Dynamics of Co-Pastoring

June 24th, 2013

“You guys made it work.”            

At first I wasn’t sure what my friend meant when his told me this. My wife and I have just concluded six years as co-pastors, but our time serving together doesn’t feel like something we have had to “make work.” In fact, it has come to feel natural in a world with more and more job sharing and an emphasis on teams rather than a strict linear chain of command. Of course, we do often tell colleagues at annual conference that, “We haven’t killed the church and we haven’t gotten a divorce so we must be winning.” But we are just joking, mostly.

Actually, these six years have been the most fruitful of my thirty-year journey as a United Methodist clergy person. I often wonder why there aren’t more co-pastor teams.

There are certainly a lot of clergy couples that would be interested in serving the same church. There are even clergy friends that form great short-term teams for mission trips or conference responsibilities. Why couldn’t they co-pastor? Not to mention the fact that there is a strong New Testament model of going out two by two.

There are pitfalls for sure. We have known couples that were appointed as co-pastors and it didn’t work. There have been cases where the couple didn’t really share leadership and members of these churches openly said, “Everybody knows who the real senior pastor is.” There have been other cases where the stress on the couple is too much and they go back to separate churches for the sake of their relationship. Sometimes the reason for the stress is because the church has bought into a corporate model where there has to be a CEO. Sometimes one of the pastors isn’t suited for co-pastoring for the same reason. There are pitfalls but the reward and opportunity for fruitfulness is certainly there as well.

Looking back, I have come to believe that all the clichés are true: “Two heads are better than one.” “When one is off his or her game, the other one can pick up the slack.” “A good team is stronger than the sum of its parts.”

Of course this model goes deeper than clichés. As I said, there is a strong New Testament model for reaching out in twos. We are meant to serve in relationship, as connected parts of a greater body. Jesus, when talking about church business, said that when two or more are there in his name, there he is among us. I realize that these principles are meant to be applied to the church in general, but I believe they apply to pastoral leadership as well. Moving out of the linear, pyramid-charted leadership model into a true pastoral team encourages lay leadership to step up and function together in a healthy way. The power isn’t concentrated in one person. Seeing pastors function as a microcosm of the body has an effect on the entire church’s system.

So how does a pastoral team make it work?

To start with, there is no getting around the importance of the congregation’s openness to this model. If the church is stuck in a corporate model with defined lines of power, it is going to be tough. If the church doesn’t fully accept women in a pastoral role, it is going to be really tough. Our church had to do a little adjusting but they were already used to viewing the world in an outside-the-box way. This is a predominately white congregation and we followed a well-loved African American senior minister who had encouraged the associate to shine in every way. They were already open to trying something new.

Making the same salary seems obvious, but some try to be co-pastors while one makes a higher salary than the other. That makes the idea of being equal in authority a hard sell. Our bishop at the time we were appointed, Mary Virginia Taylor, was wise enough to insist that my wife and I have the exact same package. A couple of my friends on the cabinet were worried that my feelings would be hurt by this since I have been in the ministry twelve years longer than my wife and I was making a little more at my previous church. I appreciated my friends’ concern but I certainly saw Bishop Taylor’s wisdom here. Besides, my wife and I have a joint account.

We also decided that we needed to make a statement with the office space. There were two offices available when we arrived. One was spacious and had obviously been built to be the senior minister’s place. The other wasn’t spacious. We put a second desk in the larger one and we call it the pastors’ office. We call the second space the study, and that is where we retreat when we need quiet time for sermon prep and reflection.

We also share preaching and worship leadership 50/50. Sundays, weddings, funerals, Easter, Christmas and all other special services are intentionally planned to be equally shared over the course of time. The one time we allowed one of us to take what could be have been viewed as the senior minister’s spot was our very first Sunday. We felt it was important for my wife to preach that Sunday. We wanted to make sure she wasn’t seen as the preacher’s wife. That may have been overly careful on our part but one of us had to lead off, so why not make a statement?

Those are three big things that can be done with good planning. The rest is simply a matter of how you relate on a daily basis. Both pastors have to refrain from making too many executive decisions. There is almost always time to get the other’s opinion. That is simply respectful, it gives the right message and it prevents the occasional attempt at putting you in a triangle.

The pastors also have to be willing to let the other one out shine them occasionally. If being fruitful is the goal, it doesn’t matter who thinks who is the better preacher or counselor or leader. We are all called to serve according to our gifts. If one is shining, that should inspire the other one and not make him or her jealous.

I’ll acknowledge that there actually is some work to successful co-pastoring and sometimes it is hard work. We have had to declare times during days off and vacations when church talk is simply off limits. We will be co-pastors for a finite period of time but we are in this marriage for the duration, and we are not willing to let church business be the only way we can relate to one another.

We also have had to acknowledge that sometimes we just see things, occasionally big things, differently. Our executive assistant says that during those times, “the staff has learned to just wait and see who wins.”

Hopefully the church wins almost all the time.

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