Today’s "Co-Pastor"—A Slightly Growing Trend
Someone asked us recently about the role of co-pastor in North American churches. The idea has been practiced for decades, although in quite limited form. The core idea is “one who shares the duties of a pastor.” More specifically co-pastors are “ministers who are called and installed with equal responsibility for pastoral ministry,” as one denominational policy manual states it.
Here’s how I would group — and evaluate — current usages of co-pastor. The New Testament uses the plural “elders” and “pastors” more commonly than the singular “elder” and “pastor” so maybe that’s one way of Biblically supporting team leadership expressed as “co-pastor.”
1. Husband-wife teams, especially in charismatic and African-American churches. This seems to be the most widely reported situation of co-pastoring. If you do a Google images search for “copastor” or “co-pastor,” 90% of the photos are female, mostly African American. Co-pastoring occurs in churches of all sizes and all races/ethnicities. High-visibility examples of co-pastoring include Victoria Osteen, co-pastor at Lakewood, for many years America’s largest attendance church; Debra Morton of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Church who is at the New Orleans campus while husband Paul Morton is at their Atlanta campus; and on the bizarre side are former co-pastors Randy and Paula White of Without Walls who divorced in 2007, and so Paula left the church, but then in 2009 Randy resigned for health reasons, but in doing so brought Paula back appointing her as senior pastor in his stead (and then she subsequently moved across Florida to New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka).
In husband-wife co-pastorates, typically they each take different roles such as one doing most of the preaching and the other heading the church’s administration or leading other ministries. This is a popular and growing model, most often a way of adding greater dignity to the “pastor’s wife” role. (Above – “Pastor Raymond Berry and Co-Pastor Pamela Berry” from Gethsemane Church of God in Christ, Topeka, KS.)
2. High-visibility transitions, especially of long-time pastors. Jonathan Falwell was named co-pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in order to indicate that he would be the next pastor when the time came that his father Jerry Falwell was no longer able to be the pastor. Bobby Welch was senior pastor of First Baptist, Daytona Beach, FL, for 32 years, and then David Cox was named as co-pastor in order to ensure a smooth transition. Another example is First Presbyterian, Boulder, CO, where the long-term senior pastor had heart surgery, and the congregation then voted to have a co-pastor so that the weakened senior pastor could continue in a less demanding position. In the first example it worked very smoothly when Jerry Falwell abruptly died in 2007. In the second example, David Cox resigned in early 2007 after spending just five months as senior pastor. Overall the best pastoral successions, at least in larger churches, according to research behind the book Next: Pastoral Successions that Work, are those with an intentional overlap.
3. Merger churches, especially involving two long-term senior pastors. These are somewhat rare. They are almost always churches of 200 or less in attendance. They almost never work as a net growth gain because each church culture has to sacrifice and change and too many people grow dissatisfied (“it’s not the same church anymore”) so they leave. Eventually one of the “co-pastors” leaves, and the model ends for that church. For an alternate model see the book Better Together: Healthy Church Mergers.
4. Intentional co-pastoring as a philosophy. The longest-running co-pastor model I know about involved Jerry Vines and Homer Lindsay at First Baptist, Jacksonville, FL. The church was founded in 1848 and in 1940 Homer Lindsay Sr. became senior pastor. In 1969 his son Homer Jr. became co-pastor with him, serving alongside his father until Homer Sr.’s retirement in 1975. In 1982 Jerry Vines came as co-pastor, which continued until Homer Jr.’s death in 2000. Vines stayed — without continuing the co-pastor model — until 2006, when he retired. Successive pastors have not continued the co-pastor model either. Co-pastors like this work best when leaders’ personalities are suitable for the shared role and the two people have a prior history of leadership collaboration. Certain intentional co-pastorates seem to have limited longterm success, since most successors do not then continue the co-pastor model.
5. Co-pastoring as “lead pastor team.” This is the newest model to develop. This is the idea that one person is called the lead pastor or similar, but a team of people cover the typical responsibilities of a senior pastor. Last year I did a survey of over 500 large-church pastors (available for free download at www.leadnet.org/megachurch, title is “Teacher First”). Only half said, “I am solely responsible for the role of lead pastor at my church.” Examples of this would be Fellowship Bible Church, Little Rock, AR. The lead team there is comprised of a directional leader and other teaching pastors. At Sun Valley Community Church, Gilbert, AZ, a “lead pastor” works closely with a “preaching pastor” and two others on an executive team. At Calvary Baptist in Lake Havasu City, AZ, three “pastors” make up the leadership team that sets vision, direction and implementation. At Community Christian Church, Naperville, IL, there is a rare example of family members (two brothers) plus other buddies from college founding the church together and being a senior leadership team, still with one person, Dave Ferguson, as lead pastor. This approach fits with the idea of doing church as a team and letting people maximize their giftedness and passion. In none of these cases are the pastors are actually called co-pastors, however. (Above – Leading as a team at Sun Valley Community Church)
In summary, most contexts that use the term co-pastor, over time, either dissolve the idea or develop very separate roles for the two “co” leaders. Why? Maybe due to unclear expectations? Maybe due to the ego of pastor? Ego of the pastor’s spouse? (“You should be preaching more,” “You do a better job,” “He gets too much credit,” etc.). The most promising model is that of a lead pastor team, which typically doesn’t use the word co-pastor. At least, that’s my take. What are your thoughts about the idea of co-pastoring?
p.s. Resource: Helpful insights in this Presbyterian document: “Questions to Be Considered When Calling Co-Pastors“
Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Research Director at Leadership Network, and co-author of 21 books on various aspects of church health and innovation.