“Two women pastors. That is so cool!” A teenager sat with us in Rachel’s office just a couple weeks into our time as the co-pastors of Monroe Covenant Church, and she expressed a sentiment we have heard many times in the two years since. Pastors who are women are still relatively rare. Co-pastors, even husband and wife teams, are also fairly rare. Co-pastors who are not married to each other are even rarer. And two women co-pastoring together—well, we at least do not know any others.
We (Rachel and Michelle) accepted a co-pastorship at Monroe Covenant Church in June of 2020. Founded in 1905 in the small city of Monroe, WA, which is about 45 minutes northeast of Seattle, Monroe Covenant is a church of about a hundred people, many of whom have worshiped and served together for decades. Our congregants were used to having co-pastors, since the previous pastors were a husband and wife team who had been with the congregation for over a decade. And we’ve been pleasantly surprised that most people, in and out of our congregation, respond to us positively and excitedly.
But then they ask lots of questions about how it works logistically and practically to have co-lead pastors who share the role equally. But wait, who makes the decisions? Who has the final say? What do you do when you don’t agree?
Sharing the Power
These questions suggest that some church folk are still captive to the idea that organizations run better with one person at the helm, CEO-style. It also suggests that we are still uncomfortable with practicing mutual submission and co-leadership.
Co-pastoring—like marriage, like friendship—is a peer relationship in which both parties bring their gifts and ideas. Decisions are made in discussion and prayer, each trusting that the other is listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit. There is freedom to push back, ask questions, make suggestions, compromise, and a better solution will emerge because of that process of communal discernment. We are always better together.
What if we could let go of the hierarchy we assume must be present in the leadership of a church? What new questions might emerge about the co-pastoring model? Questions like: What works well about having two people in charge? What do you love about sharing the leadership of the church with another person? How are you and your church blessed by co-pastoring? These questions are much more helpful and imaginative when it comes to understanding the benefits of co-pastoring.
Sharing the Weight
Pastoring a church is weighty. Even in the best of times and healthiest of churches, the responsibility of spiritual leadership is heavy. Having a co-pastor means neither of us has to carry that burden alone. We each have another person with whom we can share ideas, make decisions, celebrate, and mourn.
A few months ago, a couple in our congregation emailed us to set up a coffee date. We gathered at the coffee shop next to the church excited to spend time with beloved parishioners, blissfully unaware of what was coming. Over coffee the couple shared with us that they were feeling called to seek out a different church. We were both shocked and surprised, and we couldn’t help but feel heartbroken. As we sat there, each of us reeling internally, we were able to listen to their reasons, ask some clarifying questions, pray together, and say goodbye.
It was as we were walking back to the church together, just the two of us, that we turned to each other in gratitude. The beauty of co-pastoring is that in that moment of grief, confusion, disappointment, and hurt we had each other. We had a witness. We could debrief the conversation with someone else who had been there. Did they really say x? What do you think they meant by y? Did this thing strike you in the same way it did me?
We acknowledged for each other that we weren’t crazy—it really had come out of nowhere. We validated each other’s pain and confusion. We talked through the second-guessing that comes with a conversation of that nature, and we sat with the things they had said, both good and bad. We discussed together and arrived at more thoughtful and robust conclusions than we would have separately. And we were able to hear the truth of what they had said while setting aside what was gratuitous. We walked the journey of losing people together. Sharing the pain lessened it. Discerning together brought greater clarity about God’s specific calling for our church.
Sharing the Work
Having a healthy pastoral partner, someone with whom to share the load, is a blessing to both of us, but our church is blessed by it, too. Having co-pastors means they see healthy mutuality modeled. They get two people’s strengths (and weaknesses), two different relational styles, and two sets of gifts.
This year, as we were dreaming about and planning for Lent and Easter, Rachel had some creative ideas for how to make things more visually memorable and embodied. One such idea involved a dozen white helium balloons bursting forth from an empty tomb on Easter morning. When Michelle first heard the idea, she hesitated, but she had the grace to think about it before responding. Eventually, she caught the vision, and then she got to work figuring out what was needed to make it happen. She found the scriptures and coordinated the sermon series and did all the practical structural work to make the creative bits shine. Together, our strengths complement each other, and we give each other the freedom to lean into the parts of our jobs that give us joy and make us come alive.
Pastoring together means we share the painful parts, making them easier to carry. We share the logistical and practical work of leading a church, meaning neither of us is stuck with all of the mundane tasks. We make space for each other’s sometimes wacky but always interesting ideas, letting each other explore her creativity. Most importantly, we share the joys of this work, big and small. When new people come and then keep coming, we rejoice together over each new person who joins our church family. We make plans to take them out for coffee and hear their story and let them get to know us. When God answers a prayer in our midst, we rejoice over his goodness. Just as walking together in difficult moments lessens the pain, celebrating together in the joyful moments increases the awe and celebration.
A Call to Shared Leadership Models
We have two years of experience now navigating a partnership of equals. That’s not a lot of time. We still have a lot to learn and we know that we’ll experience difficult seasons. However, we are grateful every day for the gift of each other in these roles, and we hope co-pastoring becomes more common. Sharing responsibility, modeling collaborative leadership, and sharing different gifts is good for the health of pastors and the church. Leaning more fully into the priesthood of all believers invites participation, ownership, agency, and discipleship, and it counteracts consumerism.
We recognize that the co-pastor model might not be feasible for every church setting, especially churches with smaller budgets or pastors who need a full-time salary. It works for us because we both wanted part-time work. Co-pastoring also might not work for every personality. It takes two people without (much) ego who trust each other and know how to collaborate. We knew going in that we wanted to share responsibility and work collaboratively.
But the spirit and benefits of co-pastoring can be implemented anywhere. The idea is that a church gets to experience more than just one voice and that the pastor is not a Lone Ranger. This can be accomplished by empowering a strong lay leadership team made up of people who are more than yes-men, who give prayerful input on leadership and vision. It could involve elevating lay leaders into pastoral roles, even if they are still volunteers. And it could mean sharing the pulpit. At our church, we have a robust lay preaching team of about twelve members. As pastors, we each preach once a month, and the remaining Sundays are filled by members of our congregation who have demonstrated spiritual maturity, theological understanding, and preaching skills. That means the congregation hears from multiple voices every month.
Pastors abusing their power and authority in churches make headlines nearly every week. What if there is something flawed in the model itself? Co-pastoring will not solve all of the problems that arise when those entrusted with the spiritual guidance of others instead turn to selfishness, greed, lust, or power. But it might be a step in the right direction. What could shared leadership look like in your church?
Cover photo credit: Cornelia Steinwender