An Impossible Dream?

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Once a year we stand in front of a class of skeptical seniors at Calvin Theological Seminary. Once a year we try to convince them that a team ministry with two coequal pastors is not only possible but pleasurable. Once a year we try to quell the horror stories they’ve heard about co-pastorates exploding in feuds, and we try to tell our story of ministry at Woodlawn Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. Every year, the students start out looking at us as freaks of ministry. But by the end we see at least a glimmer in their eyes that says, “Hey, I think this sounds great!”

Who are we? We are Peter Jonker and Mike Abma. We have been pastoring Woodlawn CRC together for the past eight years. Neither of us is a senior pastor. Our congregation does not have a lead pastor and a lesser pastor. We are both simply pastors of the congregation. Peter is pastor to everyone in the congregation, and Mike is pastor to everyone in the congregation.

Sure, we have slightly different emphases. Peter takes more responsibility for matters relating to youth and education, and Mike takes more responsibility for matters relating to pastoral care. But we do not put up “No Trespassing” signs around any particular ministry turf. The reality is, Peter does lots of pastoral visiting, and Mike has plenty of interaction with the youths.

We also don’t have a “Starting Preacher” and a “Relief Preacher.” We each preach 50 percent of the time. When one preaches the morning service, the other preaches the evening service. The next week we switch places.

To make our ministry cooperation visible and real to the congregation, we do a number of things: We share leadership roles in each worship service. When one preaches, the other leads different parts of the liturgy. We also work on all sermon series together—you’ll never hear the “Peter Sermon Series” or the “Mike Sermon Series.” As a result, people often mistakenly thank us for sermons the other has preached. We take this as a healthy sign.

Lastly, we introduce ourselves as a pastor of Woodlawn CRC, not the pastor. It’s amazing how much difference a little indefinite article makes.

Why do we do all this? Why do we avoid the trend toward titles like “Senior Pastor” and “Lead Pastor”? Mainly because we do not think that fits the spirit of servant leadership described in the New Testament. Nor do we think it fits with the decidedly nonhierarchical tradition of our Reformed church polity.

We know you’re still skeptical.

We know what you’re thinking: “Every team needs a leader” and “When push comes to shove, someone has to make the final decision.”

When a young couple planning to marry uses that kind of when-push-comes-to-shove language, we get concerned. Actually, marriage is a fitting metaphor for this type of ministry. That’s because the foundational element needed in any team is trust. No trust, no team.

Seven Principles for Team Building

So here are some trust-building principles we’ve learned over the years (and which we believe apply to many different multistaff situations):

1.     Never disagree in public.

Congregations want their pastors to get along. So do church councils. No one wants to have to mediate between two opposing viewpoints or visions for ministry. That’s why, to the best of our ability, we review the agenda of every meeting beforehand and plan to speak with one voice. If we have disagreements or differences, we try to work them out in private.

2.     Never undermine your colleague’s ministry.

There are a million and one ways a team ministry can be subtly undermined. The most common way is when someone points out some perceived failing of your colleague. They will expect you to agree with them. This is “bait” we know we must not take. We’ve learned to support each other in all settings and not to easily agree with people’s complaints. If we happen to hear something disturbing, we do not agree with the person bringing the complaint; we first talk to our colleague about it.

3.     Never hide information.

In churches, as in any other organization, knowledge is power. One of the greatest ministry temptations is to hoard information. We’ve learned that we must tell each other everything. We do so in formal staff meetings once a week, and we do so informally on a daily basis. Whenever we make visits, we let the other know how the visit went.

When we make our presentation to the seminary class, an eager student always asks, “But what about confidentiality?    What if a church member tells you something in confidence?” That’s a good question. Our congregation understands that both of us are pastors to the whole congregation. To tell one is to tell the other. Of course we face temptations in this area of ministry as well. If a parishioner were to say, “I will tell you something, but only you, not the other pastor,” this is usually code language for, “I like you and not him.” Taking this bait will sow a seed of discord. We’ve learned to say, “If you cannot tell both of us, then you should not tell either of us.” We’ve learned that nothing good comes from keeping our colleague in the dark.

4.     Learn to rejoice in your colleague’s success.

One of the hardest yet best lessons we’re constantly learning is to rejoice in our colleague’s success. Pastors are human too, and thus competitive. Over time and through prayer, we can say a hearty “Amen” to an excellent sermon our colleague has just preached. It is in saying “Amen” that we’ve also learned that our ministry is not about us; it’s about the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

5.     A detailed job description will not save you.

We believe it’s a myth that a detailed job description will solve most problems and sort out most points of tension. Ideally, a job description sets certain guidelines in terms of responsibility. But we believe if pastors become too territorial over their ministry “turf,” problems and tensions will develop. Does this cause overlap and inefficiencies? Absolutely. But we tend to see these as holy inefficiencies.

6.     The congregation needs to be onboard.

Much depends on the congregation to make a team ministry work well. The most important task is to avoid comparisons. Competition kills a team, and nothing fuels competition like constant comparisons.

7.     Pray.

First and last, we value prayer for our ministry team. We regularly pray with each other and for each other. Members of the congregation also pray with us and for us. We’re often humbled when they thank the Lord for the spirit of unity in our team ministry.

The Joys of Team Ministry

Why did we write this article?

We write to encourage churches to consider this type of ministry model. We’re well aware of the risks. Sadly, we know of too many examples where this kind of team did not work. We’re here to tell you, however, that when it works well, it can be a great source of joy and blessing.

A team ministry has a built-in collegiality. We face very few things in ministry totally alone. This is important because one main reason many clergy leave the ministry is because they feel lonely and isolated.

A team ministry shares the burdens of ministry. Pastors often feel drained by the demands of ministry. We give each other breathing room when we need it. We also feed each other books, articles, theological reflections, and sermon insights, all in an effort to encourage each other in our work.

A team ministry has built-in accountability. We not only pastor the congregation; we pastor each other and hold one another accountable. When pastors get into moral trouble, it’s often because there’s no one to hold them accountable.

A very real, practical joy of working in a team ministry is that it compels us to be better Christians. So much of life is about fighting against things like pride, envy, greed, competition, and other forms of spiritual blight. The only way for a team ministry to work well is to actually live the virtues we preach—humility, fellowship, unity of the Spirit, servanthood, and all the fruit of the Spirit.

We’re realistic enough to realize that many congregations will still be reluctant to adopt a team-ministry model. But in an age in which the “cult of personality” is all the rage, in which many churches are tempted to find the perfect “starting preacher,” we would like more congregations to consider the road less traveled.  ¦


About the Author

Rev. Mike Abma and Shirlene Van Eek Abma are members of Woodlawn Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Mike sreves as pastor. Shirlene works as a tutor for students at Grand Rapids Christian High. They have three children.

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