Lessons from the Farm for Church Planters: Shared Leadership

“You can bring a horse to water… but you can’t make him drink.” You really can’t do everything for horses, or cows for that matter. At some point, you need help.

Cows seem to know this proverb as well. Muncey explained, “There is always one cow in the herd that knows where to find the best grass. Once that cow sets out for a new pasture, all will be sure to follow. There is also a different cow who knows where to find the best water. Sure enough, all of the cows will follow that one on a hot day!”

Georgette’s coal black color with a milky white face is rather unique. When she takes off toward green pasture, the other cows are sure to follow. Every day when I lift the small electric wire to allow the cows to migrate to a new pasture, guess who is the first to walk through? None other than our Georgette.

At times, the pasture has been overgrazed – the cows need to move to another pasture. I am alerted to this by the ‘request’ of none other than Georgette. Her low “Moooooo” can be heard far and wide to let me know that the herd needs more grass.

When it comes to finding water, though, Georgette is not your girl. Grace, wearing a sleek red coat, can smell out the best source of water. Once she has found it, the other cows will simply follow her lead. Muncey remarked, “You could hide the water among trees or bushes so the cows can’t see it BUT one of your cows will be sure to smell it out and lead the way for the others.” Grace seems to have her nose dialed into water. Particularly on a full sunny day, it is not uncommon to see a line of cows heading to the water hole. Who is at the front of the line? Grace.

This type of “shared leadership” works well in the herd. Instead of insisting on one leader to do all functions, the cows simply let the leaders function in their areas of strength. It may be a God-given ability or a talent learned over time but the other cows recognize the various strengths and follow this shared leadership. No fighting over “top dog” or who is the “leader of the pack” – simply follow the lead of the one based on their strengths.

Whether the Apostle Paul learned it from cattle or not, I don’t know, but he practiced shared leadership in his church planting. Paul was never alone. He may bring along Barnabas or John Mark or Luke or Timothy or Silas or Titus – you get the point. Sure, this may have also provided companionship and access to relational networks but I wonder if Paul knew the way of the cows.

Imagine going to Cyprus on Paul’s first church planting journey. Paul is an excellent preacher and apologist. Imagine sitting spell bound as this fiery preacher explains the purposes of God to Jews and Gentiles. Paul is surely gifted by God for this unique task. When it comes to visitation, however, Paul needs to take a back seat to Barnabas, the “son of encouragement.” When Barnabas comes to visit the church, you can count on his empathy and relational gifts to kick in such that the church is uplifted.

To be clear, Paul can offer you the best grass but Barnabas leads you to water. Shared leadership assumes that each person has a particular talent and ability. Some may have more than others but everyone has something, as Jesus reminded us in the parable of the talents. Church leadership seems to function best when leaders step up in their area of strength but also concede leadership to others who act in their own strength area.

I participated in a church that valued plural leadership. They assumed this meant that all of the elders should take turns preaching. This misses the point. Some are just talented at preaching and others are more talented at visitation. To force someone to find water when they are really talented at finding grass is just painful – both for the one ‘in front’ and the ones following. Find your area of strength and step up. Find your area of weakness and step back. That will help the herd to flourish.

It is true, “You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” If you have the talent to lead horses (or cows or Christians for that matter) to water, then by all means – lead them to water.

Then, step back and look for the person who brought the salt block.