In his classic leadership book, Patrick Lencioni identifies The Five Dysfunctions of Teams: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. None of these observations is distinctly “biblical”, but they are nonetheless wise, and apply equally to teams in Christian ministry. 

Church eldership teams face their own unique challenges. They often comprise both paid pastors and lay elders all of whom are mutually accountable to one another. This dynamic can give rise to a whole other set of dysfunctions that can easily undermine the health of a church. The following five dysfunctions, in particular, distort a biblical vision of healthy gospel partnership.

The New Testament makes no real distinction between pastors and elders nor the accountability they share.

1. Elders as a Rubber Stamp

Instead of seeing themselves as equally responsible leaders, some elders default to unhealthy passivity. They are more than happy to delegate their God-given duties to the pastors, and they see their role as nothing more than a mere formality. But what appears like humble submission is, in reality, a total abdication of responsibility.

The New Testament makes no real distinction between pastors and elders nor the accountability they share. The Apostle Peter writes to “the elders” and charges them to “shepherd [literally, ‘pastor’] God’s flock among you” (1 Pet 5:1-4). To be an elder is to be a pastor, and to be a pastor is to be an elder. The only potential difference is that a pastor is employed to “work hard at preaching and teaching,” (1 Tim 5:17) whereas an elder takes on the same responsibility but alongside his day-to-day employment. The difference between pastors and elders is not one of kind but one of degree.

A passive elder is like a co-captain who is asleep at the controls and leaves a church vulnerable to a rogue pastor leading it off-course. I know of one pastor who committed serious immorality but, because he was doing such a “good job” (and because the elders had a history of passivity), they failed to discipline him and protect the church. God entrusts the care of his church, not to one pastor but to many pastor-elders—all of whom “will give an account” to the Lord (Heb 13:17).

2. Elders as a Praetorian Guard

While some elders default to passivity, others see themselves as the pastors’ Praetorian guard. In one sense, there’s something honourable about an elder protecting his pastor: church ministry is tough, and elders need to provide cover for their pastors to lead. 

But if an elder primarily sees his role as protecting the pastors in every situation, he may fail to protect the church. Ideally, those two responsibilities should be one and the same, but if a pastor falls, the elder’s first duty is to God’s people. In many of the high-profile ministry failures over the last decade, significant fault lay not only with the fallen pastor but with the elders, denominations and systems which protected him.

The Bible warns us not to be surprised at the presence of immoral leaders in the church. In Ezekiel 34, God condemns the shepherds of Israel who “ruled [the flock] with violence and cruelty.” 1 Timothy presumes that those who are spreading false doctrine are actually elders who have departed from the gospel—hence the mechanism to discipline an elder (5:20-21). And in his final address to the Ephesian elders, Paul exhorts them to “be on guard … for all the flock” not only from the “savage wolves [that] will come in among you” but also from the “men [who] will rise up even from your own number and distort the truth” (Acts 20:28-30). The primary responsibility of an elder is to protect the church, even if necessary, from its own pastors.

3. Elders as a Separate Branch of Government

These painful experiences of pastoral failure have led many churches to separate power between the pastors and elders. Pastors and elders are given distince spheres of authority and regarded as a check on each other’s power (much as in secular divisions between law-makers and judges).

We cannot divide the two roles … Elders ought to be involved in some teaching ministry and pastors should share responsibility to cast vision and set budget

Accordingly, some churches sharply distinguish teaching elders from ruling elders; others divide power between the pastors and a council. 

But in both models, there is a dualistic division of the material and the spiritual. Elders are the “overseers” who exercise material leadership, and pastors are the “shepherds” who exercise spiritual leadership—and never the twain shall meet.

But what God joins, let no man separate. Peter calls elders to “shepherd” by “overseeing” and Paul calls the Ephesian elders to be “overseers” by “shepherding” (1 Pet 5:2; Acts 20:28). We cannot divide the two roles any more than we can divide the material and the spiritual. Elders ought to be involved in some teaching ministry and pastors should share the responsibility to cast vision and set budgets. After all, a budget is a statement not only of a church’s material resources but of its theological values; few tasks are more spiritual than setting a church budget. As Don Carson notes: 

… a comprehensive vision of the ministry of the Word demands oversight … of the entire direction and priorities of the church.[1] 

Pastors and elders must share responsibility for both the spiritual and material leadership of the church. 

4. Elders as an Opposition Party

I know of one elder who told his pastor, “I see it as my job to hold you accountable.” In one sense, this sounds right, doesn’t it? In fact, I suspect that many elders assume that this is their primary duty. But while pastoral accountability is undoubtedly one part of an elder’s broader responsibilities, focussing on it sets up an adversarial relationship that will destroy the eldership team.

This posture assumes from the outset that pastors will act improperly—and that the church is best served by the elders suspiciously scrutinising their leadership. This isn’t to say that elders should not question their pastors, but this should occur within a relationship of trust. Yet many elders today default to distrust—almost as if they expected their pastor to be a narcissistic bully.

In contrast, the picture of Christian leadership in the New Testament is one of cooperation not contest. Throughout Romans 16, Paul refers to Priscilla, Aquila, Urbanus and Timothy as his “coworkers in Christ Jesus.” And Philippians—a letter which explicitly addresses a conflict between gospel workers—is soaked in the language of partnership: 

… live your life worthy of the gospel of Christ … standing firm in one spirit, in one accord, contending together for the faith of the gospel. (1:27) 

In a healthy eldership team, pastors aren’t the out-of-control engine with the elders the handbrake. Both pastors and elders are equally ambitious for the gospel and equally committed to the church.

5. Elders as a House of Review

I once visited a church where the pastor had no vote on the eldership team. He was required to seek their approval for everything from organising the church camp to setting the preaching calendar. When I asked the elders how the pastor could possibly lead under such restrictions, they answered: “If he’s good enough, he’ll be able to persuade us.”

In churches like this, the elders operate as a house of review (like the Senate, which can reject any bill proposed by the House of Representatives). In doing so, they effectively set themselves over him. This can hamstring a pastor’s ability to lead.

The New Testament suggests that elders should not only support but even submit to the pastor’s leadership. 

But the New Testament suggests that elders should not only support but even submit to the pastor’s leadership. The language of “elder” in the New Testament appropriates the leadership categories of synagogue life. In the first century, synagogues were ruled by a council of elders—in turn, led by a single ruler (Luke 8:41; Acts 18:8, 17). James seemed to occupy a similar position in the early church, presiding as the first among the apostles (Acts 15:13; 21:18). The New Testament appears to recognise that elders themselves need to be led, and it is the pastor who can provide that leadership (c.f. 1 Tim 5:17).[2] It is therefore the responsibility, not only of the congregation but also of the elders to enable their pastors to lead “with joy and not with grief” (Heb 13:17).

Growing a Healthy Eldership Culture

These five dysfunctions are not an exhaustive list, but they reflect a continuum from passivity to control. In the end, growing a healthy eldership culture is far more important than legislating a strong leadership structure. After all, no structure is immune from sin, and as they say, culture eats strategy (or structure) for breakfast.

What underlies all the above dysfunctions is a total lack of trust and humility. We need to grow high-trust eldership teams that are healthy, humble and holy: teams where pastors and elders jointly commit themselves to Peter’s exhortation: 

All of you clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. (1 Peter 5:5).

[1] DA Carson, “Some Reflections on Pastoral Leadership”, Themelios 40.2 (2015): 197.

[2] See Dave Harvey, The Plurality Principle: How to Build and Maintain a Thriving Church Leadership Team (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021).