Book Review: Healthy Plurality = Durable Church, by Dave Harvey
Harvey, Dave. Healthy Plurality = Durable Church. Sojourn Network, Louisville, Ky. 2018. 86 pages.
A few years ago, I met a pastor who had rejected the CEO model of church leadership. A scandal had rocked his church. It wasn’t his fault, but it was his picture on the front page of the local paper. Never wanting to experience that again, he quickly moved his church to elder leadership. But these men didn’t know what that meant. They didn’t know how to work together, and eventually the pastor started from scratch by planting a new church.
It’s not enough to have elders; the elder body needs to function well. Or, as Dave Harvey puts it repeatedly in Healthy Plurality = Durable Church: “The quality of your elder plurality determines the health of your church.” So true.
Harvey’s book is part of Sojourn Network’s “How-To” series. The Sojourn Network is a parachurch ministry that comes alongside pastors to help them “plant, grow, and multiply healthy churches” (81). A key factor in this mission is encouraging godly, functional elder bodies.
This book isn’t a biblical defense for plural eldership—though there’s a short appendix on the topic (65–67). Rather, it’s a practical guide to assessing and improving the quality of your elder body. Harvey writes:
Plurality matters. Plurality is like character, sooner or later character trumps skill and will determine the health and vitality of the church. So we’ll also learn not to assume the health of our unity, but to ask questions that will diagnose the strength and substance of our plurality (3).
I found his last chapter, “Process,” most helpful, perhaps because he addressed some issues with which my own elder body has had to wrestle.
For example, he encourages elders to pursue agreement on as much doctrine as possible: “The church is a theological entity and therefore theological men united by theological agreement must lead it” (48). Where we do disagree, Harvey exhorts us to do so in love (49).
Trust is also a key component of a healthy elder body. Harvey offers several questions elders can ask to discern the level of trust that currently exists. Loyalty and humility are necessary for trust to flourish. If an elder can’t be sure the other elders have his back, then he’ll never lean into them. Furthermore, if an elder is pugnacious, they’ll never want to serve with him. The diagnostic questions on pages 51 and 52 are excellent.
Throughout the book, Harvey drives home the point that elders, like any member of the body, need care from elders, too: “We can’t preach the principle that people should care through their local church pastors, then exempt ourselves from the same kind of care” (54). Pastors who outsource their care and elders who act as if they don’t need care are putting their souls and their churches at risk.
Harvey encourages us to ask if a particular elder is a good fit for a particular elder body. In my own experience, this has been one of the hardest factors to consider since it seems to lie outside the actual, biblical qualifications. But Harvey raises the good point that everybody is different, those differences aren’t necessarily bad, but they can wreck the culture of an elder body if ignored. Again, diagnostic questions on this topic serve the reader well (56).
A FEW QUESTIONS
I did have a couple questions as I read Healthy Plurality = Durable Church? For example, why didn’t Harvey talk more about the relationship between the elder body and the congregation? Based on the way he cites Louis Berkhof (9), I’m assuming it’s because Harvey advocates for ruling elders (where the elder body and not the congregation has the final say under Christ). Perhaps I’m sensitive to this is because our elder body has actually grown healthier as we have felt the weight of our accountability to the congregation.
Also, I was a little surprised to see how strongly Harvey advocates for the involvement of the lead pastor. I agreed with his “first among equals” argument (28) for a senior pastor, I’m just not as convinced the lead pastor must be the one “authorized to ensure the elders are receiving soul care” (33). At the church I serve the elder chair (currently a layman) leads out in encouraging prayer and accountability among the elders. But Harvey’s point is still well-taken: if the main, preaching pastor is not fully behind elder care, it probably won’t happen.
There are a lot of books that address the importance of having plural-elder leadership; fewer teach elder bodies how to work well. This fact coupled with Harvey’s experience, winsomeness, and wisdom make Healthy Plurality = Durable Church a welcome addition to the elder’s bookshelf.