In 2021, a Barna study revealed that ‘U.S. pastors are currently in crisis and at risk of burnout’ with 65% self-diagnosing as ‘unhealthy’ spiritually, physically, emotionally, vocationally, and/or financially, i.e. only a third feel ‘healthy’. 38% are thinking of leaving the ministry altogether but 46%, almost half, of those under 45!1
What on earth is going wrong? Well, nothing new – soon after I entered the ministry in 1975, I was told that the average working lifespan of an Assembly of God pastor was just 5 years!
FIVE DECADES OF PERSPECTIVE
Over the last 48 years, I’ve worked closely with dozens of pastors and ministers, watching some rise to great heights, only to fall, destroying churches and disillusioning thousands. Two have broken many hearts by committing suicide, and I want to be part of the solution.
For the first 7 years, I was an interdenominational evangelist, working with a Messianic Jew, my good friend Marcus Ardern. We travelled the length and breadth of the country, working with every denomination, from the Salvation Army to the Dutch Reform and Charismatic Catholics, from the Pentecostal Assembly of God, Apostolic, and Elim churches to the anti-Pentecostal Brethren, as well as Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Methodists.
It was an amazing apprenticeship for me because we stayed with church leaders of all stripes and saw the inner workings, strengths and weaknesses of all these churches. I saw how in every church in every town, regardless of labels and reputations, there were wonderful godly leaders and people and, conversely, folk who didn’t know the Lord at all so we evangelised the churches as well as the streets, high schools, universities, training colleges, and polytechnics. As I came to know the Scriptures, I found that God has provided us with an amazing handbook of answers to virtually every problem and question we may have and I slowly became a teacher.
For the next 15 years, I was a teaching elder in a church I founded with some friends at the same time as raising a family and renovating several homes. This was an extraordinary time for me as our team could at last experiment and put into practice some new ideas of church. Our guiding principle was to set aside our personal denominational preferences and try to do whatever the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit within us confirmed we should do – we had open leadership forums so that we could hear everyone. It was an exhilarating experience for one and a half decades.
In 1997, our family went to Nepal for a three-month call to do pastoral work for missionaries with International Nepali Fellowship, followed by a year with YWAM in Colorado, training missionaries to work in the 10/40 Window. That ended disastrously and with broken hearts, we moved to Auckland where I began teaching systematic theology, hermeneutics, and apologetics at the New Covenant Bible College. In 2004 I became a Baptist pastor and loved a congregation for the next seven years.
Throughout these years, I’ve had close friendships with pastors and ministers of all kinds, attended pastors’ and ministers’ fraternal gatherings and conferences; for the last 12 years, I have devoted myself to teaching and writing, to hopefully pass on what I believe God has shown me both in the Scriptures and in experience. I have been, and always will be, committed to love, honour, and strengthen anyone in full-time ministry, and searching out Biblical answers because:
All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.2
Searching the Scriptures for answers on pastors burning out and/or quitting, however, we find a bizarre situation – ‘pastors’, the most popular name for church leaders, are only mentioned once in the New Testament! Why Paul doesn’t use it when he talks about setting up churches, as in his letters to Timothy and Titus? Did he just not understand how important that role is?
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘pastor’ in two parts:
minister in charge of church or congregation; person exercising spiritual guidance (from Latin pastorem – shepherd)
The second part, i.e. ‘person exercising spiritual guidance’, is beyond dispute, but the first part makes two points that anyone who cares about the Scriptures should consider:
(i) that a pastor is ‘in charge of a church or congregation’, i.e. the one who has the main role and responsibility in that church or congregation. N.B. it is implicitly singular – there is one pastor in charge
(ii) that he or she is a ‘minister’, i.e. in full-time paid employment to do this work
This is the accepted understanding in most churches today: the pastor is the one in charge of a church or congregation. The addition of adjectives as in ‘Associate Pastor’ or ‘Youth Pastor’ defines their relationship to the ‘Senior Pastor’ who remains the one in overall charge of the church.
However, if you have read Deacons, the first article in this series, you will have seen that the Word of God already has a better name, a more accurate label, to give to and describe anyone in full-time ministry, and that is the Greek word diakonos, sometimes translated as ‘deacon’ but better as ‘minister’ or ‘Christian worker’. Either of these two terms is much better applied to those we at present refer to as pastors and this will become much more apparent as we now consider the other and much more important part of the above definitions, i.e. that the pastor is the one in charge of a church or congregation. Since this is obviously a crucial role, the question is, is this how the Scriptures, the very Word of God, uses the word?
Let us do the same for this word as we did in studying ‘deacon’ – without applying any fixed meaning to ‘pastor’, let us with an open mind bring together ALL the verses in the Bible that use the word and see what meaning emerges.
NEW TESTAMENT REFERENCES TO PASTORS
And He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists and some pastors and teachers3
And that’s it. That’s the lot. The translation here quoted is the NASB, but ‘pastor’ is used only once in the KJV, RSV, NEB, NIV, TEV, and Amplified. Phillips translates ‘pastors and teachers’ as ‘some (to whom) He gave the power to guide and teach His people’, while the Living Bible gives us ‘others have a gift for caring for God’s people as a shepherd does his sheep, leading and teaching them in the ways of God’. These two translators obviously believe that ‘pastors and teachers’ refers to one and the same gifting but the question then must be asked of these two translations: How should we refer to these people? What name should we call them?
Returning to ‘pastor’, the startling fact is that there is only ONE verse in our English New Testaments that uses this word which is today so widely accepted and used both in the churches and in the English language to describe THE major role and responsibility for leadership in the church or congregation. Since we as Christians are supposed to believe that the Bible is the prime written source for us to discover the will of God and how He wants things to be, isn’t that a little surprising? After all, the word for ‘apostle’ is used 79 times, ‘prophet’ 144 times, ‘evangelist’ 3 times, and ‘teacher’ 59 times and yet ‘pastor’ mentioned ONCE is the major role and responsibility in the church or congregation.
And what meaning emerges from the context? Not much – just that pastors are one of the gifts of the ascended Jesus to His church, along with apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers. As seen above, some hold from this verse that pastors and teachers are one gift with two facets, since ‘teachers’ isn’t preceded by ‘some’ as the others in the list are. Let us leave this to consider later, concentrating for the moment just on the word ‘pastor’. The point remains that no definitive context is provided for the word; though the Philips and the LB provide their own, the Greek text doesn’t.
‘PASTOR’ SHOULD BE ‘SHEPHERD’
The Greek noun here translated as ‘pastor’ is ‘poimen’ and it is used in the N.T. another 17 times and every time it is translated as ‘shepherd’, which is its literal meaning. Of these, 9 are references to literal shepherds, or tenders of sheep, and 8 refer to Jesus as the spiritual Shepherd, the One who tends mankind.
Ephesians 4:11 obviously isn’t referring to literal shepherds, and it refers to people other than Jesus, so we can safely conclude, along with the Philips and LB, that Jesus as the spiritual Shepherd has given as shepherds some especially equipped people to tend the flock of God. However, given that they are mentioned so fleetingly, we need to consider if they are more commonly called by another name and if they are the same as teachers.
OLD TESTAMENT USAGE OF PASTOR
The term ‘pastor’ only appears in the King James Version – every other English translations of the O.T. don’t use it at all because it’s simply inaccurate. Instead, they use the word ‘shepherd’ (Hebrew ra’ah) 88 times, and in four quite distinct ways:
(i) 34 times it refers to literal shepherds and their work of tending, feeding and leading sheep
(ii) 8 times refer to God’s tending of His flock, the nation of Israel
(iii) 37 times it is used metaphorically of leaders of Israel, 1 of leaders of Assyria, 1 of Cyrus of Persia, and 1 of death; a total of 40 times referring to leaders
(iv) 6 times are prophecies regarding Messiah.
So ‘shepherd’ was a common O.T. concept and used freely to describe the vocation of tending sheep, the nature of God and Messiah in tending people, appointed human leaders, and death as a personification.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE OLD AND THE NEW
In contrasting this O.T. usage with the N.T., we see a strange phenomenon: in the New, no one except God and Christ is ever ACTUALLY NAMED as a shepherd of the flock of God. This clearly suggests a change in emphasis in the term ‘shepherd’ from the Old to the New Covenant, and since the whole concept of leadership is radically altered from the Old to the New, that is no surprise:
“I will effect a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah… not like the covenant I made with their fathers on the day when I… [led] them out of the land of Egypt… They shall not teach every one his fellow-citizen and every one his brother saying ‘Know the LORD’ for all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest of them”4
So the difference in covenants is specifically revealed in the different kind of leadership. Under the Old Covenant, the Father shepherded His people only through the greatest of them, His appointed human leadership such as prophets, priests, judges, and kings:
Moses said, “The LORD God shall raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brethren; to him you shall give heed in everything he says to you. And it shall be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people” 5
And the man who acts presumptuously by not listening to the priest who stands there to serve the LORD your God, nor to the judge, that man shall die; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel6
He also chose David His servant (to be king of Israel) and took him from the sheepfolds; from the care of the ewes with suckling lambs He brought him, to shepherd Jacob His people, and Israel His inheritance7
These servants of God, as the shepherds, all needed to have a personal, first-hand relationship with Him to lead the people as the Father would have it. However under the New Covenant, Jesus the Son picks up all of these roles: He is ‘the prophet like Moses’, ‘the great high priest’, ‘the judge of the living and the dead’ and ‘the king of kings, lord of lords’. So we see Old Testament leadership all pointed to Jesus Himself.
JESUS IS CALLED ‘THE SHEPHERD’
Hebrews 13:20 tells us He is ‘the great Shepherd of the sheep’ who has been raised from the dead, so He can and does tend His own flock personally and constantly. Ezekiel prophesied of this time:
“I (the Lord) will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd”.8
And again:”And My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd; and they will walk in My ordinances, and keep My statutes, and observe them… and David My servant shall be their prince forever.” 9
When Ezekiel was prophesying, David was long dead. This obviously referred to ‘great David’s greater Son’ through whose death and resurrection David’s fallen tabernacle was to be rebuilt and restored.10 This Servant is the one shepherd who will Himself feed the flock of God, who also will enable His people to walk in the ways of God forever. As Jesus said:
“I am the good shepherd and I know My own and My own know Me… My sheep hear My voice, and I know them and they follow Me”11
Notice how it is now to be the sheep rather than only the leaders who are to hear the Lord? His shepherding is now to be direct rather than indirect and His role as shepherd is prophesied as being unique: “I will set over them ONE shepherd” and “they will all have ONE shepherd”. Accordingly, in the New Testament no-one else is ever named as a shepherd.
However, while no-one is specifically named AS a shepherd (Greek noun, poimen) Jesus does call some TO shepherd (Greek verb, poimenai), to augment His ministry as shepherd. If any can be called ‘shepherd’, these surely are the only N.T. contenders for the name or label, although if the Holy Spirit and the writers of the New Testament usually avoided calling them such and instead used other names, so I believe should we. So who were they, and how were they labelled?
SOME CALLED ‘TO SHEPHERD’
There are several very clear calls to shepherd, the first being to Peter. Having already been called along with Andrew, James and John to leave his work as a fisherman to become a ‘fisher of men’ to bring them into the kingdom of God,12 Peter was later specifically called to ‘shepherd My sheep’, to help them remain in the kingdom.13 He obviously saw this calling as not being unique for he later called on others:
Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight… and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory 14
To whom was he writing? The previous verses:
Therefore I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder… shepherd the flock among you, exercising oversight.15
So Peter saw (and wrote by inspiration since the whole Bible is inspired) that shepherding is specifically the work of elders, writing to them as an elder himself, that they should do the same work that he was doing, and exhorting them to exercise oversight. It could be said that by referring to Jesus as the Chief Shepherd he was calling the elders lesser shepherds, but what is beyond argument is that he was calling elders to do the work of shepherds. This obviously means that to properly understand what a pastor is, we need to understand more clearly what an elder is, as explained in the next study.
The third very clear call to shepherd is via Paul:
“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God… (for) savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock”16
The instruction was to act as shepherds in the strongest way by guarding the flock against ‘savage wolves’. And to whom was Paul speaking? The elders of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:2). He also said in the clearest terms “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church…” So Paul had insight identical to Peter’s as to the work of the Holy Spirit in setting up churches, namely that elders are to do the work of shepherds and that they are also ‘overseers’. He plainly saw elders as not just a natural phenomenon of human families but as specifically commissioned by the Holy Spirit, or in other words, as part of God’s personal and direct structuring of the church. Since these are the only commands to anyone to act as a shepherd, we see that shepherds were usually called ‘elders’.
SHEPHERD AND OVERSEER
In the above passages, Peter told elders not only to shepherd but also to ‘exercise oversight’ and Paul told elders that the Holy Spirit had made them ‘overseers, to shepherd the church’ so it is obvious that the terms ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ refer to the same people and that those so called are to shepherd. This in turn is consistent with 1 Peter 2:25 where Jesus is referred to as ‘the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls”‘ so let’s look at ‘overseer’ for further light.
The Greek word is ‘episkopos’ from which we have derived the English words ‘bishop’ (via Latin) and ‘episcopal’ meaning ‘of bishops’ the Episcopal Church being the church governed by bishops. ‘Episkopos’ (epi – over, skopeo – to look or watch) simply means someone who watches over others and so is translated as ‘overseer’ in most recent translations rather than by the old term ‘bishop’ which has accumulated a meaning of its own, far different from the meaning of the Scriptures. Because of this the term ‘bishop’ is unhelpful in communicating the truth of Scripture and present-day translators avoid it. It seems to me a shame that they don’t avoid the word ‘pastor’ for the same reason.
However, in coming to the term ‘overseer’ we are at last coming to well-defined ground Scripturally. Besides their work being clearly spelled out, there are several passages that describe who those people are that are to be called overseers: 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. So at last we have some definitive direction from the Bible on pastors/elders/overseers regarding what they are to do and what kind of people they are to be! We can then begin identifying what has been going wrong for so many pastors today.
BIBLICAL DESCRIPTION OF AN OVERSEER
Paul wrote in great detail to Timothy:
It is a trustworthy statement; if any man aspires to the office of an overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?); and not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.17
He also spelled this out to Titus:
For this reason I left you in Crete, that you might set in order what remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, namely, if any man be above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self- willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.18
These are clear and straight-forward but we have applied them to the wrong people! Maybe now we should individually take a new look at these passages and revise our thinking accordingly.
THE REASONS FOR PAUL’S INSTRUCTION
When Paul wrote the passage to Timothy he added:
I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long, but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God19
He had left Timothy behind in Ephesus to continue shaping the church Paul had begun, to set in place the structures that would provide the best environment for the new believers. So he told Timothy how to recognise and encourage those whom the Holy Spirit was leading into leadership of the infant church, i.e. ‘the elders and the deacons’ (Phil 1:1), and to put into place some safe-guards against that leadership turning back to carnality and/or abusing their position.
In writing to Titus, he obviously had seen that the emerging leadership was not yet mature enough to be appointed as elders, in accordance with his teaching that an elder is not to be ‘a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil’.20 As a result, he had left Titus behind for some time to eventually ‘set in order what remains’ by appointing elders.
We’ll look at this in more depth later, but let’s summarise our points so far.
SUMMARY OF PASTOR/BISHOP/ELDER/OVERSEER/SHEPHERD
(i) The terms ‘pastor’ and ‘bishop’ have accumulated unbiblical, barnacle-like meanings and so are counter-productive to understanding both the Scriptures and how the church should be led, so we should identify and use better terms
(ii) The concept of pastor as being distinct from elders is erroneous as the Scriptures make no such distinction
(iii) Only elders are called to shepherd and thereby they are the only contenders for the label of ‘pastor/shepherd’ as given by Ephesians 4:11. In light of the apparent reluctance of the Scriptures to use this term as the usual, we too should be reluctant
(iv) If in using the term ‘pastor’ we are trying to describe the person in full-time ministry, we would be better to use the terms ‘minister’ or ‘Christian worker’. If an elder is in full-time ministry, he can be referred to as both minister and elder (1 Tim 5:17-18)
(v) Elders are also referred to in the Scriptures as ‘overseers’, or what used to be called ‘bishops’. ‘Overseer’ is the better term for ‘bishop’ and is already well established in Bible translation
(vi) In summary then, instead of three separate callings of pastor, bishop and elder, all three are rolled into one. That is elder. He is an overseer and with at least one or two others, he is to shepherd.
See other topics in this series:
Pt 1 Deacons