Doesn't seem like succession difficulties have become the
norm for our local churches? Every time in my area that a
pastor passes on, there is a controversy regarding who will
carry on the ministry. Several times recently a pastor's
son was the heir apparant, but he wasn't even an ordained
elder at the time of his father's death. In another
instance the flock waited over a year for a new shepherd
to be appointed. In the interim they seemed to have lost
a third of their membership.
The major problem for these churches may be that their
former pastors failed to properly groom leadership to
carry on the work. The onus is on the pastor to develop
a leadership team that can sustain the ministry in the
event of his absence (death or a long illness). The onus
is on him to raise up spiritual sons and daughters that
know how to conduct service without his physical presence.
A pastor should be able to take a three-week, overseas
vacation without fearing that the church will fall apart.
What is he teaching the congregation if they don't know
what to do without him there whispering in their ears? Are
we edifying the church if the members never learn how to
minister to one another and visitors?
Brother pastors, if you have a congregation of pew-sitters,
you've failed at discipleship.
If an assembly has been growing properly over a period of years, then why isn't there a plurality of elders in place already?
With the Lord Jesus Christ as the Head, and a plurality of elders in place -- why would such an assembly look up to one man as its "preeminent leader" or "senior pastor"? The one-man-pastor leadership model is predominant in Christianity today, but I do not see a basis for this leadership model anywhere in the New Testament. I believe that this leadership model is a part of the reason why people spazz out when they do not have one particular man to preside over them as their "official pastor." They think that they NEED one man to rule over them as their pastor, since this is the leadership structure that almost everyone else has. Then, when there is no particular one person to rule over them as their pastor, they freak out. This reveals a co-dependency upon "the senior pastor" position, rather than trust in the leadership of the true Senior Pastor Jesus Christ and the spiritual competence of His sheep to edify/minister to one another.
I could go on and on about this, but for me, the bottom line is that today's "church" (not the bride of Christ, but the man-made church-system) is built on authoritarian leadership, legalism, oppression, and control. In this type of environment, people are kept in a state of spiritual infancy. They have spiritual arrested development. If many leaders were honest, they would simply say that they do not trust their fellow congregants with their freedom in Christ and God-given ability to minister their spiritual gifts. I see this lack of trust on behalf of leadership towards congregants in the things that they say and do. For example, many leaders do not trust congregants to have Bible studies at their house. They make statements like "who gave you permission to hold Bible study at your house? You need a spiritual covering for that. If you hold Bible study at your house, you all might get confused reading the Bible for yourselves, drift off into heresy, and become a cult."<---statements like this imply that "the pastor" must be present to interpret the bible FOR congregants, because "they are not competent enough to study the Bible alone. They cannot be trusted to rightly divide the word of truth without the man of God." This also implies that many leaders do not trust the Holy Spirit to teach/illuminate the word to congregants without "the man of God" being present to control the Bible study and dictate the doctrine of the group (to make sure that they don't learn anything that goes against his teachings and traditions). Many leaders treat their congregants like babies who need their "spiritual daddy's" permission to do anything in the Kingdom. Some leaders do not like men in their congregations to street preach, teach, or shepherd (outside the 4-walls) without permission and micromanagement. This controlling behavior is masked under the false pretense of "you need a spiritual covering to minister" or "you need to be properly ordained, installed, and released into ministry" etc. Basically, people are held hostage to the pew while their spiritual gift collects dust. Then leaders complain about their congregation working them to death and being spiritually immature. Well. . .congregations (not all of the time, but in many cases) are a reflection of their leadership. If you treat congregants like spiritually incompetent babies, then that is exactly what you will end up with. Then when you die, get sick, or do not show up in the pulpit for some other reason -- everyone spazzes out because they do not know how to fellowship/minister without "the man of God" present. This is really sad, a shame, and embarrassing. Like the author of Hebrews wrote, (and I'm paraphrasing), by now you should be teachers. Yet the so-called saints are still babes on milk and cannot handle the strong meat of the Word, much less minister meat to anyone else. They depended on "the man of God" to feed them milk. We should always desire the milk of the word -- but HOW LONG does one stay on milk ONLY and not progress into meat/maturity? How long does one sit in church for years upon years saying 'I sit under pastor so and so" "bishop so and so is my spiritual daddy/spiritual covering"? At what point does one emotionally-detach from co-dependency upon a leader, and begin serving others as a mature Believer? The priesthood of all Believers has been relegated back to the professional salaried "clergy." Martin Luther would be aghast if he saw what Protestantism has become today. Reformed Catholics looking up to mini-popes.
Your criticims of the "single pastor"-model of leadership are thought-provoking. There is a real challenge posed to our Christian unity by the overarching, authoritarian excesses we do sometimes see in this style of leadership. But I suspect that an oligarchy of elders or deacons "running" a local congregation would be as susceptible to these excesses as is a single pastor. At least I know folks in Presbyterian and Baptists Churches that have complained about abuses by the ruling elders and deacons that resemble the case you've made.
Indirectly, I think you identified the real "culprit"--not the form of leadership, but the paucity of understanding by leaders and the rest of the church about Christian freedom and responsibility. Whatever the model of leadership, more genuine wisdom and love needs to be exercised by the servant-leaders. Keeping the congregation spiritually immature so that you can appear indispensible to them is serious malfeasance of office.
As an aside, regarding you assertion that there is no basis for the "preeminent leader" or "single pastor" model of leadership in the New Testament, what do you make of the description of the organization of the Church at Jerusalem (as we see in Acts 15, for example)? I think James is styled as the preeminent or presiding leader at the Jerusalem council. After due deliberation, he had the authority to make the final call. That is the strength of the single-pastor model of leadership for local congregations. You have a risk of organizational paralysis without empowering someone to make a decision.