A couple of months ago, I was in Nashville, Tennessee, learning more about best practices for making disciples. In an off-handed comment, one of the pastors noted, “I wonder if there was something intentional about Jesus sending the disciples out two by two instead of on their own?” It caused me to stop and think because God sent me out two by two in 2015.
Three years ago I planted a church — Village Church in Red Rock, Arizona. But I didn’t do it alone. I co-pastor our church with Cody Bren, a man that I’m not married to. (Insert two minutes of awkward explanation every Sunday morning when we introduce ourselves.)
Up until the off-handed comment by my pastor friend about Jesus’ two by two methodology, I thought we were just different. I only know of one other co-pastorate that reflects our dynamic (if you know others, I want to know them!). Even co-pastoring for married couples doesn’t seem to be the norm in American church leadership, although I’m proud to know a few doing it very well.
When we started down this road, I really didn’t have any strong theology I’d studied about why we did things the way we did as co-leaders. All I knew was that the Holy Spirit had woven our stories and families together with a specific vision to lead together. We haven’t grown up as best friends. We didn’t serve in ministry before this season. In fact, we didn’t really even know each other when we said yes to God’s call to lead this way. All we knew was that God had opened a door, and we were willing to walk through it. We had naysayers and well-meaning concerned people point out how this might be a disaster. What about the boundaries between men and women? Who would have the final say if you came to an impasse? What if you have a disagreement?
Maybe we were naïve. Maybe we were adventurous. Maybe we heard from the Holy Spirit. Maybe all of the above. All I know is that when my friend pointed out the built-in buddy system invented by Jesus, it clicked for me on a new level.
Three years of leading together doesn’t mean we are veterans by any means. But it does mean that we are far enough into ministry together to experience the fade away of the honeymoon phase of church planting and leadership. The last year especially has taught us that we are truly on the frontlines for the mission of God to reach lost people. It’s been painful and joyful. It’s been humbling and exhilarating. We’ve been wounded in battle and have come out stronger on the other side. It’s been the hardest and absolute best three years of my life. In all of it, there is one thing I am absolutely sure of: this gospel friendship and partnership is one ordained from heaven.
While we are both fully confident in the unique dynamic of co-pastoring, we also recognize that it’s not the traditional methodology for pastoring, planting or leading. We understand that you might read this and think, “Yeah, I’m not called to that.” But my hope is that sharing a snippet of our experience will give a fuller picture to how God uses men and women in collaboration for his kingdom work.
We get a lot of questions about how this all works, but I wanted to spend some time addressing the top five questions we get asked:
What does it mean to co-pastor?
Well, we literally both lead the church. We have the same authority to make decisions for the direction, mission and vision. We share a lot of duties, but as our church is maturing, we find ourselves understanding our own unique gifts from God. We are making strides to operate in those gifts. For us, we even take it up a notch and co-preach every Sunday.
You co-preach? Doesn’t that take a long time to prepare for Sunday?
Honestly, we spend about three hours a week together preparing for the message. I will admit the first time we did this (at the suggestion of Cody), I was not excited about it. I didn’t like the idea of someone else getting into my rhythm of preparation. Also, I had a lot of ego to overcome. Not to mention the first time took us many hours to figure out what we were going to say and do. I remember us awkwardly arguing about our opinion on why Philippians was written. We quickly decided that we needed to speed up the process and found a better way (which we are happy to share!). Now it’s become second nature. I feel weird not preaching with Cody! (Note: Our congregation has given us great feedback. They get two perspectives from two completely different people every Sunday. We’ve been told it holds their attention too. Co-preaching is something any pastor can do whether or not you co-pastor. Feel free to listen to our podcast for an example.)
What happens if you disagree on something? Who makes the final decision?
Because Cody and I are two different people (like completely different) we don’t always take the same approach to solving a problem. We’ve had disagreements, but we agree on the big things — the mission and vision of our church. When we come to a disagreement that we can’t seem to work out, we remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit always has the final say. The great thing about the Holy Spirit is that he promotes unity — and as long as we stay surrendered to him, we get clear direction about where to go next. (Note: We are committed to respectful and transparent communication, and we believe that there are very few things worth getting in a tizzy about.)
How have you decided who does what?
As we grow in our leadership skills, we have more personal clarity on our own unique gift mix. In the beginning, we did most things together. We counseled, developed leaders, bought coffee cups and balanced the books together. However, now we are not only handing off these things to faithful leaders who God has brought us, but we are also realizing that we want to do exactly what God has gifted us uniquely to do. We are in a transition time right now in our ministry where we are exploring what it would look like to operate in the sweet spot of ministry where gifting, calling and platform for ministry all align.
We both carry apostolic gifting, but Cody is a shepherd and I am an evangelist. It has been humbling for me to realize that while I can shepherd someone according to the book I read in seminary, it’s not a strength that I possess. Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should. The journey of discovering and owning our spiritual gifts has forced us to overcome insecurity. A practical example might mean that on a Sunday where we have testimonies shared, our people may mention how God has used Cody to help them overcome a difficult time. In insecurity, I could easily grasp at straws for my own personal influence, but that would be stealing glory from God in the gifts he has unleashed in Cody. I will not take any of that glory. Instead, I lean into Jesus and hand over insecurity. This has allowed me to feel free to focus on efforts to reach the lost in our current city and the ZIP codes God has laid on my heart. We’ve also mobilized prophets and teachers on our leadership team to ensure that all five-fold leadership gifts outlined in Ephesians are at work in our church.
What boundaries do you have in place to make sure you don’t have a sex scandal on your hands?
OK, people don’t come out and ask that question, but the elephant in the room is the issue of boundaries between men and women in ministry.
We’ve heard that some pastors have boundaries such as not riding in a car with the opposite sex, not travelling or meeting alone, or counseling or ministering to. The main influence for this practice was the amazing Billy Graham, who put the rule in place to not be alone in any capacity with a woman. His reasoning was that he was away from his wife and family for months at a time, and he wanted to avoid temptation like the plague. Of course, his intentions were pure and his legacy is massive!
However, should we apply this rule to every ministry context and leader? The question becomes: Can men and women work together without sleeping together? Of course, the answer is yes! Moral failure happens in ministry, and it’s devastating to see leaders fall prey to sexual sin and adultery, but I’ve come to realize that there are tons of pastors who don’t cheat on their spouses. (Hallelujah!) There are many pastors who are faithful to Jesus first and foremost as Lord of their life — and that includes me and my co-pastor. (Let’s operate from a place of trust.) On top of this, we have incredible spouses who support our partnership in ministry. We both have healthy marriages. We all share a calendar so everyone knows what’s going on at all times, and our spouses know that they have the final say if ever they feel uncomfortable. (This has never happened.)
The benefits of co-pastoring have been immeasurable — boiling down to the simple fact that we aren’t in isolation, we are forced to overcome insecurity and fear in our lives and we share the workload of church planting. We can go farther faster because there are two of us. Praise be to God who never ceases to amaze me with his creativity. Also, praise God for bringing the Bren family into our lives. I wouldn’t want it any other way!