For a movement that has been rigorously scriptural, it’s odd that the assemblies, in general, have chosen to avoid the use of the word “pastor” (and its linguistic equivalent “shepherd”) when speaking of our leaders. The word “elder” —the one who presides—is used almost exclusively. Certainly we need leaders to ensure the orderly functioning of the assembly, but while administration is important, so is shepherding the flock.
Some suggest that “pastor” and “elder” (along with “bishop” which is used the least, if ever) are interchangeable terms for people fulfilling the role of leadership in an assembly. Certainly, these are all words which apply to those in leadership, but each of the words lends a different emphasis. “Bishop” emphasizes the overseeing aspect of leadership, “elder” speaks of the spiritual maturity and social status of one who presides, while “pastor” draws us back to the image of the church as the flock of God.
It reminds those in leadership that their role must include gently feeding and humbly tending those in their care, as well as presiding and overseeing.
A while ago, I went to the funeral of a much loved saint. The elder who presided is one who manages to balance his leadership roles brilliantly. Yet as he spoke, I remembered complaints that I had heard about him—that he was nosey, that he pried into people’s affairs, that he meddled, and the like. Ironically, it was in his pastoral work that these criticisms arose. I couldn’t help but wonder that if the assembly had embraced the word “pastor”, in its true biblical sense, and applied it to him whether people would have understood that God expected him to know about and be involved in the personal lives of the people He had given to him to shepherd.
Words express concepts and, without the words, sometimes the concepts are lost. Because we in the assemblies avoid the use of the word “pastor”, we run the danger of losing the concept of the leader as shepherd. As I travel around, I observe that the stronger assemblies are those that have pastoral leaders (admittedly, whether or not they use the word “pastor”). Of course, you don’t have to use the word if you feel you have good reasons not to, but you lose the concept of shepherding associated with it to the peril of the sheep.
I believe it is fair to say that many of the Lord’s people in assemblies do not know what it means to be pastored. Consequently, they don’t know how to relate to one who has a pastoral heart. They confuse his interest with nosiness, his guidance with meddling, and his authority with arrogance.
Moving forward, it will be necessary both to educate the pastors on the care of sheep and to teach the sheep about how to respond to shepherds.
Acknowledging the Pastors
In the assemblies I know, one doesn’t have to look far to find those who are adept at keeping things done decently and in order, but pastors—leaders who can help those whose lives are sometimes indecent and disorderly—are harder to spot. While I’m not advocating a wholesale switch from referring to assembly leaders as “elders” to “pastors,” it would not threaten our identity to acknowledge those with pastoral gifts so that those who need them can find them readily. In fact, I would suggest that mere acknowledgement is not enough. The pastors in our midst should be recognized as such whether or not they serve as overseers.
In our effort to avoid anything that looks like hierarchy, we sometimes want each of our leaders to be involved in all of the tasks of leadership. This draws those with pastoral gifts away from their care for the flock by requiring them to sit in on meetings which those with more administrative gifts could easily handle without them.
At the same time, it sometimes means that elders with no pastoral gifts to speak of find themselves awkwardly “doing visits” which are often unproductive and, sometimes, unappreciated. Let’s set the pastors in our midst free to exercise their gifts and calling while the other elders exercise their administrative gifts.
Whether or not you have someone (or more than one) recognized as “pastor” in your assembly is not as important as the fact that you have someone (or more than one) functioning as “pastor” in your assembly. I have no hesitation in saying that our assemblies need more pastors.