SHEPHERDS FOLLOWING THE SHEPHERD
Written by Doug Ponder on November 19, 2012
Well-rehearsed is our answer to the question, “What is the chief end of man?” (To glorify God and enjoy him forever.) But do we know with equal familiarity the answer to the question, “What is the chief role of pastors?”
Confusion in this area is widespread, affecting the people churches at every level, including the pastors themselves. And so we are left wondering, if most people don’t understand the role of their pastors, how can they support him? And if pastors themselves pastors don’t understand their calling, how can they fulfill it with any sense of purpose or direction?
What Pastors Are
If you search the Scriptures for guidance on this point, here’s what you would find. The words “pastor,” “elder,” and “overseer” are used in overlapping, interchangeable ways (Acts 20:17, 28). So why use three words to describe one role? Because each word highlights a different aspect of the pastoral calling. The word “elder” points out that pastors should be wise and mature in the faith (1 Tim. 3:6). The word “overseer” indicates that pastors have the responsibility “oversee” (supervise, manage) the spiritual life of the church (1 Peter 5:1).The word “pastor” itself actually means “shepherd.” It refers to the pastor as someone who leads a “flock” of people just as shepherds would lead a flock of sheep. Therefore pastors are to serve them humbly from a pure heart (1 Peter 5:2), not as those who lord their authority over others (1 Pet. 5:3), but as those who lead by service and by way of example in their life and conduct (1 Tim. 3:2).
Paul the apostle once summarized his instructions to the church by saying, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). This exhortation impacts how we understand the chief role of the pastor because it captures the very heart of Jesus’ essential call for us to follow him (Mark 8:34). Therefore, the fundamental responsibility of every pastor is to follow Jesus and to lead others into doing the same. For this reason Peter the apostle calls pastors “shepherds” who follow the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4). In other words, pastors are shepherds following The Shepherd.
What Pastors Are Not
All of this means that pastors are not, first and foremost, some kind of CEO in the church. Jesus, not the pastor, is the “Chief Executive Officer” of the church (Eph. 1:22). Therefore pastors are responsible to God for how they lead and shepherd those God has entrusted to their care (Acts 20:28). It is still God’s church, and pastors will have to answer to him for how they have treated his people (Heb. 13:17).
It also means that pastors are not, first and foremost, preachers. Of course, proclaiming the good news about Jesus is a necessary part of the pastoral calling (Titus 1:9), but it is not the foundation of the calling. Furthermore, pastors who see themselves as preachers first and shepherds second often hide behind their pulpits like snipers, shooting hard truths at people from a safe distance. By contrast, faithful pastors are men who lead the church by personally serving them. This always involves many hours of prayer, as well as difficult (but helpful) gospel counseling situations.
Implications for Everyone
Naturally, we should expect that pastors would have a genuine love for the people that they serve. They should serve eagerly and willingly (1 Peter 5:2), not out of love for money (1 Tim. 3:3) or a desire for personal promotion (Titus 1:7). Like Jesus, the Good Shepherd, pastors should be willing to give their lives to serving their people (John 10:11). This seems to suggest that pastors who switch churches every few years, always moving in the direction of more people and a larger paycheck, don’t know the first thing about having the heart of a shepherd.
If you are currently serving as a pastor, pray that God would humble you and strengthen you to serve like Jesus. Pray that his Spirit would help you see yourself as the Chief Servant-Leader in the church, not the Chief Executive Officer of the church. And if you have been tempted to abandon your congregation for “greener pastures,” repent of your desire for self-promotion and pray that God would give you a heart to joyfully serve the people he has entrusted to your care.
If you are someone who senses that God may be preparing you to be a pastor in the future, read 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-10, and 1 Peter 5:1-4, praying for patience as God makes these qualities increasingly apparent in your life. Also, seek out pastors in your church who will speak the truth in love, helping you to assess whether or not you possess the qualities and gifts that God says are needed for pastoral service.
Finally, even if you are someone who will never serve as a pastor, knowing these things is of great advantage to you. God says that you are called to support your pastors by following their leadership (Heb. 13:17), praying for them earnestly (1 Tim. 2:1-2), and working alongside them in gospel ministry (Eph. 4:11-12). After all, pastors are not more valuable than anyone else in the church. They merely occupy a different role on the same “team.” In this way, the church grows into maturity as we build each other up in the truth and love of Christ, the Chief Shepherd of us all (Eph. 4:15-16).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.