Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus

Standing the Strain

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In my last blog post, I promised I’d share more about why I believe shared elder leadership is the right way to lead a church. The most obvious reason is that I believe it is biblical. For now, I won’t try to prove that, but it’s worth mentioning that not everyone agrees. Many seminaries teach pastors that there’s really no one model of church government in the bible. As a result, some churches are organized more like a business than a church. I think the church suffers as a result.

From a purely practical standpoint, I simply can’t imagine all of the responsibilities for leading a church being placed on the shoulders of one man. Shared leadership lightens the load. We see this principle at work at an important juncture in the history of Israel. Moses was leading the people of Israel through the wilderness. There were a lot of them! We’re talking 600,000 men, plus women and children (Exodus 12:37-38)! Each day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people. One by one they’d come to dump their problems on him and he’d render a judgment. When his father-in-law Jethro paid him a visit, he wisely questioned Moses, “Why are you doing this all by yourself?” 

That’s a good question! It would be appropriate to direct this same question to many pastors who insist on being the sole decision makers in their church. Perhaps they’d answer in a similar way as Moses. I can imagine Moses shrugging his shoulders as he explained to Jethro how the people came to him with their disputes to seek God’s will and it was his job to decide who was right based on God’s word. It seems Moses felt he was the only one who knew God’s word well enough to make an informed judgment.

But Jethro wasn’t buying it. With words that have become legendary in leadership circles, he confronted Moses: “What you are doing is not good. 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.” He went on and advised him to select capable, godly men, teach them God’s word and show them how to live it out. The most difficult cases would still come to Moses who would bring them before the Lord. Jethro concluded, “That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied” (Exodus 18:17-23).

We can all see the wisdom of Jethro’s advice, and Moses was smart enough and humble enough to put it into practice. Who knows how long he’d have lasted in the wilderness if he insisted on doing it all himself!

Shared leadership in a church lightens the load on those in leadership. Instead of wearing out, leaders are able to “stand the strain.” It’s not just a matter of spreading the work around, it’s also having others to share the emotional burden.

Shepherding God’s people is hard work. It takes a toll both physically and emotionally. Consider the sheer variety of things a pastor does in a given week: long hours of study, preaching, leading meetings, counseling, prayer, strategic planning and far too many potluck dinners! Pastors need others to bear the load.

Not only will this help them “stand the strain,” it will also increase effectiveness. Jethro said something to Moses that’s easy to miss. He implied Moses wasn’t doing a very good job all by himself. Why else would he say, “If you do this…all these people will go home satisfied.” It seems to me that when Moses was trying to do it all himself, they weren’t satisfied. It’s no wonder! When you spread one guy that thin, how can he possibly be effective?

Without a doubt, the Apostle Paul’s favorite metaphor for the church was the Body of Christ. Like a body, the church is one with many members. “Just as the body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). Paul usually discusses spiritual gifts in this context. As members of Christ’s body, no one man has all the gifts. Having a group of elders to lead a church under the headship of Christ allows for a variety of gifts to be modeled, utilized and valued. Furthermore, as elders work together in the shepherding of God’s people, the larger body has a chance to see the beauty of both unity and diversity at work within the elder team itself.

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