A personal story – one that has the happy fortune of also being true! – illuminates why pastors and churches find it hard to answer this question. The sad reality is although the answer is clear in the Bible, no one likes what they find there.

I didn’t see the ambush for myself. I got wind of it over the grapevine.

I knew this would be a tough church when I accepted the assignment. It had been in decline for decades. The facilities were a tired, shabby architectural oddity. The departing pastor left under a cloud of bewildered discouragement. The worship music teetered between uninspiring and amateurish. There had been no baptisms or conversions in years.

And many of the members thought everything was just dandy.

In retrospect it became clear that their idea of a turnaround amounted to polishing the doorknobs, spraying the weeds around the parking lot, and waiting for the community to stream in to help keep the doors open.

Had I known then what I know now, my change leadership style would have been very different. But, as the old Yiddish proverb goes, “too soon old, too late smart.” Fortunately, managed to cut the agitators from the rest of the heard, avoid the ambush and press on.

That church was my introduction to the art of managing resistance while leading change. It was painful. It was humbling. It was maddening. It the learning experience of a lifetime. I learned three lessons that have shaped my ministry ever since.

  1. Churches don’t want their pastors to lead; they want them to manage.
  2. Leadership isn’t a recipe, a checklist or a series of steps; it is a mindset.
  3. Churches don’t want to change; they want the status quo to keep working.

It is my conviction that problems in leadership and change are at the heart of the crisis in the American Church. They aren’t the only factors. But they are, humanly speaking, in our control that can guides us out of the crisis.

In this post I’d like to begin consideration of the historical and biblical data that lead to an inescapable conclusion: God intends pastors to lead.

“Pastor” is a strong leadership term

What’ you’re about to read may be new to you. As you read, be aware of your preference for convention or innovation. If you tend more toward the traditional, the conventional, and need order and consistency, don’t reject what follows just because it’s new to you. If you prefer novelty or tradition, read with discernment. Don’t accept what you read just because it’s new.

The History of Pastoral Ministry

The pastor’s job has developed and evolved throughout Church history. Faithful practitioners and thoughtful scholars have, in some places, preserved the essential aspects of pastoral theology. But tradition[1], errant theology, culture and other factors have, in other places, recast the office in ways that rendered it barely recognizable as biblical. The following discussion will focus on the departures from biblical doctrine that still affect how pastors, churches and members view pastoral ministry.

Christianity, which began as a Jerusalem-based sect within Judaism, became a cosmopolitan faith that transcended cultural, linguistic and racial barriers. As it spread, it became increasingly complex. By the second century sacerdotalism entered the Church. By the fourth century pastors became priests who were channels of God’s saving grace. The pastoral office was segmented into three ““ bishops, elders and deacons ““ a radical departure from the New Testament.[2]

By the Early Middle Ages[3] celibacy was required of the priests, and their duties grew to include “pastoral care.” They alone could teach scripture, lead prayer, care for the sick, and officiate life events like weddings and funerals.

The Protestant Reformation further complicated the pastor’s job by adding preaching and teaching to the parish priest’s role.[4] John Calvin, who “never rose above the magisterial state-church he inherited from Romanism” [5] developed a complex, difficult-to-manage description of the pastor’s ministry that created inordinate demands upon those who held the office.[6] The pastor’s burden became a source of such concern that it was addressed in the Second Helvetic Confession.[7] British Calvinism eliminated the sacerdotal aspects of the parish minister’s job, but preserved the duties of pastoral care. Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor (1656) set the standard of pastoral theology for that era. Hunter summarizes it for us.[8]

The leader “served as every person’s evangelist, catechist, teacher, overseer, counselor, disciplinarian, liturgist, and preacher (Sunday morning and evening); he took it on himself to minister to all sick people and to visit from house to house.”

With the further passage of time additional accretions weigh down the office. The Great Awakenings, especially Finney’s utilitarianism, made revival and evangelism as chief among the pastor’s duties.[9] Moving through the 19th and 20th centuries, the pastor’s ministry acquired still further responsibilities. Each new addition is a snapshot of the Church’s response to (what were then) developments in the contemporary culture. The dawn of professionalism in America, the rise of therapeutic culture, the shepherding movement, and the development of leadership as a field of academic study, professional training and vocation ““ to name a few ““ all shaped pastoral ministry.

Pastors today are expected to be CEOs pushing for bigger market share, visionaries capable of generating passion in the pews and action in the aisles, social media mavens with long coat tails, edgy hipster storytellers, savvy missiologists, compelling content producers that satisfy the consumer’s impulse, and “¦ well, you get the idea. Like government programs, the pastor’s list of essential duties keeps growing. New things are added but nothing is ever taken away. The modern pastor faces inordinate and unreasonable demands when they try to sort out their God-given responsibilities. Morris states the problem succinctly.[10]

The greatest difficulty facing pastoral leadership is defining the role. Is the pastor to be a prophet, teacher, resource person, enabler, religious expert, preacher, counselor, therapist, CEO, facilitator leader, equipper, administrator, shepherd, social activist or, all of the above?

Today’s pastor faces an “all things to all people” but “no one’s ever satisfied” potpourri of a job description. Although their title is a biblical term, today’s shepherd scarcely resembles the simple office described in the Bible.

What does God intend for pastors?

He intends for them to LEAD.

In my next post we’ll explore the shepherd motif in ANE and Old Testament literature. I think you’ll be surprised by what you’ll learn!


1: Stitzinger notes that the Church, early in its history, viewed tradition as an authoritative transmission of doctrine and practice that was in concordance with divine revelation. James F. Stitzinger, “Pastoral Ministry in History” The Master’s Seminary Journal 6 2 (Fall 1995), 144, n. 3.

2: Stitzinger, 151.

3: Roughly the 5th to the 11th centuries.

4: The Roman Catholic Church did not view priests as trained for or capable of these duties.

5: Stitzinger, 166. In Calvin’s defense we note that he rejected the RCC’s view that the priesthood was sacred and that by virtue of episcopal ordination the priest received the power to confer grace through the administration of the sacraments. Although Calvin saw that pastoral ministry was crucial for the welfare of the saints on earth (particularly through preaching and teaching the scriptures), he held that other vocations were equally useful God’s service. Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care in the Emerging Reformed Church 1536-1609. Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2013), 70-72.

6: Mentsch, 256.

7: Robert E. Van Voorst, Van Voorst, Robert E. “Reforming Our Pastoral Ministry: An Essay on Role Conflict in the Ministerial Office.” Reformed Review 46 (Spring 1993): 189-203, 190. Cited in Snodgrass, 26.

9: George Hunter III, Radical Outreach, 105-6.

10: Linus J. Morris, The High Impact Church, 264.