This concludes our series on plurality leadership. Next week we will begin a number of posts dealing with various other issues in our lives as followers of Jesus.
People who are used to a lead-pastor model often wonder just how plurality leadership cashes out, when it comes to making hard decisions and leading the church. What follows is a behind-the-scenes look at our meetings, our relationships with one another, and the decision-making process. I have slightly edited several pages from the last chapter of Embracing Shared Ministry.
Except for the fact that five of us draw a paycheck every couple weeks, OCF knows no distinction between its seminary-trained pastors and those on our board whom other churches might refer to as elders or (in churches without elders) deacons. Indeed, in order to discourage the kind of minister-versus-layperson mentality traditionally associated with the terms ‘pastor’ and ‘elder,’ all eight of us are designated as ‘pastor-elders’, and we encourage our church to view us that way.
Our weekly meetings are the key to the success of the whole enterprise. OCF’s pastor-elders gather together for an hour-and-a-half each Wednesday morning. We have no business agenda. We simply share our lives and pray for one another, and we go through the prayer requests that your folks submit each week.
OCF currently has eight pastor-elders. Our tenure ranges from five years on the team to more than thirty. I have been part of the team for twenty-two years. You can imagine the kind of community we have developed by faithfully meeting and praying for one another, for so long, on a weekly basis.
Over the years we have shared in countless joys and sorrows, big and small. We welcomed a number of new children and several grandchildren into the world. We have fervently prayed for shaky marriages in our extended families. And we grieved together when one of our brothers lost his wife to a long battle with cancer.
We generally reserve decisions and actions related to church programs and ministry for another context, meetings that we hold one Saturday each month. It is here, at these Saturday gatherings, that the community we cultivate on Wednesdays pays big dividends to our church family as a whole.
Power plays? Authority abuse? Not a chance. Denny, John, Brandon, Chris, Mark, Dan, Carlos, and I know each other too well—and we love each other too much—to let anyone get away with politicking or posturing. It is really quite amazing what happens when decision-making arises organically from a relational soil of mutual trust, respect, and admiration.
We struggle through the same kind of overwhelming challenges that confront other church leaders. Disgruntled and divisive church members, immorality, financial crises, a major building program, hiring and firing staff—we’ve seen it all. And like any team comprised of opinionated leaders, we have had our share of strong disagreements along the way.
The community we cultivate on Wednesdays, however, allows us to tackle church crises on Saturdays—and push through divergent viewpoints to consensus—in ways that we never could, if we were a typical church board, devoid of caring relationships, meeting monthly solely to do church business or, perhaps, to rubber-stamp the limited vision of a sole pastor figure. Among OCF’s pastor-elders, community is the bedrock of consensus:
Does This Really Work?
People who are new to OCF, and to our team leadership model, repeatedly ask, How does this actually work out in practice, when a difficult and potentially divisive decision must be made?
There are no absolutes where the decision-making process is concerned, and different groups of individuals will inevitably interact with one another in different ways. At OCF, our pathway to consensus typically runs as follows:
- We each weigh in with our convictions or opinions about the issue at hand.
- We listen carefully to each person’s viewpoint and to the rationale for his perspective.
- We seek to be highly sensitive to the general direction the discussion is going, trusting that the Holy Spirit is superintending the process.
- A pastor-elder whose viewpoint becomes increasingly out-of-step with the trajectory of the discussion willingly defers to the growing consensus of the group.
- Once a decision has been made, we unanimously own it.
And, of course, we pray our way through the process. Not once, during my twenty-two year tenure on the board, have we ever had to vote formally on an issue.
God’s Perfect Will?
Here is a final observation that will perhaps strike a number of you as counterintuitive: the way we make decisions as a community of leaders is at least as important to God as the ultimate decisions we make. Indeed, I have become convinced over the years that God is generally more concerned with the process than with the outcome of our Saturday leadership meetings.
I often find it difficult to discern God’s will when we are making decisions in our meetings. Perhaps you have the same experience in your own ministry. While some decisions are clear-cut, it seems that in most situations there are probably a number of viable alternatives, several of which would be pleasing to God. In still other situations, I suspect that God has no preference at all.
Persons who believe otherwise, and who seek vigilantly to ascertain God’s perfect will for every key decision, run the risk of completely missing a biblical reality that is indispensable to healthy team leadership. In contrast to the lack of clarity often associated with the outcome of the decision itself, God’s will for the relational integrity of the process—humility, mutual respect, brotherly love—is crystal clear throughout the Scriptures.
It is, of course, quite Western to be preoccupied with outcome at the expense of process. But I don’t believe it is biblical.
Indeed, it has been my experience that the Bible seldom speaks directly to the decisions that face us in church ministry. Scripture always speaks directly, however, to the manner in which we are to go about making those decisions together.
The upshot of all this for decision-making by consensus is that I am less and less inclined to confuse my personal convictions with the will of God on an issue, and I am increasingly willing to defer to group consensus when I represent the sole minority opinion at one of our Saturday planning meetings. My brothers on the board take the same approach. For we are quite confident that if OCF’s pastor-elders engage the process with integrity, God will be pleased with the outcome.