What Is a Pastor, part 2

by | Jul 30, 2018

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

–Isaiah 6:8

Last week I was so excited about the incoming group of new pastors, I made two big mistakes:  I spoke too loosely about the searches, and I committed to writing a follow-up column on the topic of pastoral leadership.

It’s ironic that I spoke so loosely, as I always go to great lengths to repeatedly teach, implore, and demand that pastor nominating committees take confidentiality extremely seriously.  So it’s a humbling moment for me to experience how things get out of hand when dealing with such important information as a pastor search.

The second is in committing to writing on this topic again.  I am so undisciplined a writer (as one can guess, looking back at the random variety of topics in this column) that it’s a week later, and I can’t remember what was so urgent that I felt the need to speak to this!  This also happens those very few occasions when I have to write a sermon several days in advance of preaching it.  By the time the worship service comes around, the sermon seems stale already, and I have a hard time connecting with the words.

But I don’t like to disappoint, so let me speak to my totally non-scientific perspectives on pastors.  I will structure the discussion by commenting on some common terms for pastors.  I start with the qualification that this is a fairly random set of thoughts, so if I have left something out, or you have questions or issue with my views, let me know.

  • Pastor:  This is the title that the Presbyterian Church uses for a teaching elder/minister of word and sacrament who serves a congregation.  On the one hand, it distinguishes a pastor from other ministries, such as hospital chaplain, professor, writer, non-profit leader, or service to the church outside the congregation (eg, mid-council or national staff).  But a pastoral function can sometimes focus on the caring ministry, which is critical for any congregational leader but may overlook other important functions such as teacher, administrator, change agent, or community leader.

By the way, the technical term for a solo or lead pastor in the PC(USA) is “Pastor” and other pastors on staff, including associates, are called “Other Pastor.”  There is no official designation for “Senior Pastor”—the lead pastor among a multi-pastor staff is more commonly called “Head of Staff.”  I think this acknowledges the administrative function but tries to represent parity between pastors in their sense of call.  You’ll notice below that the installation vows are exactly the same for pastor or associate pastor.

  • Preacher:  I happen to believe that the preaching function is very important in leading a congregation.  It seems to me that the PC(USA) has downplayed the preaching function in favor of critical factors like institutional dependability and credentials.  I hope it’s not because we’ve given up encouraging pastors to focus on preaching as perhaps the most important role they have in shaping and guiding the life of a congregation.  In seminary I heard of one theory that the preacher develops the shared memory of the congregation, and I definitely have seen congregations making significant changes based on one enlightening sermon.

On the other hand, preaching is not the only function of the pastor, and when pastors get in trouble with a congregation, it’s usually not from their preaching.  I joke that just about anyone can behave for one hour a week, so you usually don’t have problems with pastors in worship.  While preaching is very important, it cannot make up for other needs such as effective session leadership, leadership development, pastoral care, or modeling the integrity of Christian life.

  • Teacher:  When I first heard the term “Teaching Elder,” I really disliked it.  I personally feel more called to the sacramental role of “Minister of Word and Sacrament.”  But in my administrative function as presbytery executive, I have come to appreciate the way that the title “Teaching Elder” challenges pastors to teach and empower the church members to carry out the ministry of the church.  Too often I have seen how weak and dependent a church can become, especially with a long-term, “highly functioning” pastor, even to the point where the remaining session cannot remember how to lock up the building!

The pastor must remember to prioritize teaching, delegating, sharing decision-making, and other body-building approaches to ministry.  It is often harder to NOT do the task at hand, but to enable and encourage others, especially if others are not as well-trained to do it—or the pastor is the only one paid to tend to the church.  But the long-term health of a church requires faithful, informed, and active shared leadership.

  • Shepherd:  I personally resist this term, because the image that comes to my mind is that of a human shepherd in the role of tending to and controlling sheep.  Pastors are not some other species of being, totally separate and in charge of the congregation, and the Presbyterian view of church membership is exactly opposite of that of a flock of sheep.  A better biblical image is that Jesus Christ is the shepherd; pastors might be the “mother sheep” or educated sheep.  While the pastor’s membership is with the Presbytery, we are strong believers in the priesthood of all believers, so I think any image that denigrates the authority of church members is dangerous, even when it’s the church membership wanting to abdicate this authority.


  • Administrator:  Pastors, especially Presbyterian pastors, are required to spend significant time in administrative functions.  When I graduated from seminary, the main critique I gave was the lack of training in church administration, especially in the areas of finance, staff/volunteer management, and effective leadership of meetings and groups.  My seminary’s response was that they expect this to be learned in the internship.  But so many current pastors are equally ill-prepared to guide others in this function that they either ignore this in their internship supervision, or their lesson is “this is how I mess up.”  I believe that pastors who are intimidated by what they don’t understand in, say, a financial statement are apt to give it more weight out of fear, or they cannot manage financial matters within a gospel context.  To me, some critical issues of justice are lived out or missed in the areas of personnel management or finances.  Anyone can be holy in worship, but it takes a bit more effort to apply Kingdom principles to budgets and staff compensation, investment decisions, or even how a session meeting is facilitated.

These are the most common ways we view the pastoral function.  I have other thoughts, but again I’ve run out of space.  I hope to return to this topic again, perhaps next week or some other time.  But let me close with another excerpt from the Constitution, this time from the Directory for Worship, W-4.04, which are the vows given during an installation.  They are helpful for any pastoral relationship.

W-4.0404i(3) (For minister of the Word and Sacrament†)  Will you be a faithful minister of the Word and Sacrament†, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith and caring for people?  Will you be active in government and discipline, serving in the councils of the church; and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?

Following the affirmative answers to the questions asked of the person(s) being installed, a ruling elder shall face the congregation along with the (associate) pastor-elect and ask the congregation to answer the following questions:

  1. Do we, the members of the church, accept [name] as our (associate) pastor, chosen by God through the voice of this congregation to guide us in the way of Jesus Christ?
  2. Do we agree to pray for [her/him], to encourage [her/him], to respect [her/his] decisions, and to follow as [she/he] guides us, serving Jesus Christ, who alone is Head of the Church?
  3. Do we promise to pay [her/him] fairly and provide for [her/his] welfare as [she/he] works among us; to stand by [her/him] in trouble and share [her/his] joys?  Will we listen to the Word [she/he] preaches, welcome [her/his] pastoral care, and honor [her/his] authority as [she/he] seeks to honor and obey Jesus Christ our Lord?

May all our relationships as pastors and congregations honor and obey the One we serve, Jesus Christ our Lord.