A few years ago, I was talking with an individual about working together to plant a church. While the process was exciting, we eventually decided not to move forward together. We simply had too many areas where we didn’t mesh. Two issues that made it a no-go for me were, eating together and having a team-based, non-hierarchical leadership structure.

As the name of the church plant I’m working on now is called the Table, you may have already figured out that eating together is vital to me. I will write more about the whole eating thing, but I will focus briefly on the second issue.

I have been thinking through the idea of a non-hierarchical leadership structure for a while. We were moving in that direction in Ithaca, and it’s something I’ve committed to here.

The term used to describe this is idea is polycentric leadership. That means there are multiple centres of leadership. In a church, each would oversee an aspect of the organisation that matches their gifts, passions, and experience. No one group or individual would be in charge.

I had a good conversation with a friend last week who is interested in the concept of team-based leadership and raised a question that often comes up when this topic is broached. In fact, it’s the question that led to my deciding to shelve our church planting plans from a few years ago.

“ But who makes the final decision? If something has to be decided now, who makes that call”?

Those of us in the West have grown up hearing stories of the great leader. The rugged individual who stands up points the way and leads everyone else to the ultimate goal. In church, it is often the person who goes up to the mountain, hears from God, and then tells the rest of us what God has said. That idea is so ingrained that when we think of polycentric leadership or mutual submission, our first thought is often, but who stands up and leads when we need that? With who does the buck stop?

I have a few thoughts.

1. Polycentric Leadership is Not Leadership by Committee.
One problem is that when people think of multiple leaders, their image is of a committee. And leaders often have a bias against committees. They are frustrated by the lack of movement and see them as made up of bureaucrats who don’t possess the knowledge or the passion for making decisions. The general idea is that committees are where decisions go to die.

And while that is definitely not true of all committees, polycentric leadership is very much not leadership by committee.

I tend to be more on the “entrepreneurial, let’s go start something new” side of the scale. So imagine, I have an idea. I see a need, have a sense of what will happen if we don’t do anything, and submit my view to the rest of our leadership community. An important question to ask is will my proposal be better or worse if people who care about our community and me ask questions and work to make the best decision?

Or is it best if I listen to other’s thoughts and then decide on my own? I just need to make sure they are all heard. If those who are more pastoral or evangelistic, or you get the idea, express how they see the issue and how they believe we should move forward, won’t they see things that I would miss? Just like I’ll see things they would.

2. Examples from Acts
There are two major decisions made by church leaders, which are highlighted in the book of Acts. The first is who replaces Judas. Think about how that decision was made.

They rolled dice.

Now an obvious response is, well, the Holy Spirit hadn’t come yet, so they had to rely on other methods. I agree. But electing/appointing a leader and letting them make the decision was not what they did, although that was obviously a model they saw all around them. They found casting lots to be a better means of reaching a decision than having a single leader make the call.

The second is in Acts 15. The model there seems to be, everyone with a stake has an opportunity to express their thoughts. After Peter, Paul, and Barnabas speak, James sums up and gives his judgment. I have commonly read that section as, “here is what I, James, have decided for everyone.” But that isn’t what happens. John Stott illustrated this point when he wrote that the section needs a word more substantial than “opinion” but weaker than “decree” (The Message of Acts,1990). James’ comments demonstrated that he was in agreement with the rest of the leadership, not that the denarius stopped with him.

Following James’ comments, we learn, “Then the apostles and elders, with the whole assembly, decided…” As leaders in the church, James, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas all shared their views and judgments, and the decision was collaborative, not simply made by one leader…but the whole community was in agreement.

3. A Discernment Process*
One part of the letter clearly spells out that this decision included a process of discernment. It doesn’t say, “We listened to all sides, and the majority voted to go with this course of action.” The decision that was reached “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”. They took time to listen to each other and the Spirit.

4. I’m Skeptical of the Question.
While I hear the question above a lot, I admit that I hear it with a good deal of scepticism. It sounds great as a hypothetical argument, but in reality, it is a non-issue. I pastored a church for 13 years and have been in church leadership for over 30 years, yet I can’t think of a crucial decision that “HAD TO BE MADE NOW!”

If there is a church picnic, and someone falls in the pool and can’t swim, and you are there, jump in, save the person. That decision has to be made now…no need for collaboration. Although I’m guessing you’ll yell to alert as many people as you can that you are “going in alone.”

But what church decisions have to be made so urgently that collaboration and input from key people is a hindrance rather than a blessing? Buying property? Hiring staff? Those seem like decisions that shouldn’t be rushed and need a lot of buy-in…and more expertise than a single individual has? I’m not trying to be cute. If you can think of an urgent decision that would not be made unless there was 1 person at the top to make it, please put it in the comments.

5. The Root of the Question
From my experience having these conversations, the people most adamant that there needs to be someone in charge…generally believe that person should be them.

Also, when someone decides they alone are qualified to make certain decisions, there will be an ever-growing list of decisions they believe they alone can make.

Let me wrap this up with a story.

When we first planted the Ithaca Vineyard, we didn’t have church membership. We decided to take a few years to pray about it and then decide. About 3 or 4 years in, we went to the leadership team with a proposal to start church membership. The response was not what we expected. A sizeable group was adamant that it was the wrong decision. We could have voted and won, but I never liked voting on a team and preferred to get everyone on the same page. So we decided to take a month or two to discern. Two months turned into 6, which turned into a year. At that point, we decided to meet and make a final decision one way or the other. I went in expecting we would end up dropping the idea. However, the meeting began with one of the most vocal opponents of membership explaining why they believed membership was the right decision. At the end of the discussion, everyone was in agreement, and that experience, I believe, built a level of trust and relationship that a “someone needs to make the decision now mentally” never can.

So, those are my thoughts. What do you think?

Photo by Alfred Aloushy on Unsplash