What is a Pastor?

[Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of five articles on each of the five ministries given by Christ after his ascension.]

Since the Day of Pentecost, the Lord Jesus is, in essence, “diversifying himself” among the Body of Christ, the Church, by calling, enabling, and equipping men and women to go forth in his stead and function as he did. As the Son of God who perfectly walked out the calling God set before him, Jesus was the Apostle, the Prophet, the Evangelist, the Pastor, the Teacher. A study of his life and ministry helps us define those ministries, as does a look at those in the book of Acts and the Church Epistles who functioned as such under his direction.

Those saints are now asleep in Christ, and today the Lord is calling many other Christians around the world to rise up and allow him to mentor them as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. It is our hope that these articles will serve at least two purposes. The first is to inspire you to consider prayerfully whether you may be called in one of these functions, and if so, to pursue that calling. The second is to educate you, albeit not exhaustively in this short space, as to how these ministries function and what they are to provide for the Body of Christ. The more we can be in contact with people who are genuinely functioning in these ministries, the more our lives will be benefited. Each article is written by one or more people who have been recognized by a considerable segment of the Church as functioning in that particular capacity.]

First of all, “pastor” is never used in Scripture as a title. Rather, it is a function or a role of service to the Church. The pastor (Gr. poimen) is a “shepherd,” which one Greek lexicon defines as the one “in control” of the sheep. [1] This would seem to emphasize the idea of the pastor as leader and overseer. Peter, however, distinguishes between “shepherd” and “flock” by declaring that the elder should be “an example” to the flock of what a true disciple of Christ ought to be (1 Pet. 5:2 and 3). The elder, then, is more like “a guide,” himself mindful of the coming of the “Chief Shepherd” to whom he or she is accountable. The 23rd Psalm gives a beautiful picture of God in the role of pastor, while Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34 are rather scathing critiques of false shepherds who were not caring for God’s people. Juxtaposing these positive and negative records gives us a sense of what true shepherding of God’s people involves:

1. Genuinely caring for the welfare of others, and not using them as a means to one’s own ends.

2. Strengthening the weak, chiefly by empowering them to solve their own problems by looking to the Lord first and also opening their hearts to others in the Body of Christ; not fostering an unhealthy dependence on other humans.

3. Healing the sick and injured of all types—emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

4. Actively searching for the spiritually lost, bringing the strays back into the fold for their own protection and blessing.

5. Leading with gentleness and patience by example and persuasion, not by flaunting one’s position or by coercion.

6. Unifying “the sheep” around a common vision of a meaningful life of service to others under God’s faithfulness and bountiful provision (i.e., building faith in the “Great Shepherd”).

These characteristics place the pastor in a unique position of leadership among the elders, not by function but by a specific, heartfelt concern for the quality of relationships. The pastor, for instance, would remind the apostle, evangelist, teacher, or prophet to consider the importance of cultivating and maintaining healthy relationships and not just dispensing information, accomplishing goals, delegating authority, or dispensing moral judgment.

I believe that this pastoral heart of concern for relationship is affirmed by Jesus at the inauguration of his ministry as the “good shepherd” in Luke 4:18 and following. First, this ministry to people is made possible by the spirit of God upon him. This implies that without the spirit, no genuine proclamation or deliverance will happen. Pastoral care in the Christian context requires the caregiver to be one led by God’s spirit. Potential care inspired by the spirit should be seen as a continuum, ranging from active listening and a non-directive approach on one end to a confrontational and interventional approach on the other. What will determine which way of being to choose will not be found within the pastor as much as within the needs of both the individuals involved and the community of which they are a part.

This is the way of being that Jesus modeled, and later the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 9:10 and following, et al), who was “all things to all men.” In other words, the mature pastor will adapt his or her way of being to the needs of the other, and not minister from personal judgments and preconceptions, habits, personal comfort, or personality style. This flexibility comes only through clear self-awareness, the result of much “soul work,” or soul searching. In biblical terms, this could also be termed the process of “sanctification.” Without such personal reflection and evaluation of motives, the pastor will be vulnerable to seeing the person cared for as a way to bolster his or her own ego, or as a waste of his time. He could also be susceptible to trying to control a person to prevent the congregation from becoming uncomfortable with someone whose problems cannot be swept under the rug.

A scripturally faithful view of the pastor and pastoral ministry requires that we recognize their relationship to the other “equipping ministries.” Too often, “pastor” is uncritically assumed to be the default title for the leader or overseer of a faith community, and popular terminology has solidified this assumption. But this does not give adequate consideration for the similarities and differences of function between the pastoral and the other ministries. When this happens, much is lost of the integrity of the pastoral ministry as such, as well as the clarity of its relation to the other functions that ought to be operating in a healthy faith community. A review of the history of the Christian Church shows the collegial relationship of leaders as an “eldership,” which functioned more like a body of elders than a hierarchy with one leader over the others, and we believe this should be the ultimate goal of each local faith community. The “one man show” view of church leadership developed considerably later in response to the rise of “heresies” and through the establishment of the position of one monarchal bishop who ruled over a region. [2]

Following this apostolic pattern, at any given time “the leader” of a faith community may be a pastor, an apostle, a prophet, a teacher, or an evangelist. This would depend upon the particular character and calling of the community. Elevating the authority of the pastor diminishes the effect of all the varied ministries that are to be at work in the Body: apostle, prophet, teacher, and evangelist, administrations, governments, mercy-givers, etc. Which is more important? The prophet who exhorts and challenges? The teacher who grounds and expounds the Scripture? The apostle who builds leaders and plants new churches? The evangelist who matures the Christian believer to the point of reproduction? All are as important as the various organs of the human body (1 Cor. 12:14).

Arguably, at least some of those who come for pastoral care would not have the problems they have if they were a part of a community with a mission and had a vision of the impact they could make. But this “maturity to mission” might be accomplished most effectively by a prophet or an evangelist. It is a mistake to think that the role of the pastor is to generate all these components of healthy community. This is the function of “every member doing its part” (Eph. 4:16b), including the pastor. Thus, the pastor both facilitates, and operates within, a community in which pastoral care is the work of all the members of the community. I see the pastor’s function as exercising his authority to empower the congregation to act for themselves, rather than assuming the power to act for them. Perhaps one way to view the pastoral role is that it provides a caring context for all of the ministries to function in love, and to ensure that the outcome of all programs, activities, teachings, outreaches, committees, and functions is greater connectivity and community among the parts.

This calling to facilitate the growth of others for the work of ministry is clearly articulated as the purpose of all the “equipping ministries” as described in the following verses:

Ephesians 4:12 and 13 (NRSV)
(12) to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
(13) until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Thus, the pastor’s function is one of five ways that Christ provides for building disciples up to maturity to continue his work. As Christians, we are called to be faithful disciples of Christ in the world and also to “make disciples,” that is, help others to become disciplined followers of Christ, in response to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19. This gives the Christian pastor an agenda that secular caregivers do not have, which is both a limitation and an opportunity. The Christian pastoral caregiver cannot be morally neutral and affirm all sincere choices as being in accordance with God’s Word. Rather, he ought gently to remind those Christians who come to him of the benefits of obedience to their heavenly Father. The pastor can be thought of as a caretaker of the moral life of the people, which is vital to the preservation of the very notion of Christian pastoral care.

The kind of faith community one ministers in is also a limiting factor. A totally non-directive approach would not be appropriate for faith communities with definite expectations for biblical behavior and a common doctrinal platform for what is held to be Christian ethical behavior. Yet members of such communities, who already have a sense of appropriate and ethical behavior but who need support to actualize it, might find great comfort in being heard and having companionship in the midst of struggles. One whose conscience is seared may need to be confronted, and even asked to leave the fellowship for a time.

As protectors of the sheep, pastors must be willing to enter into the cosmic conflict between good and evil, and alert people to the assaults of the Evil One. As Jesus’ first work was to cast a demon out of a person shortly after announcing his ministry in Luke 4, so the pastor must be willing to enter into spiritual warfare. But instead of focusing only on the Devil and his minions, the pastor concentrates on building up the believers in Christ so they will be strong to resist the Devil on their own.

Concern for demonic oppression must be balanced with a recognition that much of what hinders and limits the saints is their sin nature and not direct demonic influence. When Jesus called for “freedom for the prisoners,” he was identifying the spiritual enemy that imprisons souls, and in John 8:34 he identified sin as a tyrant. Pastoral concern should be for liberating all from this tyranny. Though the postmodern world will object to the idea of “sin” as an antiquated one, the Christian caregiver must never take his or her sight too far off this spiritual malaise that continues to tyrannize humankind but helps the meek see their need for a Savior. But sin must be viewed through the tempering lens of the Gospel of Christ, and the righteousness that he has given his people through grace.

Faith communities have often been the haven for the psychologically disturbed, even when they are taught “right doctrine.” Believing the truth doctrinally does not translate into a concern for “truth in the inward parts” (Ps. 51:6), and can even be used as a shield against truth-telling. I see a great need for integrating biblical truth with insights from the psychotherapeutic community, in particular those of M. Scott Peck. His People of the Lie holds particular promise as a groundbreaking book on healing human evil. Peck wisely noted that evil must be identified in order to be properly countered and overcome with good. As long as evil is misdiagnosed as something less, it will continue to create victims. The pastor, as a good shepherd, is supposed to protect the sheep from wolves.

We recommend the works of Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend for their biblically sound approach to healthy relationships, including the concepts of boundary setting, safe people, and toxic beliefs that hinder spiritual growth. One of their recent books, How People Grow, is an excellent work that details the growth process as occurring within a community and with a lot of support from other growing people. A pastor should be working to create a healthy environment in which people are safe to express their weak areas and find help to overcome them and heal any woundedness that is driving self-destructive behaviors.

In conclusion, Jesus’ proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor” is the context in which pastoral care is given in this administration of God’s grace. Because the Gospel is a universal message to all humankind, and the acceptance of the sinner complete and total in the promise of Christ, the pastor is to represent complete and total acceptance of the personhood of those to whom he or she ministers. This acceptance does not mean condoning unhealthy behaviors or compromising moral standards. It simply means that God’s loving ways are followed, in particular how He has accepted sinners on the basis of their faith in Christ, not their repentance from their sins. The Christian pastor operates in the hope that loving acceptance empowers people with the courage to face their needs, be healed, change, and grow to be all that they are called to be by the God who loves them and gave His only Son for them.


Adams, Jay E., Competent to Counsel, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1970.
Cloud, Henry, and Townsend, John, Boundaries, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992.
How People Grow, 2002 Gerkin, Charles V., An Introduction to Pastoral Care, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1997.
Kornfeld, Margaret, Cultivating Wholeness, Continuum Press, NY 2001.
Moessner, Jeanne S., ed., Through the Eyes of Women, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1996.
Neuger, Christie C. and Poling, James N., eds., The Care of Men, Abingdon Press, Nashville 1997.
Peck, M. Scott, People of the Lie, Simon and Shuster, NY, 1983.


[1] A herdsman, esp. a shepherd 1a) in the parable, he to whose care and control others have committed themselves, and whose precepts they follow 2) metaphor 2a) the presiding officer, manager, director, of any assembly: so of Christ the Head of the Church 2a1) of the overseers of the Christian assemblies 2a2) of kings and princes. From Greek lexicon, BibleWorks software program.
[2] Church historian Justo Gonzalez says: The New Testament would seem to indicate that the organization of local churches varied from place to place, and that for a certain time the titles [actually, functions] of “Bishop” and “elder” were interchangeable. There are also some historians who are inclined to believe that some churches—Rome included—were not led by a single bishop, but rather by a group of leaders who were called either “bishops” or “presbyters.” The Story of Christianity, Vol. I, (Harper, San Francisco, 1984), p. 97.

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1 comment

  1. God bless you…

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