questions would you ask? What push back would you have? What things would you like clarification on?   

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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.