If I wanted to drive a manager up the wall, I would make him responsible for the success of an organization and give him no authority. I would provide him with unclear goals, not commonly agreed upon by the organization. I would ask him to provide a service of an ill-defined nature, apply a body of knowledge having few absolutes, and staff his organization with only volunteers. I would expect him to work ten to twelve hours per day and have his work evaluated by a committee of 300 to 500 amateurs. I would call him a minister and make him accountable to God.
—Anthony J. Headley, Reframing Your Ministry

The Need for Change

A few weeks ago, The Table Church's elders recommended pursuing a new model of how we structure pastoral leadership at our church.

Most of us who grew up attending church experienced the "priest model" of church leadership: a single male pastor leading the congregation and organization. It's one of those relics of the past that the Reformation never quite got around to reforming.

Yes, we've adapted and evolved the model over the years, but it's only been a little more than moving deck chairs around. Pastors became CEOs and "chief communicators." Or they become the chairs of boards and executive teams. Even in small, rural churches that purposefully eschewed church-growth strategies, you can guess the one person who has an office: one male minister.

The notion of one man at the top has remained the overwhelming norm for far too long.

Why far too long? As Dallas Willard liked to say, "Your system is perfectly tuned to get the results you are getting." Pastors suffer enormous levels of burnout and career failure. They have higher-than-average levels of depression, sleeplessness, loneliness, friendlessness, and suicide attempts. They're more likely to suffer chronic health issues, have strained marriages, poor relationships with their children, and little time to rest, relax, or vacation.

On the other hand, a significant number of pastors have also been shown to be power-hungry, narcissistic, prone to abuse, prone to covering up that abuse, and overall simply untrustworthy of leadership.

I make no excuses for pastors who have sexually, spiritually, or emotionally abused their congregations. Nor do I feel much pity for pastors who amassed enormous power and wealth and used that power to accrue only more.

However, our systems are perfectly tuned to get the results we're getting. When you place individual men on platforms, tell them that people's spiritual lives rely on their ability to perform well, and give them little to no accountability, we can see what happens. Vanishingly few will finish well; too many will crumble under the pressure; too many will inflict their own pain onto others in the form of abuse.

As one magazine article put it:

After hundreds of years, a model preacher has been found to suit everyone. He preaches exactly 20 minutes and then sits down. He condemns sins but never hurts anyone.
He works from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. in every type of work from preaching to custodial services. He makes $60.00 a week, wears good clothes, buys books regularly, has a nice family, drives a good car and gives $30.00 a week to the church. He also stands ready to contribute to every good work that comes along.
He is 26 years old and has been preaching for 30 years. He is tall and short, thin and heavyset, and handsome. He has one brown eye and one blue; hair parted in the middle; left side, dark and straight; the right side, brown and wavy.
He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all his time with older folk. He smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work.
He makes 15 calls a day on the church members, spends all his time evangelizing the unchurched, and is never out of his office.

The Proposal

What Pastor Tonetta and I have asked our elders to consider (and what they are, in fact, pursuing) is a co-pastorate model. Instead of a single "lead pastor" at the top of the organization, Tonetta and I would each be equal in responsibility and authority, and each of us would be accountable to the whole of the elders.

As things are now, Pastor Tonetta serves as the associate pastor of The Table and, therefore, my employee. Instead, we'd like to see each of us have new positions. She would become a Co-Pastor, and the position I now hold as Lead Pastor would no longer exist. I would be a Co-Pastor alongside Tonetta.

A team of co-pastors offers compelling advantages over a single-Lead Pastor model.

Sharing the Load. It recognizes that modern pastoral leadership roles require a broad scope of skills: marriage and grief counseling, worship planning, social media savvy, Scriptural and theological depth, personability, board management, fundraising. No one person can do all that well. While volunteers and staff may assist in these functions, it still often falls to a lead pastor to make critical decisions on each church's ministry area. Having a team of Co-Lead Pastors means sharing the load and responsibility of others of equal decision-making authority.

Hit By The Bus Test. Similarly, if something required a Co-Lead Pastor to no longer serve in that position (job transition, family or personal crisis, or discipline/termination), other members of the Team would be able to step in more easily.

Helps Prevent Abuse. No single person holds all the power, authority, or control over the church's staff. This prevents leadership abuses and misuse of power.

Models Multi-Church. The church should seek to be a "multi" place—where those of varying genders, races, cultures, and narratives create a "new humanity" (Ephesians 2:15). Specifically, the church ought to be a place where those previously left out are invited to belong and lead (Matthew 22:1-14; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31). A Co-Pastor Team can model this multi-community by refusing only to elevate members of the dominant culture (namely, cis, straight, white men; 👋🏻 it's me) and instead do its part to create a Revelation 7 community.

Collaborative Decisions. It necessitates collaboration and prevents "move fast and break things" decision-making. In my church leadership experience, "break things" usually equals "break people." Practically, this can slow down decisions. However, slower, more deliberative decisions will often create better results.

Now, is a co-pastorate model a cure-all? Of course not.

It's Not as Simple. Adding people to the Lead Pastor Team deliberately increases complexity. It's more difficult to explain how decisions are made, there's no "tie-breaker" in decisions, and it could lead to some confusion in the congregation.

It's Expensive. Assuming you pay and offer the same benefits to each team member, you're at least doubling your costs for a Lead Pastor.

The Future Is Messier. Under a single-pastor model, if the lead pastor leaves, it's a pretty easy decision to simply hire the next lead pastor. However, in a Co-Pastor model, that decision becomes more difficult. Does the remaining Co-Pastor(s) want to stay in the model with a new person? Do the Elders believe enough in the model that they would want to continue in it even with a new member of the Co-Pastor Team?

That said, it's high past time to dramatically rethink the models of church leadership that have been handed down to us. Over the next few months, Tonetta, our elders, and I will be learning from other practitioners of this model and sorting out for ourselves what this will look like and how it will work. But we need new results in pastoral leadership that prioritize health, wholeness, and collaboration; therefore, we need new systems too.

Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC