Most Nonconformist churches assent to the idea of a plurality of elders leading the local church. But I have found many who perceive of plurality in name only. Sure, there are other folks who get called ‘elder’ but they frequently find the title undermined by the de facto setup in the church.
Here are a few ways we claim to believe in plurality but can undermine it:
The fastest way to undermine your plurality of eldership is to ascribe somebody as the ‘senior pastor.’ If your elders are genuinely co-equal, there will not be a senior man among them. You may, of course, set aside one or more men to take on the bulk of the teaching. You might set one or more men aside to be full-time. But these things do not grant more authority, just some extra time to undertake an area of responsibility on top of their other eldership duties. If one man is senior, by definition, the other men are junior. If you make such a distinction, there is no parity and thus no genuine plurality.
Similar to the Senior pastor, others like to call themselves ‘lead pastor.’ Somebody, so the reasoning goes, has to lead. The can has to be carried somewhere. The problem with this argument is that, despite appointing other elders, if you are above the others, casting vision and setting direction alone, you have actually abandoned the plural leadership model and, instead, adopted the episcopal one. Though, of course, if you’re an independent church, adopting such a model rejects the external check and balance of the bishop/overseer whilst simultaneously ridding oneself of the inconvenience of elders who have parity of esteem. This is less the Episcopalian model as the dictatorship model. There is no check internally on the sole man with the power whilst, simultaneously, keeping oneself away from any potential external checks also. If you are the Lead Elder, your other elders are definitional lesser elders. If they are less, there is no co-equality and thus it is not genuinely plural.
Appointing ‘yes men’
You may eschew Senior or Lead Pastor titles and you might rightly appoint other men who, ostensibly, hold formal parity with you. But if you are careful to only ever appoint yes men who will never hold you to account, and who will be turfed out if they do, you have subtly undermined co-equal plurality. Appointing people with formal parity, but constructing your relationships and dynamics in such a way as there is no actual parity, means that you are intentionally making yourself sole leader who cannot be challenged. Whilst this approach might satisfy those prepared only to glance at names on the elders page of your website, it undercuts the very plurality that is there to protect the church. Appointing those who will never say no, or who cannot challenge your authority, is to appoint pseudo-elders for little more purpose than satisfying a constitutional requirement rather than seeking to align oneself with a Biblical principle.
Pushing a figurehead
The desire to undercut genuine plurality does not always come from the pastor. Sometimes those who like influence, but do not so much like responsibility, will create a pastor/elder divide. They want the kudos of eldership wins but the safe distance of a Lead Pastor to carry the can. Unfortunately, those who do this undermine genuine plurality within the eldership and also create another problem; what actually sets apart the elders from a godly, helpful, supportive church member? If elders don’t lead or set direction, but leave that to the senior pastor, and if they exist only to advise and act as a sounding board, supporting where they feel able, it is hard to see what sets them apart from any other member of the church whom you would expect to do all these things too.
Always leading & teaching
It is entirely legitimate for one of the elders to take on the bulk of preaching and teaching. Typically that is what they are set aside to do on top of the other aspects of eldership. However, if that pastor is always teaching and taking the lead, and the church never see others teaching and leading, a subtle message is sent to the church that one elder stands above the others. Actively sitting under the ministry of other elders in the church shows a leader is willing to learn from others. Allowing others to chair meetings and lead on things demonstrates that all the elders are co-equal in authority. If nobody else ever gets to lead or preach, you are subtly insisting on greater authority.