What is a Pastor?

In my last two blog articles, I asked the question, “Where have all the pastors gone?” I have asked this question from a Namibian context and perspective. Moral failure, personal discouragement, financial problems and the like contribute to a number of pastors leaving the pastoral ministry in Namibia.

There is another matter to which I wish to direct our attention now, and this concerns the lack of understanding in our community concerning the nature of the work and calling of a biblical pastor.

So, what is a pastor, and what sort of work does a pastor do? These two questions deal with the pastor’s essential being and doing.

In our community, the expectations of the person and work of the pastor have more in common with the job description of a CEO or an events coordinator. The church, correspondingly, is then also thought of mainly as a business or a cultural club—or, worse still, a place of entertainment, where the activities are carefully rehearsed and choreographed for maximum impact and the “wow factor” that would draw an audience.

Namibian churches have, for some time now, been under the influence of such leadership models, imported mainly from the USA. Regular leadership seminars focusing essentially on church growth methods are run by local organisations, which represent Bill Hybels from the Willow Creek Association, T. D. Jakes, the late Myles Munroe, and John Maxwell. Yet the fact remains that the church in Namibia is simply not truly getting under the skin of our people. At present, too many pastors have no true sense of “calling” into ministry. It has become a mere job. The emphasis consequently has shifted to managerial technique, pragmatic strategies, technological expertise, and many other pragmatic methodologies for building churches. The necessity of pastoring and loving people deeply and passionately even at great personal cost has been lost and resultantly many contemporary church members feel used rather than cared for.

Some time ago, I was asked to help to moderate in a leadership crisis of another church in our city, and in asking some critical questions, I learned that the church council saw the church as a club, and acted accordingly in seeking to resolve its leadership struggles. A biblical leader has a considerably different framework of reference to a leader of a club!

A number of years ago, a pastor in our city committed suicide. As the shockwaves swept through the community, it was time to take stock of what had happened. The chief focus of the church that he served was the organising of an annual fundraising event of note, which then would sustain the church financially for the year. Much time and energy was required of the pastor to manage this event. In thinking about this, I was wondering how much time this dear man would have had to feed his own soul and the souls of the congregation. How frustrating to know that you are called to be a pastor, only to have your job description changed into something that you were never called to be and do.

A Pastor’s Calling

So, what is a pastor called to be and to do?

The word “pastor” means shepherd. A shepherd looks after sheep, and so a pastor-shepherd looks after people. One of my favourite little books on this subject is entitled The Work of the Pastor, written by William Still, who pastored a church in Gilcomston, Scotland for 52 years. He provides us with a succinct description of what a pastor is and does. In the opening chapter he writes,

Before we look at the work of the pastor we must look at the pastor himself. The pastor by definition is a shepherd, the under-shepherd of the flock of God. His primary task is to feed the flock by leading them to green pastures. He also has to care for them when they are sick or hurt, and seek them when they go astray. The importance of the pastor depends on the value of the sheep. Pursue the pastoral metaphor a little further: Israel’s sheep were reared, fed, tended, retrieved, healed and restored—for sacrifice on the altar of God. This end of all pastoral work must never be forgotten—that its ultimate aim is to lead God’s people to offer themselves up to Him in total devotion of worship and service. Many who are called pastors, having lost the end in view, or never having seen it, become pedlars of various sorts of wares, gulling the people and leading them into their own power. And when they fail to gather a clientele for their own brand of merchandise they uptail and away, for they are not really interested in the flock of God; they were using them only as a means of their own aggrandisement, to boost their ego and indulge their desire for power.

The fundamental responsibility of the pastor is to make sure that the church is well fed on the Word of God. The goal of this feeding is that the members should respond to the Word of God by offering themselves up in heartfelt worship to God.

It is the Word of God, preached with the help of the Holy Spirit, that produces real change in the souls of men and women. This presupposes that a pastor needs to be in touch with the God of the Word. The Scottish preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813–1843) said, “It is not great talents that God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.” A vibrant pastor knows the living God and knows the Word of God. He who knows how to feed on the Word of God by prayer can effectively feed others. There are obviously a number of ways to nurture the souls of church members. Apart from preaching in the context of an assembled worship gathering, the pastor also leads small groups, as well as meeting privately with individuals to counsel and instruct them in God’s Word and to pray for them in accordance with the Word of God. He also trains and disciples others to do the same.

A Pastor’s Goal

The goal of all pastoral leadership is found in Ephesians 4:12–16:

… to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Notice the key phrases that describe the work of the pastor:

  • to equip the saints for the work of ministry
  • for the building up of the body of Christ
  • (for the purpose of) attaining to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of Christ
  • (for the purpose of) maturity
  • (for the purpose of) no longer being spiritual children … to grow up spiritually,
  • (for the purpose of) no longer being gullible to all forms of false doctrine,
  • (for the purpose of) teaching their congregation to speak the truth in lovebuilding the church up in love.

This is the goal and end for which the pastor exists and works. Anything that will detract him from this calling will make him useless and it will not help the church at all.

A Pastor’s Failure

The failure to do the work of a pastor produces several symptoms.

As Jesus walked through the cities and villages of Galilee we read: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). These words could well be used to describe the members in many of our churches today. The sheep are frustrated and discouraged because they are not receiving the feeding and the care that they need. Many of them are starving spiritually, and some have begun to stray. Failure to do the work of pastoring therefore, impacts church health.

This leads to another problem. Many church members do church hopping! Discouraged sheep wander from church to church, and, in our Namibian context, we have found that many church members migrate from church to church in search of the perfect church. There is, of course, no perfect church and no perfect pastor, but dare I say that the best church they may find is that imperfect church and pastor where the Bible is faithfully and consistently proclaimed, and where God and people are truly loved in a visible way. Such churches see little migration, for there the sheep know that they are fed and tended for the glory of God and therefore they are satisfied.