Being a pastor is an interesting job. Suggestions abound as to what the job actually entails and agreement upon those things is not common. Most pastors I know have, at some time or other, been asked to account for what they do all week (usually not in the so-I-can-help-ease-your-burden kind of way). Very often, church members can grow dissatisfied because they have a set view about the role of the pastor and expect him to meet all their unstated expectations.
Rather than offer a definitive job description of the pastor/elder (if you want that, you can buy this excellent little book from 9Marks), I want to highlight one thing the pastor is called to do and four things that church members often presume pastors should do which aren’t anywhere stated in scripture.
So, to be clear from the outset, there is one indisputable thing the pastor is called to do that is specific to their role: preaching and teaching of the word.
In the lists of eldership qualifications in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, the only ability listed is teaching. Paul specifically states this criteria is so the elder can “give instruction in sound doctrine and… rebuke those who contradict it”. This is the one thing that sets elders apart from deacons and is the only criteria not commanded of every believer somewhere else in scripture (1). Everyone who is an elder is required to be able to preach the word and adequately teach their people.
If 1 Timothy 5:17 is anything to go by, there is a sense in which one (or more) of the elders may be specifically set aside primarily to teach and preach. If all the elders must have teaching ability prior to becoming an elder, it follows that this setting aside is not simply a product of being called into eldership. Rather, this seems to recognise that one (or, in some cases, more) of the elders – who are all able to teach and preach already – will be specifically set aside to take on the bulk of the preaching/teaching ministry in the church. This is the primary role given to the pastor who has been set aside for the church.
So, with that said, here are four things commonly assumed to belong to the pastor alone which are simply not found in scripture.
Jesus was pretty clear about the mission of the church in Matthew 28. To all intents and purposes, the making of disciples requires evangelistic effort to reach the lost with the gospel and faithfulness in the teaching of the word of God to grow believers into spiritually mature disciples. In other words, God has already set the vision. If our vision deviates from the one already laid out by Christ – something we can only determine from faithful preaching of the word – then something has gone awry.
It may be that, within God’s wider strategy, we have a vision for how we will work within our particular context (2). There is a rightness to this but it is important to recognise that nowhere does scripture lay down such visionary insight as a criteria for eldership nor as a differentiating feature between eldership and pastorate. This can only lead us to one, or both, of two possible conclusions: (1) God has set both the vision and the means of working out his vision and it is only by faithful exposition of scripture (which has been given for elders to do) that members will buy into it; or, (2) vision casting simply isn’t as important to eldership and pastoral ministry as many of us might like to think.
Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with working out strategies for evangelism, growth or any number of things. Sometimes strategies are immensely valuable and it seems clear enough that the apostle Paul had a strategic approach to church planting. Strategies can be good, helpful and effective. But it’s important that we recognise they are not essential.
I have the joy of pastoring a church which has a significant ministry to Iranians. I mean no disrespect to any of my predecessors when I say this has largely happened with very little strategy in place (myself included). As far as I can tell, the Lord has simply brought our Iranian friends in and has continued bringing them in. Sure, once we had a few, we began thinking about how we might best care for them and meet their needs but such thoughts have typically been reactive rather than strategically planned for any bigger purpose other than addressing that specific issue. Yet the Lord has continued to bring in more. And isn’t that the point, God is simply bigger than our strategies and plans.
Nowhere is strategic thinker listed in scripture as an essential criteria for eldership and nor are pastors set apart from the wider eldership based on their intuition for solid strategies. It would seem the tenor of scripture – indeed, the entire storyline from Genesis to Revelation – screams that God is sovereign and will work how he wills regardless of whatever plans we may set in place. He is far more concerned with the character of elders and pastors because that is a sign that He is working in them. The reason strategic thinker is not listed as a criteria is because a full church building is not a sign our strategy is working but that God himself happens to be.
Changing the hearts of the flock
Elders and pastors are called to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3) and to “preach the word” so as to “reprove, rebuke and exhort” (2 Timothy 4:2). Yet with all this exemplary behaviour, reproving, rebuking, correcting, exhorting and encouraging pastors are not commanded to change the hearts of their flock. Many will ask “how do you get X to do Y?” or “A isn’t getting involved with B. What are you, pastor, going to do about it?” The answer is to exemplify, exhort and encourage them to do those things, reproving and rebuking if and when necessary. The pastor is not called to do the work that only the Holy Spirit can do.
Paul is clear enough in Galatians 5:16-25 that the Spirit will lead us away from sin and towards the fruit listed. Indeed, Jesus said to his disciples – in response to their question about how they will know who belongs to him – “you will recognise them by their fruits”. It is not the pastor nor the elders who achieve such things but the Spirit of God at work within the regenerate.
Burnout for Jesus
I’m not quite sure when the concept of burning out for Jesus took hold but it seems to be a particularly pernicious perversion of Paul’s call – to all believers at that – “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God”. I’m entirely unclear at what point burnout in the work of the church, and the slew of believers it leaves behind, became equated to that which is God-glorifying. For the avoidance of any doubt: it isn’t!
Many see the folly of the position for the average church member. What sense is there in taking on so much for a time that, whilst much activity might take place in the short-term, it all inevitably crashes down when the work is unsustainable and the unfortunate soul lumbered with all the work is so exhausted they end up out of action for years. Piling that sort of pressure on one person is now widely recognised as unwise. All, that is, except for when dealing with pastors.
For sure, pastors are often their own worst enemies on this one. But many members are (quite legitimately) quick to protect their time whilst (less legitimately) continuing to place more and more demands on the pastor because – despite their own inability to do it – still want someone to make their new venture happen. But pastors are set aside primarily for the preaching and teaching of the word, not to act as church packhorse. They are not called to make sure every ministry suggestion – no matter how practicable or feasible – gets off the ground and continues to run. Not only is it dangerous to load up any one individual this way, it may just end up taking your pastor away from the one thing that scripture explicitly demands they do.
- D.A. Carson has stated here that all the criteria apply to all believers with this one particular exception. Elsewhere he states “The biblical lists of qualifications for elders (e.g., 1 Tim 3:1–7) are mostly made up of virtues and attributes that are elsewhere demanded of all Christians. The one exception is that he be able to teach.”
- Peter Jensen has made a similar argument here, explaining that God has already set the strategy and we, within the bounds God has set, can consider appropriate tactics by which we carry out the strategy set by God through the specific means God has given us to do it.