Talented Pastors and the Plurality Principle
by Dave Harvey

August 26, 2021

Healthy Plurality

Talented Pastors and the Plurality Principle

By Dave Harvey

August 26, 2021

Apple employees coined the term “reality distortion field” to describe Steve Jobs’s ability to twist any fact to fit his own purpose. “At the root of the reality distortion was Jobs’s belief that the rules didn’t apply to him,” Walter Isaacson wrote in his biography. “He had some evidence for this; in his childhood, he had often been able to bend reality to his desires. Rebelliousness and willfulness were ingrained in his character. He had the sense that he was special, a chosen one, an enlightened one.”

Not to throw shade on Steve Jobs—the world pretty much agrees with his self-assessment. In the world of technology, Jobs was special and enlightened. But his self-appraisal made it difficult for him to value others. After all, when you’re the reality-bending superstar on the field, it’s hard to see your need for the rest of the team.

That’s why, whether you’re a pastor, elder or church planter, this is so important: The more gifted the individual, the more essential the plurality.

Talent Needs Team

Talented lead pastors risk their own reality distortion field. Except in their case, it can undermine the beauty and church vitality that accompanies genuine plurality. And the reality distortion they embrace is the same one that has toppled some incredibly capable church leaders in the past few years: the more gifted the leader, the less necessary the plurality. 

Let’s not oversimplify this or reflexively assume men with greater gifts are just more arrogant. It’s more nuanced and diagnostically complex. Interdependence and collaboration emerge when a leader soberly realizes his limits and begins to sense that the wisdom and ideas necessary for guiding a church are beyond his capacity as a leader. In this case, sharing ministry with others becomes desirable, natural, necessary, fruitful, and even a relief. The wisdom of many seems to decisively outweigh one man’s genius.

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Most of us dwell within a common and familiar range of talent. Sure, we’re proud, but we also know we need help.

But the leader of many talents has walked a different road. Somewhere in his journey he’s discovered that he grasps things more quickly than others do. He can diagnose problems more accurately, retain information more easily, express ideas more clearly, galvanize people more naturally, or win over a room with his charming candor. His experience has trained him to assume that, when given the space to lead and freedom to control, he can typically accomplish his goals. If you’re a multiplication whiz, time spent waiting for others to arrive at the correct answer seems like downtime or even wasted time. You already have the answer.

A high-capacity leader may believe he already has the best answers; the team is just an obstacle. Like the star running back who believes he can gain yards if he just has the ball, the leader forgets those blocking for him. Without the team, he wouldn’t shine so brightly. Such delusions may last for a while, that is, until the star breaks down or the other teammates atrophy from lack of use or care. Here’s the truth. The man who thinks he needs no one will soon be standing alone.

That sort of leader often emerges cultivating and then operating within a dangerous inconsistency. Plurality is certainly a good idea; it’s just less necessary for him. Likewise, members of the plurality come to believe they are less necessary. They slowly fade to invisible.

When it comes to plurality, reality distortion can swing both ways.

But invisibility spawns questions of purpose and impact. This is why gifted leaders can sometimes have difficulty keeping good people around them. Collaboration and connection seem inefficient; the other leaders seem less necessary, and their gifts less impressive. When a strong leader has a revolving door of guys under his leadership, it typically means he doesn’t play well in the plurality sandbox. On the other hand, when a gifted senior leader can keep his team, it’s typically because he comprehends his need for the other elders.

Talent Needs Honesty

For a gifted man to have a strong plurality, he must be willing to walk a self-emptying path. This includes listening eagerly as differently gifted people provide perspective, analyze situations, express care, or even attempt to influence him. For people with unique talents and unusual qualities, collaboration may feel less like a gift for greater mission effectiveness and more like a restrictor plate on a NASCAR engine. In fact, it may well be meant to slow you down. But your speed is less important to God than how you race (1 Cor. 9:24).

A highly gifted leader who exercises wisdom will understand that he’s called to more than faster and bigger. When leaders remain flexible and are eager to learn, they can adopt the wiser principle: The more gifted the individual, the more essential the plurality.

Gifted men can be more vulnerable to autonomy, lust for control, self-worship, and arrogance (Prov. 16:8; 27:2; 29:1; Luke 18:9–14; Rom. 12:3; Phil. 2:3; James 1:19; 4:6). But healthy collaborators hold up the mirror of godliness to one another and invite each other to peer intently at what they see. Instead of falling for self-deception, plurality helps us to see ourselves through the eyes of honest and godly men. An eldership becomes healthier when its members remind one another of their humanity, fragility, limitations, finitude, weaknesses, and ultimate need for God.

This brings us back to how God defines success. Success isn’t rooted in our endowments; rather, it’s revealed in how we humbly steward God’s gifts among the community of his saints and before the watching world.

Talent Needs Reality

As a young guy, I once bought a late-model car at a cheap price. After driving it for a few weeks, I realized why it was so inexpensive. It was mobile rubbish, littering the highway each time I cranked the ignition. It was a costly lesson. If you want quality, don’t buy substitutes. Even for exceptionally gifted leaders: counterfeits will only make you crazy.

A healthy plurality isn’t easy and certainly doesn’t happen overnight. It takes blood, sweat, tears, and humility—lots and lots of humility. But when you invest your life in helping to build a plurality, you can stand on the deck of that painstaking work and discover that you inhabit a thing of beauty. More important, you discover that the eldership pops our reality-distortion bubble and becomes a powerful tool for gospel growth and church multiplication.

Leaders, authentic pluralities are worth the cost. Accept no substitutes.

This article was first published at The Gospel Coalition and is used with permission.

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