Add To Favorites

“Pastor” is a leadership title

| by Bud Brown

Pastors, by and large, do an excellent job of everything except their most important duty – leading. Our research bears this out. Most churches want a chaplain who will care for the people and maintain the status quo rather than a leader to guide them to effective ministry in the community. And most pastors, especially those with very high interests in providing care, are perfectly happy filling that role. The sad fact is a pastor can fulfill every other God-given responsibility of the office, and do them well, yet the church will remain on its downward trajectory. 

Apart from firm leadership by America’s pastors, America’s churches will not move off their plateaus or reverse their decline. 

I'd like to walk through an evaluation of the historical and biblical data concerning the pastor's role in the church. The destination is an inescapable conclusion: Jesusintends pastors to lead. It isn’t the pastor's whole of responsibility, but it is a mission critical component for any church that wants to revitalize and return to the place of effective evangelistic ministry in its community.

If we are to see revitalization sweep across our churches in North America, we must restore the pastoral role to its proper place. In order to do that, we must zero in on what the term "shepherd" meant when the New Testament passages about church leadership were written.

Brief history lesson

The pastor’s job description has changed significantly throughout Church history. Tradition, theological innovation, developing culture, and the emotional system of the local church have recast the modern pastoral office. Christianity began as a Jerusalem-based sect within first century Judaism. It soon became a cosmopolitan faith that transcended cultural, linguistic and racial barriers. As it spread, it became increasingly complex. By the second century elements of sacerdotalism were being smuggled into the pastoral office, and by the fourth century the office had evolved into a priesthood. The singular office had been split into four: bishops, elders, deacons, and priests.

By the Early Middle Ages duties grew to include “pastoral care.” Only pastors could teach scripture, lead prayer, care for the sick, and officiate life events. The Reformers added preaching and teaching to the priest’s duties. The British Calvinists eliminated the sacerdotal aspects from the parish ministry, but preserved the duties of pastoral care. Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor(1656) set the standard of pastoral theology for that era.  

The Great Awakenings of the 18th century made revival and evangelism chief among the pastor’s duties. The 19th and 20th centuries saw additional duties placed on the pastor; this included the rise of professionalism, growth of the therapeutic culture, and “leadership” as an academic subject. 

Today, pastors are expected to excel in many areas and must possess a vast array of skills. The list of duties continues to grow - endlessly! - such that today the job is unrecognizable in the pages of the New Testament.

Back to the basics

The New Testament uses four interchangeable words to identify the church’s spiritual leaders: “Elder” (Acts 15:6, 1 Timothy 5:17, James 5:14, 1 Peter 5:1-4); “Overseer” (Acts 20:28, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:2-5, Titus 1:7); “Shepherd” (Ephesians 4:11 cf. Acts 20:28-31 ); “Teacher” (Ephesians 4:11). The terms are interchangeable and all refer to one and the same role. We see this in Peter’s admonition that his “fellow elders” must “shepherd” (verb form) and “exercise oversight” (1 Peter 5:1-2, the verb form of “overseer”). When Paul summoned elders (Acts 20:17), calling them overseers (Acts 20:28), he told them to “shepherd” the church, which he referred to as “the flock” (28, 29). 

Shepherd kings in the Ancient Near East

“Shepherd” is an ancient leadership term that had already been in widespread use for more than two thousand years by the time it appeared in the New Testament. Across the Ancient Near East (ANE), it was a common term for gods and kings. Throughout history, it has borne two broad, often overlapping meanings: authority and care. The ancient kings of Mesopotamia use shepherd terminology as a metaphor for their sovereign authority. Lugi-zaggissi (ca. 2500 B.C.) described himself as being “born for shepherding.”[i] Shushin (ca. 2030 B.C.)  was “the  king  whom  the  god  Enlil,  in his  heart,  has  elected  to  be  the  shepherd  of  the  country  and  of  the  four  corners  of  the world.”[ii] Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) called himself a shepherd.[iii] The Old Testament carries the term’s rich history into the historical and prophetic books. 

David, Israel's Shepherd

David, the shepherd, was Israel’s anointed king (1 Samuel 16:11). He was “a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the Lord is with him” (1 Samuel 16:18). When Israel united in one kingdom, the shepherd motif solemnized their covenant with David (2 Samuel 5:1-3).

You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel." So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.

The prophets used the shepherd motif to castigate kings, princes, and governing officials (e.g., Jeremiah 2:8, 3:15, 10:21, 12:10-12, Zechariah 11:1-4). The promise that God would re-gather Israel and re-establish the Davidic kingdom draws upon this ancient metaphor (Ezekiel 34:23-24).

And I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. 

Many of the prophetic passages that use the shepherd king motif were promises about the Messiah. Some of these prophecies referred to his identity, some to his service, and many concern the nature of his kingdom. The tight prophetic link between the "shepherd" as a leadership title and the messianic kingdom become gloriously clear in Jesus Christ.

The next article will survey the ways in which the term “shepherd” was used to describe the Lord's relationship with Israel, and Jesus's relationship with his Church. 

[i] Carlo Zaccagnini, “Sacred  and  Human  Components  in  Ancient  Near  Eastern  Law.”  History  of Religions 33  (1994): 265-286.), 271. Young  Sam  Chae, "Mission of Compassion: Jesus as the Eschatological Davidic Shepherd in Matthew’s Gospel.” Ph.D. Diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2007., 27.

[ii] Zaccagnini, 271.

[iii] Davis, John J. The Perfect Shepherd; Studies in the 23 Psalm: Baker Book House; Grand Rapids Michigan, 1979. Pg.51


Bud Brown

An experienced ministry leader, writer and educator, Bud Brown is co-founder of Turnaround Pastors and co-author of the ground-breaking Pastor Unique: Becoming A Turnaround Leader. He is a change leader in many venues — small rural, upscale suburban and mega-sized churches. He brings special expertise to change leadership in the local church, mentoring pastors to become revitalization leaders, training churches how to find and recruit the best talent, and training leadership teams how to achieve their shared goals. Bud also trains pastors in conferences, workshops and coaching sessions. 

Learn More »

Don't miss any of this great content! Sign up for our twice-weekly emails:

We love because [God] first loved us.
1 John 4:19 (ESV)
Mark Lenz
Mark J. Lenz is a pastor with a masters degree in Organizational Leadership. He is ...
Mike Bonem

Mike Bonem is an author, consultant, speaker, church leader, businessperson, husband and father. He loves ...