The fruit of success will be sweeter if it is not just a single person calling the shots.
In his book, Empowered Leaders, Hans Finzel writes, “The leader’s first task is to build a leadership team. Yet finding the right leaders can be the greatest challenge.” The challenges, pressure, and stress that people in leadership positions face in today’s rapidly changing social, business, and political environment are enormous and overwhelming at the same time. Anywhere and in any organization, religious or secular, it is highly unlikely that a single person can provide the necessary leadership for all issues. Those in designated leadership roles need to let go of that expectation of being the top gun, top dog or godfather and embrace new ways of leading. Mao Zedong used to say, “Beauty lies at the top of the mountain,” meaning only the leader at the top of the pyramid gets to enjoy the benefits. But even Chairman Mao needed a Zhou Enlai to make things happen. In a world of increasing interdependence and ceaseless technological change, even the greatest of men or women simply can’t get the job done alone.
Collective leadership or shared leadership is one in which each member shares the position, power, authority, and responsibility of the office equally. This type of leadership structure is also called team, corporate or collegiate leadership. Such a team of co-leaders is possible only where there is shared power and trust. There is mutual respect and empowering. The primary leader of such a team is not the team boss. In a situation that he is not competent in, the primary leader may follow the direction of a co-leader who does. No one is after the credit; everyone wants to get the job done! The opposite of collective leadership is unitary leadership, monarchical rule or one-man leadership. In the political realm, he is called the tyrant, the dictator or as in current affairs, the Supreme Leader. By the way, a one-man leadership is bad not only for any church, organization or country but also for any man!
Shared Leadership is Biblical
Shared leadership is a biblical concept and practice even before the emphasis on such approach by modern management and leadership gurus. Jesus was for shared leadership. He did not appoint one successor to lead His Church. In fact, by choosing and training the Twelve, symbolizing the New Israel, Jesus gave the Church a plurality of leaders. The Twelve led the first council of the Jerusalem Church and in the most exemplary way, collectively led and taught the fledging Christian community. The Twelve were called Apostles. Others were also included in this leadership circle but there was no one who was designated Chief Apostle in their midst, only Chief Sinner as the Apostle Paul liked to describe himself!
Shared leadership is also evidenced by the seven who were appointed to relieve the Twelve of church administration and logistics especially responsibility of dispensing funds to the church’s widows (Acts 6:3-6). There is also no indication that one of the seven deacons was the chief and the others were his assistants. Stephen and Philip were mentioned for their evangelistic fervor and not as leaders of the pack. The seven were a team of servant leaders before the term came into vogue.
Leadership by a council of elders is a form of government found in nearly every society of the ancient Near East. It was the fundamental, governmental structure of the nation of Israel throughout its Old Testament history (Ex 3:16, Ezra 10:8). For Israel – a tribal, patriarchal society – the eldership was as basic as the family unit. The Apostle Paul and Jewish missionary to the Gentiles was thoroughly immersed in the Old Testament and Jewish culture. Naturally, he followed this pattern and appointed elders for his newly founded churches (Acts 14:23). These were councils of equals. Plurality of elders is the pattern we find in all New Testament churches. In fact, there is no biblical passage that suggests that any church in the New Testament, no matter how small, had only one elder.
Shared Leadership Ensures and Sustains Growth
The benefits of team leadership is obvious. In the first place, a team of leaders can carry the load and responsibilities of leadership more efficiently and effectively. Every leader is active but none needs to be burning out. The advice of Jethro to Moses in Exodus 18:18 is still applicable to any pastoral and leadership team today: “You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.” This is not just a good management principle but a prudent and practical way to prevent leadership burnout.
Leadership is a lonely job if you are the lone leader. Sure, the buck needs to stop somewhere like in an oval office but one person doesn’t need to make the decisions all the time. An effective leader will be wise to heed the words of Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work. If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
In church, a team of leaders provide variety in ministry. As it has been said, none of us is smarter than all of us in the room. Or more creative. Or more gifted. Or more anointed. I think you get the picture. One interesting definition of TEAM is Together Each Achieves More. In other words, the overall benefit is that the team wins, the individual gets fulfilled, and the world becomes better for it.
Team leadership also provides accountability and support for leaders. The main factor for leaders whether church or corporate to be derailed is not immorality, greed or pride but the lack of accountability.
The Leader in Shared Leadership
Some people have described the irony of communism that is supposed to be a totally egalitarian system as “all are equal but some are more equal!” The biblical principle is different. It speaks of “first among equals” (1 Tim 5:17). Not all leaders are equal in their giftedness, biblical knowledge, leadership ability, experience or communication skill. Therefore, those particularly gifted leaders and/or teachers will naturally stand out among the others. This is what the Romans called primus inter pares, “first among equals,” or primi inter pares, “first ones among equals.”
The principle of “first among equals” is practiced by Jesus in His dealings with the Twelve. He empowered all of them to preach, heal, and cast out demons, even Judas. However, Jesus singled out three for special attention – Peter, James, and John – primi inter pares. And among the three, Peter stood out as the most prominent, the primus inter pares. Peter was always acting like the head of the class! He wasn’t always the best or with the most potential but he was really good at putting his foot in his mouth. Perhaps his personality made him a more outspoken, confrontational, and natural born leader in that group. Yet, Peter possessed no official rank or title above the other eleven. They were not his subordinates. They were not his assistants. He was simply first among his equals, seemingly acknowledged to be so by Jesus Himself. Anyway, it was James who headed the Jerusalem Council, not Peter.
The “first among equals” leadership relationship can also be observed among the seven deacons, who as we’ve seen, were chosen to relieve the Apostles of certain responsibilities (Acts 6). Philip and Stephen stood out as prominent figures among the five other brothers (Acts 6:8-7:60, 8:5-40, 21:8). Yet, as far as the account records, the two held no special title or status above the others.
The concept of “first among equals” is further evidenced by the relationship of Paul and Barnabas. They labored as partners in the work of the Gospel. They were both pioneers and leaders in missions, yet between them, Paul was “first among equals” because perhaps he was “the chief speaker” and a more dynamic leader (Acts 13:13, 14:12). Paul, the ex-rabbi, was certainly more learned but he did not boss over Barnabas who could also stand on his own ground in the matter over John Mark.
Leaders who are “first among equals” do not do all the thinking and decision making for the church or organization. The advantage of the principle of “first among equals” is that it allows for functional, gift based diversity within the leadership team without creating an official, superior office over fellow leaders. Just as the leading Apostles, such as Peter and John, bore no special title or formal distinctions from the other Apostles, leaders who receive double honor form no official class or receive no special title. The elders who labor in the Word and exercise good leadership are, in the words of Scripture, “leaders among the believers” (Acts 15:22).
Finally, the “first among equals” concept is practiced in the way in which congregations are to honor their elders. The Apostle Paul writes, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17). So pastors are supposed to be able teach the Word, but it seems that not all pastors excel in preaching and teaching. Some are more gifted in counseling and pastoral care. It is the overall spiritual giftedness of the pastoral team that causes the church to grow, not just the shared leadership form of government per se.
George Barna, a respected Christian researcher, recently wrote a book entitled, The Power of Team Leadership, in which he encourages churches to consider shared leadership. Barna’s primary thesis is that leadership anywhere works best when it is provided by teams of gifted leaders serving together in pursuit of a clear and compelling vision. Barna says, however, that in spite of the abundance of convincing reasons to do so, it is safe to predict that most churches will not incorporate team leadership into their ministry practices in the foreseeable future. It seems to be easier to lead without the encumbrance of other people. Some prefer to dominate rather than rely upon the breadth of experience resident in the church. Others fight hard to maintain unchallenged authority, because they have a deep-seated need to be needed. Still others feel that they are the only ones who could get the job done.
Shared leadership may not be the “cure all” for all church or organizational problems. Yet, no man should have to bear the burden of leadership alone. Share it and grow!
The New International Version Bible has been referenced.