Friday, January 19, 2024

Go Pastor

 A week or two ago, I had a conversation about something I had been thinking about for a while, but hadn’t had much of an opportunity to articulate. It had to do with the church title “Pastor,” and how people in and out of the church think about it. 

     The person I was talking to told me about a former pastor he had known at a megachurch who the vast majority of the church only saw on “stage” at weekend services. He waited backstage until it was time for him to come out and speak. He had a security team that helped get him in and out of the building. It didn’t sound, from this person’s perspective at least, that this pastor would have visited someone who was in the hospital, or attended a funeral in their family, our counsel them. There were other pastors who filled these roles.

     Of course, those pastors weren’t the ones who were well-known, who wrote books and headlined conferences and were live-streamed to thousands each week. It got me thinking about what it means to be a pastor, and about how young pastors learn about leading a church. If every pastor you see is a gifted communicator who is hustled to and from speaking engagements by a posse to rival a rockstar’s road crew, guess what you assume being a pastor is?

     Aspiring pastors have plenty of examples of the pastor as a “celebrity,” at least in church circles. Fewer have good examples to follow of the pastor who visits the sick, comforts the grieving, celebrates marriages, and helps people mark the big events of their lives and make sense of the sorrow and struggle. 

     You see it in the titles for pastors that proliferate in churches. Senior and Associate Pastors have been around for a long time now — mostly, but not always, to differentiate between the Person Who Preaches on Sunday and the Other Pastors. There have been Youth Pastors for decades. But now there are Teaching Pastors. Executive Pastors, in charge of a church’s day-to-day operations. Lead Pastors. Campus Pastors, for multi-site churches. There’s one church I ran across in a quick Google search advertising for a “Go Pastor,” who is apparently responsible for “developing and implementing” their strategy for helping people “find and follow Jesus.” (Coincidentally, “Go, Pastor,” is also what a church says when they’re sick of  you.) There are Worship Pastors and Discipleship Pastors, Pastors of Ministries and Pastors of Recovery, even something called a NextGen Pastor at a church called, I kid you not, Cool Church. 

     I know, I know; I sound like a Grouchy Old Man™ shaking a crooked finger around and ranting about “kids today.” Please understand, I have zero problem with any of those titles. (Well, maybe “Go Pastor” is just a tad too cute?) In my faith heritage, “minister”is what we generally call paid church staff, making us all sound like UK politicians. But we have plenty of Youth Ministers, Senior Ministers, College Ministers, Executive Ministers, and Worship Ministers. We’ve generally not used “pastor” for those roles because we say that biblically, pastors are elders — but that’s a little bit of an oversimplification. Elders, in the Bible, are usually envisioned as doing many of the roles that today we offload onto our hired staff “ministers.” I don’t think we’re as opposed to the idea of pastors as much as we are to the use of the term by other Christian groups. 

     These days, I’m an elder and a minister, so I figure I actually can use the title “pastor” if I want to. Still, I tend to cringe a little inwardly if someone calls me “Pastor Patrick.” 

     Thing is, no one in the Bible invented those titles for church leaders. They came from existing cultural leadership roles that were just adapted for churches. They were doing what we do; trying to define what leadership looks like in the church.

     Elder is an English translation of a Greek word that just means “a person of advanced age.” It’s also used in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures for a word that denotes the same thing. The Old Testament is full of references to “elders” who sit in city gates where they can be located quickly to judge disputes. Elders were tribal leaders who were recognized and admired for their wisdom. 

     In Titus 1, Paul encourages Titus to appoint elders for the church “in every town” on Crete. He says that those who are so appointed are to be “blameless” — character seems to have been the main qualification, as seen largely in their family lives, interpersonal relationships, and reputation outside the church. They should also be well-acquainted with the “trustworthy message” of the gospel so that they can teach it and refute those who teach against it. 

     In 1 Timothy 3, Paul uses a different term, “overseer,” for what seems to be the same role, with the same character requirements. Again, it’s a term that Paul borrows from the culture for a supervisor. The word, episkopos (“Episcopal” comes from it), was used for centuries before Christianity for Greek city officials. Through Latin, the word came down in English as bishop, which through a couple thousand years of evolution in usage has all sorts of added connotations. In the New Testament, though, it implies a responsibility as much as an office, burden instead of privilege. The word is used for Jesus in 1 Peter 2:25, which may explain why Paul tells Timothy that whoever wants to be an overseer in the church “desires a noble task.”

     Our word “pastor” comes from the Latin translation of the Greek for “shepherd.” “Shepherd” isn’t a uniquely Christian way of referring to a leader, either. In the Ancient Near East, kings were thought of as “shepherds,” as well as priests and other religious officials. In Ezekiel 34, God says through the prophet that when the human “shepherds” of his people can’t be trusted, God himself will shepherd them. 

     Jesus, of course, referred to himself as the “Good Shepherd.” So it’s a natural enough term to apply to leaders of churches. In 1 Peter 5, Peter applies all three of these terms to the same group of people in the space of two verses, instructing the “elders” to “be shepherds (pastors) of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them (episkopos)….” He reminds these shepherds that the “Chief Shepherd” will appear one day  to reward them for their service in caring for his flock. 

     And it is his flock. Whatever terms we use for leaders in the church, whether we take them right out of the pages of the Bible or adapt them from our own culture — or a little of both — we must get over the cultural idea that leadership is about privilege and position. In the church, leadership is about service, as we looked at in last week’s post. It’s about responsibility. It’s about caring and nurturing and protecting the people God has entrusted us with. Church leaders don’t need to always be charismatic, but they must always have character. They must be counted on to do what’s right and what will help the church to flourish. 

     The church has felt the need for paid staff, and that’s not a bad thing — though paid staff shouldn’t do everything. Sometimes we feel the need to differentiate by job title specific roles that need to be filled, and that’s fine too. As long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that what church leaders do is not to enrich or promote themselves. Leadership shouldn't keep us at arm's length from people and their needs. It’s a sacred trust given by God to care for his people. It’s a “noble task,” but not one to be taken lightly. 

     Some say that there’s a major crisis brewing in the church — that fewer and fewer younger people aspire to be pastors or church leaders. If so, maybe that’s because we’re looking for people whose leadership qualifications look more like CEOs. People who can be CEOs will probably prefer to be. 

     But CEOs aren’t necessarily qualified to care for God’s people. 

     May God raise us up good shepherds, overseers, and elders. And may we recognize them when he does.

1 comment: