Elders should be pluralities. This is both biblical and practical. However, over the past few years I have grown discouraged when people mention pluralities but have little to say about ‘what’ the plurality will actually do. Usually, it’s a muttering about accountability for the lead pastor or working through a church crisis. The New Testament's guidance for how a team of elders should lead a church—as opposed to a sole individual—points to many more benefits than simply accountability and crisis management.
Flying in Formation
Recently I watched a documentary called Winged Migration and thought of Gene Getz’s classic book Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan for Leading the Church. Getz takes Jesus’ phrase in Matthew 6:26 seriously “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
Getz provides helpful perspective on the phrase “the birds of the air” by listing out these facts about geese and flying in formation:
- As each goose flaps its wings, it creates an ‘uplift’ for the birds following the leader. By flying in a “V” formation, the flock adds 71 % greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.
- When a single goose falls out of the formation, the drag of wind will immediately fall on the goose. Its speed will decrease and personal effort will increase tremendously. Usually it will plug back into formation as quickly as possible to end the "pain" of the drag.
- When the lead bird tires, it rotates back into the formation allowing other geese to lead the “V.”
- The honking we hear as a “V” flies over-head is the geese encouraging one another to keep pace.
- When a bird gets sick, wounded, or shot down, two geese drop out of the formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock.
LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM GEESE
For the past 16 years, I have had the privilege of leading Sojourn within and through a plurality of elders. I have experienced all of these qualities of formation in different seasons of ministry, and I'd like to draw just a few applications to encourage you and your plurality to fly in formation:
The "Uplift" of elders
First, the ‘uplift’ of elders is created by theological vision clarity, mission organization (effective strategy) agreement, and soul-level trust within an eldership. When the vision is theologically informed, the elders' leadership multiplies as everyone leads in the same direction. Mission organization and strategic alignment keeps a elder team focused on the same goals rather than grappling for status. Finally, without the soulful trust among the team — which only comes from honesty and deep relationships nurtured over time — it is difficult to make any meaningful decisions or corrections.
The moments of "Drag"
Second, the hardest points of my ministry have been moments of ‘drag’, or moments when I or someone within the plurality have stepped out of formation. Normally when this happens, we rush to get back into formation to maintain peace and restore a semblance of order. But simply getting back in formation isn't enough to stop us from doing this again and again. Instead, we must ask more foundation questions about why we flew out of formation in the first place:
- Why did I step out of the vision and mission in the first place?
- Am I fully buying into the organization's mission and strategy? If not, why not?
- Is there a credibility or trust gap on the team?
- Should I even be an elder at this church?
- Is my calling in doubt or shaky?
- Am I unknowingly disconnected from the life of the elder body? I am available to the men in this plurality or distant?
- What are my fears or shame dynamics that keep pushing me outside of the formation over the safety and teamwork inside of it?
The "lead bird" needs a break
Third, as I reflect back on our 16 plus years together, there have been times when I as the primary leader, the “lead bird”, have needed a break. It’s so easy to burn out in ministry, which is why I am so thankful for regular rest rhythms currently built into our annual calendar. I can't stress enough the need for every member to be fully rested to fly effectively in formation. Speaking out about your need for rest builds intimacy, compassion, and teamwork and helps the plurality fly smoothly.
One common hindrance that prevents open conversation about an elder's need for rest is the unintentional binding affect that an elder's "term" (or length of service) can place on an already worn out elder. Terms can encourage a “just keep flying” mentality that often forfeits honest conversations among elders who might need rest sooner than their term frees them to enjoy. For example, the elder who is fried just keeps working because he has a six month term. Or, even worse, perhaps this elder's weariness is causing him to regularly take divergent, obstinate, and inflexible viewpoints on major agenda items, causing major strategic or kingdom initiatives to stall completely. Instead, if this elders felt the freedom to speak up and out in love and honesty about his need for rest, other elders could rally behind him and allow him to step out of a more prominent position in the formation to rest, renew, and revitalize his soul.
"honking" encouragement means everything
Fourth, “honking” from the formation in the form of encouragement has meant everything. Every eldership can be lonely, but the more responsibility an elder bears the weightier decisions feel, the devil’s attacks multiply, and the level of leadership is harder. Leadership is easy when the stakes are low. When the stakes increase, the leader's responsibility and burden-carrying must also increase. Under the weight of leadership, heart-felt private and public encouragement can make a huge — and very meaningful — difference. If we are not encouraging our elders, we might as well be burying them. Care for elders doesn't begin in crisis, it’s a consistent encouragement week-in, week-out for years. Recently, our midtown elder team has been practicing affirmation and encouragement among elders in all our gatherings. As our church under-goes several major transitions, these times of mutual encouragement and affirmation have added wind to our flight as a team and kept us flying in formation.
the fierce bearing of others' burdens
Fifth and finally, we should aim to bear one another’s burdens, especially when we face hardship in our ministry and our personal lives. I’m reminded of Pastor Nathan, one of our most faithful elders, who suffered deeply from cancer a few years back. The rally around him was so inspiring that it lifted me by both (1) challenging me to be a fierce friend to those in crisis and (2) comforting me as I was reminded that, if a crisis occurred in my home, the elders would rally around me as they did for Nathan.
Questions to Ask When the Formation Feels ‘Off’
What do we do, then, when we find ourselves outside of formation or when our elder team feels formless? In either case, a “self-checkup” is in order, especially before approaching those we think may be straying from the formation. Below is a list of questions we can ask ourselves if we feel as if we are getting out of sync with the plurality of elders or if we feel like our elder team may be flying out of formation.
 This post is inspired by and the facts are attributed to Gene A. Getz, Elders and Leaders: God's Plan for Leading the Church. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003. See pages 23-25.
 This is John Wesley's abbreviated list, adapted by Ray Ortlund, and taken from from Jared Wilson's, The Pastor's Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in Your Life and Ministry.
This post was written by Daniel Montgomery, Lead Pastor of Sojourn Community Church; Co-Founder and President of Sojourn Network.