Shared leadership at the helm of any organization, especially the ever-growing model of co-lead pastors in a church, can be a huge blessing when successful. However, it has the potential to be quite catastrophic to the organization or church if—or when—it fails.

For twenty years, I was in a 50/50 partnership of a light commercial construction company in Connecticut. I finally sold my share to my partner because God was covertly “sucking” me into the “ministry vortex” as an Executive/Administrative Pastor. Attorneys, accountants and business professionals were amazed that our business partnership stood the test of time. They would often inquire how and what we were doing that made our partnership work for so long. To this day I am still friends with my former business partner and consider him a brother.

For pastors and leaders that are considering entering into a partnership, there are “CHOICES” that must be made. Before I elaborate on the choices, I’ll briefly share four examples of co-lead pastor teams.

The first example is from a church in Canada where I was part of a three-headed shared leadership team—a concept that was embraced by everyone except the lead preaching pastor. It was extremely difficult to collaborate. By God’s grace I left there when I was invited to serve at a church in my home town in Connecticut. A year and a half later, the church in Canada fell apart because the shared leadership model had been poorly established and failed. That sadly led to a church split.

The second example is from a church in Arizona. The leadership moved to a co-lead pastor model after the former lead pastor retired. The two new leads were best friends. This arrangement “blew-up,” for the lack of a better description, and the church went through an ugly church split.

The third example is from a church in California from which many people model this form of leadership. My firsthand knowledge and experience with those leaders is that neither would agree to do it again. When the oldest of the two retires and moves on, the surviving co-lead pastor will not continue on with the model.

The final example is with the church I worked at in Connecticut. They moved to a three-headed lead team. I know the three guys, as well as the leadership at the church. They are all godly men. Two of the team are biological brothers and the third is their best friend. I believe if they adhere to the CHOICES I share in this article, they will have the best chance of experiencing God’s favor through the ebb and flow of daily ministry life.

I use the acronym of “C.H.O.I.C.E.S” to describe what shared leaders must adhere to in order to persevere. The reality is that these are choices we make in every successful and fruitful relationship we develop, including marriage.

is for Covenant

The number one choice my business partner and I made when we started our company in 1984 was to always have each other’s back and to support each other one hundred percent—even if it cost us personally. We wanted people to see that nothing was going to divide us. This developed into an amazing give-and-take relationship. Our covenant was built and sustained on the balance of this acronym of CHOICE. I would advise partnerships to develop a covenant agreement that both partners sign. Use the agreement to help hold the partnership and relationship accountable, ensuring it will be an enduring blessing to God.

is for Humility

The Bible teaches us so much about humility. It is the number one struggle in partnerships. I would urge partners to make a choice to adhere to the words of Philippians 2:3-4,

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

These verses require us to be disloyal to our pride. Pride comes before the fall. I saw this so clearly in one of the churches mentioned above when the pride of one man caused so much hurt and pain, splitting the church. We all make mistakes; if only I could undo the mistakes I have made because of my pride and ego. In partnerships, mistakes will be made by all. However, we are reminded in Ephesians 4:2,

“Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowances for each other’s faults because of your love.”

I would also add, “… because you have covenanted with your partner and made a choice to be humble.”

is for Openness

My business partner was the best I have ever seen at demonstrating this. Some people say it was a fault of his but as I look back, it was a wonderful trait. He never allowed anything to fester or get swept under the proverbial rug. He was great at holding everyone accountable to their actions, including me. He received accountability as well. I had to work at coming forward with my issues with him; I would tend to hold grudges. We had a number of colleagues in our lives who could tell when we needed to clear the air; we gave them permission to tell us so.

Having accountability people in partnerships is important. Holding short accounts attributed to our partnership’s success. Since there were few unaddressed issues, we experienced very few explosions built up from undiscussed concerns. We made a choice to deal with conflict and to hold each other accountable by having crucial conversations, much like those addressed in Joseph Grenny’s books, Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability. Accountability and communication bring the truth to light. As Jesus taught, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

I is for Integrity

One’s behavior is the greatest revealer of integrity. We have heard it said that someone with integrity is someone who “walks the talk.” In the failings of the partnerships in the churches mentioned above, I would say that there was at least one man who lacked integrity or failed to maintain his integrity. With grace, I would say that the conduct that displayed lack of integrity was mostly displayed when the leader would allow himself to fall victim to the “fundamental attribution error.”  The premise of the error is that at all cost you convince yourself that your truth is the only correct one which usually is accentuated by your own self-preservation. There is no integrity in that behavior.

Partners must make a choice to set integrity high on the short list of their values. Proverbs 11:3 warns us that, “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.” When deciding whether to engage in a co-lead pastoral model, a good test of the partner’s integrity is to project their future behavior. The greatest predictor of someone’s future behavior is their consistent past behavior. If any of the partners has been fired from multiple leadership positions in their past, explore carefully their growth and transformational changes they had made before entering into another possible failed lead partnership endeavor.

C is for Character

A man of good character is an assumption that would be a foremost prerequisite to all pastors and leaders. It’s one thing to preach and teach it; it’s another to live it out. We all struggle with good character at times. I have to remind myself that I will be held accountable for my actions and conduct as a leader who has been granted influence over God’s sheep. Shared leaders must make a choice to be men of great character. We are grateful that grace and forgiveness are offered for our occasional failures. True character demonstrated in Christ-likeness (or lack of it), is quickly discerned when conflict arises. When evaluating the sustainability of leaders in a co-leader model, it is essential that both leaders demonstrate Christ-like virtues. They should exhibit “D.I.C.E.+1” transformational leadership traits as described by Dr. Mark McCloskey in his book, The Art of Virtue-Based Transformational Leadership. D.I.C.E.+1 traits represent Dynamic Determination, Intellectual Flexibility, Courageous Character, Emotional Maturity and a high Collaborative Quotient. These character traits are critical to the health and long-term viability of a co-lead partnership in all organizations. Paul states in Romans 12:2 that partners with character make a choice to, “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

is for Equitable

This element is about making a choice to do your part as an equal partner in sharing the load of ministry. The load should be equally divided in both written job descriptions. It should not be established in a verbal discussion over a cup of coffee. Leaders have to get this aspect very clear with understood expectations of duties and results. Working within your strengths will be important. StrengthsFinders can help discern the strengths of the partners. Once this is clear and agreed upon, each partner must respect their roles and stay in their lanes of responsibilities. However, each partner needs to demonstrate a spirit of collaboration with the other partner by inviting each other into their areas of responsibility in order to be the most effective for the Kingdom. In the context of the church, the elders or governing board needs to be involved in the measuring and ownership of this equitable agreement.

is for Sacrifice

All the components above are important; however, without a spirit and heart to serve and sacrifice, the partnership will inevitably fail. I often tell a story about my business partner and I having to fire a close personal friend because that person was simply not a good fit for our company. We both hated to do it but understood the sacrifices we were called to make for each other and the betterment of the company. It was difficult, but we had made a covenant to never put anyone or anything above each other or the company. Sacrifice meant that there were times I had to go along with a decision that my partner wanted to make—and he did the same for me. Also, we never kept a written account of the sacrifices because we had sacrificial hearts to start with. Sacrifice requires us to be disloyal to our selfishness and individualistic nature. Our covenant was that our desires can never be about ourselves. John 15:13 says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.” A great way to assess someone’s sacrificial quotient is to ask them, “What hills are you willing to die on?” Just as important is to ask them, “What hills have you shed that you used to die on?”

In closing, I’ll share a few reasons to consider whether or not to enter into a shared lead pastor model, especially if someone is trying to convince you that it will work. For example, I know a pastor in a co-leadership role who felt that the partnership had come together organically. Well, I have experienced that so-called organic relationship and watched it come apart at the seams because the above CHOICES were never adhered to or even considered. Another consideration is that leaders tend to enter into a shared leadership model to make their work life demands and responsibilities less burdensome. I believe this was at the root of the failure of the co-lead model at one of the churches I mentioned. Elders and pastors considering a co-lead pastor model must ask the question, “Are the pastors selfish or lazy?” The answer may be that they simply need a good assistant.  Also, consider the possibility that this is the way the pastors can force themselves into a leadership role when in reality they are not a top leader. Doing so would be like forcing a square peg in a round hole. Finally, do not enter into a shared leadership model just because it sounds great in the leader’s or pastor’s mind, convinced that it will be fun. Marriages that start that way almost always fail.

In the context of a church, successful shared leadership ventures will demand more than the leaders adhering to the CHOICES above. These types of partnerships will always be difficult. Engage in the rigorous work required to determine if the culture of the church understands the implications and if the candidates are mature enough and ready to make the CHOICES necessary to make it successful.