So… Are You a Pastor?

I’ve had roughly the same conversation more times than I can count. Someone says, “What do you for a living?” I reply, “I’m a minister.” His/her brow furrows slightly as he/she says, “So… are you a pastor?” I take a deep breath and say, “Well, no…”

How exactly do you describe the role of a full-time preacher to someone outside of the church? I am a preacher, but I’ve found that for some reason this word carries a little negative baggage for some people, especially outside of the Bible belt of the United States. On top of that, it often still results in the word “pastor” getting brought up. I was once interviewed by a newspaper, and when the story was printed the reporter changed the word “preacher” from our conversation into “pastor” every single time, even when quoting me sadly. I am also an evangelist, but again, thanks to televangelists, that word also has baggage. Minister is the word I choose more often than not, but it still requires a fair bit of explanation. And, to everyone’s surprise, I’m not a pastor.  

The problem I have explaining what I do is partly that full-time preaching is not a job. Now, before you come to the aid of your favorite hard-working preacher, let me add that 1) preachers do in fact work and 2) their work is worthy of financial support. Paul spent a good portion of 1 Corinthians 9 arguing for the right of a full-time preacher to receive a paycheck. Even though Paul gave up that right as relates to receiving help from the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 9:15), he gladly received pay from Philippi (Philippians 4:14-20) and was even supported from elsewhere while in Corinth (2 Corinthians 11:7-9).

What I mean is this: stated as precisely as I know how, full-time preaching is an opportunity granted by God, working through the collective generosity of the body of Christ, to allow certain members of the body like myself to focus on “prayer and… the ministry of the word” without the distraction of a secular occupation (Acts 6:4). It’s not a job, and it comes with no specific job title in the New Testament. In fact, even the terms that describe people granted this opportunity in Scripture, terms like minister, preacher, or evangelist, are not used exclusively for them. Every Christian should engage in ministry and evangelism; some are simply blessed to do so full-time.

The other part of the problem I have in explaining what I do is that there are any number of denominational churches that do have job titles for people who preach full-time. Some churches use the term “priest,” taking a term that the New Testament uses to describe all Christians (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6) and applying it to an exclusive group. I almost never get called a priest though, since, like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day (Matthew 23:5), these priests often wear distinguishing clothing. More commonly (in the United States at least), churches use the term “pastor” to refer to people who do something similar to what I do. So why don’t I just “go with the flow” and adopt the term pastor when describing myself to outsiders?

Well, like the term “priest,” the term “pastor” is already one used in the New Testament. The English word is only found in one passage in most translations of the New Testament, that being Ephesians 4:11: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” As this verse is merely a list of roles in the body of Christ, it’s hard to see to whom the term does and does not apply. The Greek word behind the word is found several times though and even has a verbal form (i.e., the activity of pastoring). Translators usually choose to translate it as “shepherd,” or “shepherding.” Biblically speaking, a pastor is a shepherd.

Who are shepherds according to the New Testament? Well, those called “to shepherd” by Paul are called “overseers” in Acts 20:28 (note: the ESV translates “to shepherd” as “to care”). Overseer is a term occasionally translated as “bishop” (1 Timothy 3:1-7) and used synonymously with “elder” or the rarer term in translation “presbyter” (Titus 1:5-9). Shepherding is also associated elsewhere with elders (1 Peter 5:1-4). Looking over these passages, it’s clear that these terms travel together and refer to the same people: pastor, shepherd, overseer, bishop, elder, and presbyter, six English words corresponding to three Greek ones.

Let me go ahead and point out that the New Testament does argue that a full-time preacher could also be a pastor. Paul takes one of the principles he uses to argue that preachers should be paid and applies it to elders, arguing that they too should be “counted worthy” of financial support and adding “especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Timothy 5:17-18). This seems to refer to none other than those who engage full-time in that “ministry of the word” I mentioned before (Acts 6:4).

Having said that, an overview of what God demands of pastors in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 reveals that while a pastor could be a full-time preacher, many preachers (including myself) simply do not have the life experience needed to be pastors. Further, that Paul has to specify “especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” in 1 Timothy 5:17 seems to indicate that there were pastors who did not do that. Not all pastors are preachers, and not all preachers are pastors.

Why is all of this important? God’s plan for local congregations of his people has always been for them to be under a plurality of seasoned Christians known as pastors, overseers, or elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Since these words travel so closely together in Scripture, when one of them is used to refer to someone that it shouldn’t, the concepts that travel with the other two often follow. This results in underqualified people being granted a level of authority not designed for them or, at times, a singular, unqualified person serving as sort of a spiritual guardian for a whole group of people.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has refused to study the Bible with me or consider a question of faith because he/she felt the need to consult with a denominational pastor first. I’ve never had anyone come back and say that his/her pastor said it was OK to study the Bible. And therein lies the problem: too often, people turn to these supposed spiritual leaders to serve as guides instead of God’s Word.  

Words matter. Because they do, I’ll keep on doing my best to describe Bible things in ways consistent with the Bible itself including when I describe the role I fill in the church. It has led to more than one awkward conversation in the past, but it has also led to conversations where I was able to expose people to other aspects of New Testament teaching. And really, that’s what my “job” is all about.
-Patrick Swayne