Ministry titles abound in the church today.
Student Pastor. Children’s Pastor. Creative Environment Pastor (No idea). Senior Pastor and Worship Pastor are pretty standard fair on the leadership page of a church’s site. And what is also becoming standard is the willy-nilly way people use the word pastor.
I don’t think we should put Pastor on people just because they are on a church staff. A pastor isn’t someone who gets a paycheck from a church and is responsible for running events for certain age groups while holding a Bible.
Pastor = Elder
A pastor is an elder. An elder is a pastor. Same same.
We need to collate the unnecessary stacks between the titles of pastor and elder. They are one office, one title, that is expressed with three Greek words—more on that in a minute. Elders/pastors have one summary task, shepherding the flock of God.
In a lot of churches today, elders are typically the lay, non-paid, leaders that make big decisions in the church, oversee the budget, and act like an unglorified board of directors. They don’t function as shepherds, they may or may not meet the eldership qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1—they are savvy business leaders or big givers. This model is exported from the world, imported into the church, and should be banned in the body of Christ.
In this same model, pastors are the leaders who are paid by the church to do ministry, to shepherd, and report to the board of elders.
But in the New Testament, elders are pastors—and pastors are elders. Both Peter and Paul use the words related to pastor and elder interchangeably to refer to the same ministry. Peter uses these words in the same context of a single paragraph. It’s not a distant connection from the beginning of a letter to the end, or from one book of the Bible to another; we are talking about Peter swapping them in and out in the same breath.
Peter and Paul should shape our leadership practices more than any conference or guru.Click to Tweet
Peter in 1 Peter 5
Look at the way Peter uses the words elder and pastor/shepherd.
“1 I exhort the elders (Greek: presbuteros) among you as a fellow elder and witness to the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory about to be revealed: 2 Shepherd (Greek: poimaino—connected to the word ‘pastor’. See poimen in Ephesians 4:11) God’s flock among you, not overseeing (Greek: episkopos) out of compulsion but willingly, as God would have you; not out of greed for money but eagerly; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd (Greek: archipoimen) appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:1–4).
Peter, a fellow elder, tells the elders to pastor, to shepherd God’s church, and to oversee the body. Elders are pastors, shepherds, overseers. Pastoring is a description of an elder’s ministry. Pastors are elders.
These words aren’t a one-way street, where elders are pastors but pastors aren’t elders. In the New Testament, elder is actually the most common title used to describe pastoral ministry. But our culture favors the word pastor to describe pastoral ministry—which logically means that pastors are still meant to be in the office of overseer/elder (1 Timothy 3:1).
Paul in Acts 20
Paul knows he will never see the the elders of the Ephesian church again, so he has a message for them. First, he summons them.
“17 Now from Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and summoned the elders (Greek: presbuteros) of the church” (Acts 20:17).
He didn’t call the board of directors. He summoned, what we refer to today as the pastors. Paul tells the elders, overseers, to pastor.
“28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers (Greek: episkopos), to shepherd (Greek: poimaino—connected to the word ‘pastor’. See poimen in Ephesians 4:11) the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).”
Paul tells the Ephesians elders to pastor the church, oversee her, shepherd her. See what I’m seeing? Here in Acts 20, Paul uses the noun, overseers, while Peter uses the verb, overseeing. Like us today, we use the noun, Pastor, to while Paul and Peter use the verb, shepherd and shepherding.
Colin Smothers captured all of this wordplay in this snazzy chart:
The New Testament uses these words to describe the same office and responsibility in the local church. Elders ares pastors, shepherds, overseers. Pastors are elders, overseers, shepherds.
Thoughtful with the Titles
For example, if the Pastor for Counseling isn’t also an elder, then he shouldn’t be titled as a pastor. If the Worship Pastor doesn’t have the same responsibility, authority, and function as a part of the plurality of elders, then it’s a misuse of the word pastor.
There’s the ditch on the other side too. If elders don’t pastor, then they aren’t really elders. Elders pastor because they are pastors. And pastors are elders because they oversee and shepherd the flock of God.
At our church, we have three staff elders and two non-staff elders. Or, we can say that we have three staff pastors and two non-staff, lay pastors. Same same. The pastors aren’t the paid guys and the elders the non-paid guys. We have the same office and ministry.
So what titles should a church use? Elders and deacons are a good place to start. After that, it’s up to you and your context. But, so I don’t leave you hangin’, let’s use the Student ____ as a reference point.
Student Minister, or Minister to Students, is great. Student Ministry Leader doesn’t jump off the email signature, but it’s not bad. Student Ministry Director, or Director of Student Ministries, in some churches is probably right on the money. Maybe Student Ministry Deacon is the bullseye. Maybe not.
Whatever you do, be thoughtful and theological with the titles. Don’t go for what’s chic. Go for what’s ancient. Even these little tweaks on websites, job descriptions, email signatures, and business cards can communicate a solid ecclesiology. And that’s something we need more of in our day.