Snow blew across our windshield as bumper-to-bumper traffic crawled along a highway in northern Illinois. As my wife, our nine-month-old son, and I traveled around the southern end of Lake Michigan, the blizzard added to our growing sense of isolation. Fresh out of seminary, I was driving my family to our first pastoral district. Moving was nothing new to us as this was the seventh time in our four years of marriage, but this move was different. For the first time, we felt truly on our own.
Before I started seminary, an older minister encouraged me to appreciate this learning time while it lasted. Rarely do pastors have the opportunity to work with and live so closely to others who share their unique call. Seldom are pastors’ spouses able to form such close relationships with those who can empathize with and support them. The friendships forged at seminary are a unique blessing.
As we drove through the snowstorm, I realized that time had passed. We were leaving our friends behind and setting out on a new life. Though excited to begin this journey, I grappled with a sense of loss and comforted myself with the thought that leaving close friends behind is part of ministry.
But should it be?
The biblical ideal
Though Scripture and history are not without examples of God working through individuals, we too easily confuse the isolated gospel worker as God’s ideal. The Bible does not present ministry as a calling best accomplished alone.
While recently singing with my two-year-old son, I was struck by the familiar words of the song “Dare to Be a Daniel.” The phrase “dare to stand alone” conveys the message that taking a stand for God is a decision for loneliness. While God guarantees His presence always (Matt. 28:20), even when we are alone, we should not mistake solitude for His ideal. God gave Daniel the strength to stand alone among the lions (Dan. 6), but we cannot overlook the important role his friends played upon first arriving in Babylon (Dan. 1–3). Solomon’s wisdom must have been particularly meaningful to the young Hebrew exiles: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Eccles. 4:9–12, ESV).
Perhaps Jesus had this passage in mind when He sent out the Twelve, and later the Seventy, in groups of two (Matt 10:1–4; Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1). Certainly there were significant, culturally relevant, and legal reasons for this arrangement as Mosaic law required two witnesses to verify the validity of any testimony (Deut. 19:15; Num. 35:30; John 8:17). But the use of the method by the apostles does not seem limited to these reasons only (Acts 3:1; 15:36–40). The apostles continued the two-by-two method Jesus prescribed, even though, in many cases, they were ministering to people whom adherence to the Mosaic law would not have been a requirement.
It appears, instead, that two-by-two ministry comprises the ideal. As far as the apostles were able, they maintained this method. Why, then, is two by two mostly overlooked in current ministry practice?
Ellen White’s conviction
Ellen White identifies several practical benefits of the two-by-two model. Remarking on Jesus’ sending the Seventy out, she wrote, “None were sent forth alone, but brother was associated with brother, friend with friend. . . . It was the Saviour’s purpose that the messengers of the gospel should be associated in this way. In our own time evangelistic work would be far more successful if this example were more closely followed.”1
She specifically applied and endorsed the two-by-two model to ministers of the gospel,2 speakers,3 medical workers,4 canvassers,5 missionaries,6 those who work in cities,7 and those who work in the country.8 She wrote, “God never designed that, as a rule, His servants should go out singly to labor.”9
She saw many practical benefits of the two-by-two model, particularly noting that those who work side by side “might have a molding influence upon each other,”10 encourage one another,11 correct each other when in error,12 and help make one another a “successful soul winner.”13
She noted the dangers of solitary ministry, including the tendency to “think that [our own] way is above criticism,”14 and elsewhere she warned that no “one man’s ideas, one man’s plans, are to have a controlling power in carrying forward the work.”15
Finally, she warned, “ ‘There is little that any of you can do alone. Two or more are better than one if you will each esteem the other better than yourself.’ ”16
Considering the biblical ideal and its support by Ellen White, I want to suggest three specific practical benefits the twoby-two model would bring to ministry.
One benefit is increased effectiveness. A Jewish proverb says, “A friendless man is like the left hand bereft of the right.” Two people working together can accomplish more than the combined total of their individual efforts. This may have been what Solomon had in mind when he said, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil” (Eccles. 4:9, ESV).
If Jesus had sent His disciples out alone, they could have covered twice as much ground in the same amount of time. But the increased effectiveness of synergy meant enough to Jesus to offset the decreased efficiency. Simply put, Jesus chose effectiveness over efficiency.Why don’t we?
Ellen White was so passionate about the increased effectiveness brought by two-by-two ministry that she responded to the complaint that working in twos would mean covering less ground by retorting, “Then occupy less territory.”17
A second benefit is accountability. Jesus knew that He was sending His disciples out as “ ‘sheep among wolves’ ” (Matt. 10:16, NIV). The mission would be dangerous, and He wanted them to be protected from evil. As surely as Jesus Himself was met by the devil with temptation, His disciples would also face Satan’s unceasing efforts to derail them. While we ought to place our focus on the greatness of God rather than on the devil, it would be foolish to ignore God’s instruction
on how best to protect ourselves from a continually disrupting enemy.
Pastors are not immune to temptations that can destroy their ministries. The isolated minister, gifted yet burdened with an irregular schedule and accessibility into many people’s lives, is shockingly vulnerable. What better way to combat the slippery slope that leads into such pitfalls as adultery, heresy, spiritual pride, or discouragement than to have a trusted friend by your side who can warn, rebuke, or help you get back on your feet?
A third benefit is the potential spiritual and mental growth that working closely with a friend makes possible. Educational theorists refer to the phenomenon of “dialogic learning,” which argues that human beings are far more likely to place their ideas and experiences into long-term memory when they talk about them with others.18 As Jesus’ disciples walked between towns, they likely passed the time in conversation, discussing the mission or reflecting on a recent miracle. By the simple practice of regular and interactive reflection, they transferred these experiences into their long-term memories.
Our own experiences and perspectives limit us all. When we share our ideas and thoughts, this sharpens our own thoughts and that of others. If a pastor were able to reflect with another pastor as they served in a common setting, they would be far more likely to process the events of the day in a way that would enable them to be more effective workers for God.
Time for a change?
The two-by-two model of ministry makes sense for several reasons, including increased effectiveness, accountability, and personal growth. So why is this the exception to the rule? Is a critical component of Christ’s instruction being largely overlooked and undervalued? Does solitary ministry reflect careful biblical exegesis or is it more a reflection of a culture that values individuality over relationships? Or efficiency over effectiveness? Or individual productivity over collective success?
Though some team-based ministry takes place (e.g., visiting members with an elder, pastor-mentoring initiatives, large multipastor churches, etc.), these most often fall significantly short of the two-by-two model of ministry Jesus employed with His first disciples. As Ellen White asserted, Christ’s ideal was that ministry should be done brother “with brother, friend with friend.”19 A relationship of equality, friendship, and comfort is implied, and this may be the reason Matthew shows Jesus paring His disciples as such (Matt. 10:2–4).
In spite of biblical examples (including the model of ministry employed by Jesus Himself), strong counsel from Ellen White, and the obvious practical benefits of the two-by-two model, the gospel ministry in Adventism today remains predominantly a solitary profession. Considering all this, we find it puzzling why the two-by-two model of ministry is not more widely practiced. Is it time for a change?
If synergy is a probable reality in the two-by-two model, could two pastors not serve a district of four churches more effectively than two pastors serving four churches in two separate districts? A “Yes” answer recognizes that this is not a cost issue but an ideological one. Western culture celebrates the individual more than it does the accomplishments of a team. Ideology can be dealt with by recognizing and intentionally suppressing the mental model that supports it, while experimenting with a new approach—pastoral teams of two serving combined districts.
Moving toward a two-by-two model would take humility, self-sacrifice, and, of course, some reorganization. Would the potential gains be worth it? Maybe the question should be rephrased like this: Is following Christ’s example ever not worth it?
1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 350.
2 White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), 104.
3 Ibid., 73, 74.
4 Ibid., 520.
5 White, Reflecting Christ (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1985), 253.
6 White, Medical Ministry (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1963), 300.
8 White, Evangelism, 51, 52.
9 Ibid., 73.
11 Ibid., 74.
14 Ibid., 73.
15 White, Life Sketches of Elen G. White (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1943), 302.
16 Ibid., 303.
17 White, Evangelism, 74.
18 See, e.g., R. Flecha, Sharing Words: Theory and Practice of Dialogic Learning (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000).
19 White, The Desire of Ages, 350.