Four things pastors are not called to do

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.

Vision Casting

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.

Strategic Thinking

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.

Notes

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.

5 comments

  1. I take your point — it has been overdone, but I would see vision casting and strategic thinking as aspects of the leadership function of a pastor/elder. And I would say that leadership is a core activity of a pastor, not only for the titles used (overseer, elder and pastor all imply leadership of one kind or another) but also because the other ability (other than teaching) listed in 1 Tim 3, is of managing his own household so he can manage God’s household. I might be wrong, but I think that indicates a kind of leadership. Not trying to pick holes by the way.

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  2. Thanks for your comment.

    I think it’s important to recognise two points:

    1. I was talking about things specific to the pastor, rather than the wider eldership. So if those things are inherent to the concept of leadership altogether, there is no sense in scripture that the pastor is particularly charged with vision or strategic thinking whereas the other elders are not. Such things would be the preserve of the eldership rather than residing solely with the pastor.

    But, most importantly…

    2. Nowhere did I argue pastors and elders are not leaders, rather I suggested scripture nowhere demands strategy and vision as essential criteria for those who are to lead the church (which is not the same thing). I suspect many are guilty of imposing an essentially secular, Western, business-based concept of leadership that is foreign to the concept as it pertains to the church. Short of simply stating strategic thinking and vision are essential parts of leadership (which if you’ll forgive me for saying so, it appears you have done), I see no support for demanding them as essential from elders or pastors within a church.

    I would refer you to Peter Jensen’s helpful article, linked to in the notes, which makes the point that God has already given the strategy and means. As such, the faithful leader of the church is the one who steers the church according to God’s pre-existing and stated vision and strategy, rather than one who creates new and novel approaches.

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  3. Incidentally, I should have said before, I appreciate you weren’t trying to pick holes (and didn’t take it that you were!) Interaction and discussion is why we blog – so I wasn’t being disingenuous when I say thank you for commenting – I really appreciate thoughtful comment (whether or not we agree).

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  4. Yeah that’s fair enough. And certainly agree we have to avoid important business (or political) models without careful adaptation to the ecclesial/cultural context! And yes, I probably wouldn’t say they should be seen as necessarily essential for the lead elder of the church (depending on the context, i.e. church of 500 operates very differently to a church of 50). I’m just hesitating with 1 Tim 5:17. In the NET Bible it goes, “Elders who provide effective leadership must be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching.” So, it’s not just the one(s) who teaches well who is set aside, but also the one(s) who leads well. I’ll give that Jensen article a read. Anyway, thanks again!

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  5. I think we agree on the central point – strategic thinking and vision casting, though they may be useful assets and valuable skills, are not essential or required of church leaders. They may be even more valuable and helpful in a church of 500 too but, I’d still press not essential.

    I just want to pick up on the verse you pointed to in your last reply. Not trying to denigrate the heart of what you’re saying at all, but I think the verse might have been misapplied in our discussion.

    You mention 5:17 and say “it’s not just the one(s) who teaches well who is set aside, but also the one(s) who leads well.” I think you missed what I was saying. This verse says all elders who lead well are worthy of double honour. This is not a reference to any setting aside (how does this apply to lay elders, for example, who specifically haven’t been set aside at all?) Paul goes on to say, further to those who lead well, “especially those who labour in teaching and preaching”. The point being, within the eldership, there are those specifically set aside to focus on the word on top of doing all those other things all elders are called to do. The inference of setting aside isn’t in the mention of double honour, it is in the distinction that Paul lays down within the eldership on preaching and teaching. So, whether we want to make an argument that all elders are set aside for leading the church or not (which might hold), I don’t think that’s Paul’s meaning here. He is specifically offering a differentiation within the eldership itself between the ones doing all the things elders must do and those who are doing those things but have been specifically appointed to preach and teach (usually the pastor).

    Even if we concede the point that all elders are set aside – and I guess one could make that argument but I’m not convinced that is Paul’s meaning in 5:17 – that still does nothing to imply strategic thinking or vision casting. At best, you might infer all elders are set aside to lead the church but then we come back to the point you made in your first reply (which, as I said, I’m not convinced holds) that leadership necessarily entails those skills. Helpful as those skills may be, I just don’t see the biblical warrant for demanding them from prospective (or serving) elders/pastors. It’s akin to strong administration skills – really great if you’ve got it but clearly not essential according to scripture.

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