why i believe in co-pastoring

kathyescobar church stuff, dreams, equality, the refuge, women in ministry 33 Comments

a few years ago i had never even heard of a co-pastor.   i knew about senior pastors, i knew about associate pastors and childrens & youth pastors and some churches, if they had really big budgets, would have a care pastor.  but during all my time in churches and ministry i never heard the word “co-pastor.”  i did always wonder “why is only one guy in charge?…how is that really a good idea?”  when the church i was on staff with  a few years ago lost its senior pastor (who had built the church from 80 people to 4,000) it never occurred to me to hire one guy to replace him.  that  seemed like such a stupid idea to me, not just for the person but also for the community.    why not just let the people who were already really leading ministries at the church keep it moving and hire a few more teammates to share the load.  keep diffusing power and cultivating community and sharing.  honestly, you’d think that i had grown a third eye out of the middle of my head, the responses of some leaders. i know they were thinking i didn’t know what the hell i was talking about from a “professional ministry perspective.”  after all, they had experience running churches like corporations for many years and were pretty darn good at it.   the responses:  “we need someone to be in charge.”  “we need someone who can take us to the next level.”  “we need someone that can be a strong leader.” 

so here’s my question:  why?  why are so many churches continually replicating professional models of  leadership in the church?  why can’t there be several leaders, a team of people, who share the load?  why is this kind of diffusion of power and model of mutual submission so out of the ordinary in the kingdom of God, where the principles of living are supposed to be contrary to the ways of the world?   

well i will once again get on my soapbox about change in the church.  you see, while churches are trying to  expand their horizons in many wonderful missional and emerging ways, the truth is:  most of the structures are exactly like they have always been.  one seminary-educated white male on top, a few guys and maybe a girl or two beneath them who do the day to day ministry of pastoring and keeping the ship afloat, and a completely separate team of elders who are mainly white professional “godly” men who know how to make good strategic decisions for the sake of the church.    in mainline denominations there are quite a few women lead pastors, too, replicating the same kind of structures. 

when we were planting the refuge i did some online research of almost 200 “emerging” church websites to see what was out there. i wanted to cry, really.  same old structure.  cute cleancut white male “lead” or “senior” pastor and a boy board of elders.  there were a few women children’s directors, maybe an associate pastor role here and there, but two years ago, in the research i did, this was blaringly clear:  while many people were trying a lot of new experimental ministries, very few people were actually trying new models of leadership.   to me, it sort of looked like pouring new wine into old wineskins. 

when the refuge began i realized we had a chance to actually try what we had dreamed could be possible in any community, regardless of size.  let’s actually share leadership here.  karl’s the one that used the word “co-pastor” for the first time to me.   it  meant i had to step into the deep end and actually try something that i was really good at ranting and raving about  but had never  seen in action.   now, after doing it for almost two years, i honestly don’t understand why more people don’t give it a try.   i  think it’s so foreign in typical church planting circles that it’s not even on most anyone’s scan.  (i do know a handful of people giving it a try in different shapes and forms: the bridge, vineyard community church, revolution, via christus and mercy seat and of course there are lots of house church structures that do not have “pastors” at all).  some other churches i know have it in function (the lead pastor involves the associates in all of the decisions but, honestly, that is not the same as actually co-pastoring jointly together.  in my opinion, if one person can fire the other, it’s not co-pastoring).  one other note: it is more common for married couples to co-pastor together, too.   it really is a drag for those of us who are married to people who aren’t that interested in shepherding a community.  and i should also add, to me,  it’s not necessarily just about gender. i think it would be just as cool for a couple of men to co-pastor or a couple of women.   i of course believe it’s always best for everyone, though, if men and women are working alongside each other and adding the kind of diversity & equality that the early church modeled.  i also think 3 is an even better number.  

in the current refuge structure  karl and i co-pastor the refuge along with 7 others who form our pastoral/elder team. we meet every week for a meal and a meeting that isn’t focused as much on “doing” as it is on “being”.  we believe that what we hope for the entire community we must first practice here.  we can’t expect authentic community to be created if we can’t do it ourselves.    karl and i spend most of our time pouring into the refuge so we do get a small salary but titles or money doesn’t give us more power or authority than the other people on our team.  no one person is the boss.   no one person is at the head.   we always meet with at least one other person so as many voices as possible are included.  we are discovering what it means to share and make decisions for our community together.   we submit to each other & are constantly tweaking and evolving.  we do not know how our team’s function and form will evolve, but we do know that the refuge will remain deeply committed to co-pastoring instead of a lead pastor model.   what we have learned in the past two years has changed  my view of leadership forever. 

here’s why i passionately believe in co-pastoring–sharing, i mean really truly sharing, the lead pastor role:

  • it diffuses power and keeps egos in check

a pastoral role can be more powerful than people think.   people look up to pastors in some weird ways.  when all that power gets put into one person, things can get a little nutty.  i know churches think elder boards  keep it in check and, sure, a lot of “lead” pastors have good relationship with their “associates”, but i still think it’s not quite the same as requiring a pastor to actually  have to work with a peer, an equal, a person that they can’t fire or tell what to do, a person whose voice is heard just as much as theirs.   

  • it is a way to not just talk about but actually practice mutual submission

it means no one gets to be “right” just because they happen to have a certain anatomy or be in a particular role.  as a team we have to figure out the best solutions instead of submitting to someone’s authority “just because they’re the head.”   people say all the time “well what happens when you disagree? how do you come to a decision?”  we submit to each other situationally & sometimes we just wait to see what God reveals instead of demanding ourselves to decide in a given moment.  

  • it multiplies giftedness & decreases loneliness

it allows for a diversity of voices and giftedness.    it allows for parts of the body to be equally valued instead of making the head bigger than it should be.  we’ve all had to stretch in different ways instead of only leaning into the one thing we are used to doing.  also, i have been “the leader” of way too many things over the years; i have come to hate the pressure and the loneliness. it creates terrible insecurity.  it is such a relief to not have to carry the burden all by myself. 

  • it is healing for the body of Christ & creates community

there’s something healing about diffused power and the diversity of voices, genders, styles in shared leadership.  i think hearts know that it’s somehow closer to how it was was actually supposed to be.   i believe when men and women work alongside one another it also models a beautiful thing that is noticeably missing in the body of Christ—safety.    there’s something  very healing for people that there are men and women in leadership at our church, not just boys and not just girls.  i think we need both. 

here’s all i really hope:   leaders  & communities start considering it.  quit putting all that power in one place. stop expecting a senior pastor to save the day.  quit defaulting to worldly models.  let men and women’s voices be heard alongside each other.  start teaching that people can split and share the load and learn how to work together as equals not just in theory or practice but on org charts, too (personally, i am glad i haven’t seen an org chart now in over 2 years, yeah! but i of course recognize some people still need them.  i hope eventually some have 2-3-4 boxes on top, right next to each other, side by side)