The Invisible Pastor

The Invisible Pastor

The church should never love and follow its pastor more than they love and follow the Lord. Christ must increase, and the pastor must decrease. This does not mean that the pastor is practically “invisible” in the congregation. But it means that, when people look at the church from the outside, they should not particularly notice him first. Instead, they should first see a body of people devoted to the Lord, each of them exercising his or her gifts, worshiping and serving together for the glory of the Chief Shepherd.

Modern Christian authors who have an intriguing ability to take the EKG of the church and discern its health have been warning for some time now about the tendency pastors have to become the local attraction of their churches. Ministerial superstars. Pastors who are winsome speakers and world-class organizers can become the CEOs of their own kingdoms or the rock stars of their own venues. Some become recognized names in Christian households and spend much of their time traveling the world as celebrated pastoral celebrities.

This image of what it means to be a pastor is one of the reasons that John Piper (himself a household name) seeks to encourage his fellow pastors in his book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. In no fewer than 36 passionate mini-sermons, Piper urges pastors not to professionalize their calling but to be purposefully devoted to Jesus Christ. He warns that the temptation to be “professional” is not only for the CEO-type with his “three-piece suit and the stuffy upper floors,” but the pop culture-type also, “the understated professionalism of torn blue jeans and the savvy inner ring.” The former is learned by “pursuing an MBA” but the latter by “being in the know about the ever-changing entertainment and media world” and learning to have a certain “ambiance, and tone, and idiom, and timing, and banter.”

Howard Snyder addressed this very issue almost 50 years ago in his book, The Problem of Wine Skins. In his chapter, “Must the Pastor Be a Superstar?” he writes,

I confess my admiration, perhaps slightly tinged with envy. Not because of the talent, really, the sheer ability. But for the success, the accomplishment. Here is a man who faithfully preaches the Word, sees lives transformed by Christ, sees his church growing. What sincere evangelical minister would not like to be in his shoes? Not to mention his parsonage.

But then he continues,

I think of all the struggling, mediocre pastors, looking on with holy envy (if there be such), measuring their own performance by [the superstar pastor’s] success and dropping another notch into discouragement or, perhaps, self-condemnation.

For after all, the problem is plain, isn’t it? The church needs more qualified pastors, better training. More alertness to guiding those talented young men God may be calling into the ministry. Better talent scouting to find the superstars.

Personally, I’ve never had to worry about becoming the CEO or a rockstar of the churches I’ve pastored in. No one has ever chased me down to sign a contract or asked to fly me around the world. But growing up in the church in a pastor’s family, I did notice at a young age that it was possible for pastors to climb the social ladder among their peers. And I was definitely influenced by that culture. The larger the churches, the bigger deal was made about the men who pastored them. Good men, too. Faithful men. But there would be preaching conferences where the more important pastors would come and preach to big crowds and parade around and sign people’s Bibles. My wife calls this parading the “pastor swagger.” She says it’s a kind of strut that we pastors get when people are making a big deal about us or we become over-confident. So, I learned early in my pastoral ministry that when it is a “good Sunday” where a lot of people show up and ministries are running smoothly and people seem excited to be a part of the church and they liked the sermon, I can start walking around with this particular vibe. But soon my wife will sidle up to me to mutter, “You’re doing the pastor swagger.” And that usually shuts it down.

Now, I’m not saying that people should never know the names of pastors or that we shouldn’t give glory to God for his sustaining grace in the life of a pastor who has faithfully shepherded, whose wisdom should be an example for younger pastors. There are certainly men whom the Lord has greatly used to impact many congregations toward the worship and glory of Christ. Apollos in the NT was a dynamic preacher whose ministry was widely known.

But has the church come so far in its tradition of church leadership that we have lost touch with how the New Testament presents the office of the pastor? Should pastors be promoted and known and celebrated? Should they be the center of attention in their churches? Should their names be on the church sign? Should people commonly identify the name of the church by the name of a single pastor?

Because it seems to me that, at least in the New Testament, the pastor is practically invisible. We know there were plenty of them. But it’s very difficult to find any in particular.

You don’t believe me? Try naming a pastor from the NT.

Maybe you’re thinking of Timothy and Titus, those men to whom Paul addressed what today we refer to as the “Pastoral Epistles.” But Timothy and Titus, though they may have had pastoral gifts of preaching and teaching and administration, were not tasked with the shepherding of a congregation. They were Paul’s co-workers, apostolic representatives who were placed at different times in different places so that they could establish those who would be serving as long-term pastors in the churches, mainly various house-congregations (1 Tim 1:3Titus 1:5–9). When called upon, perhaps they even fulfilled pastoral duties in the fledgling stages of a new church, just like the apostle Paul seemed to do (e.g., 1 Thess 2:5–13). But none of these men are actually called pastors in the text. And even if some will argue that they were, in fact, pastors, the very fact that this is a debated point demonstrates our uncertainty about who actually fulfills the role of the pastor in the pages of the NT. The pastors are, for all practical purposes, invisible.

Can you think of anyone else?

Identifying the Terms that Designate the Pastoral Office

Part of the issue of identifying names of pastors in the NT is that there is a perennial debate about what pastors should be called. But this fact is itself an indication of the anonymity of their office. Not only are pastors seldomly given names in the NT, but even their nomenclature remains today a subject of some obscurity.

In fact, it’s very doubtful that pastors were ever really called “pastors” until sometime later in church history—because the term is virtually unused to describe them. “Pastor” is simply the Latin word for “shepherd.” In 1 Peter 5:1–4, Peter encourages pastors to “shepherd the flock of God (v. 2),” but this is an analogy he is making with the Lord Jesus who is the “Chief Shepherd” (v. 4), the true Shepherd of the flock. But Peter doesn’t call these men “pastors.” He calls them “elders” (presbyteroi, v. 1).

The only time that the word “pastor” is used as a title, in fact, is where Paul says that Jesus gave gifts to the church in the form of ministers, among whom he names “pastors and teachers” (Eph 4:11). But there is considerable discussion as to what Paul actually means here.

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