Last month our pastors and deacons met for our bi-annual training together. We discussed matters pertaining to our current pastoral and deacon ministries: the role and function of a deacon, what shepherds do (from Psalm 23), the current state of our CBC polity, and, at the deacons’ request, thoughts about updating our deacon selection process. It was a fantastic time of training. I’m so proud of our leadership, as I’m sure you are as well.
As we have analyzed our polity, one key insight has become clear: The function of the pastoral office determines the shape of a church’s polity. That is to say, polity is not shaped as much by the role of deacons or the responsibilities of extra-biblical teams (e.g. committees, etc.). Those ministries are down-stream. What is upstream, however, is the pastoral office, whose scope of ministry will determine that of others. Therefore, the role and responsibilities of the pastoral office is ground-zero for understanding church polity. Show me how the pastor functions, and I’ll likely show you how the church has structured its polity.
pol·i·ty /ˈpälədē/ (noun)
the form, process of church governance
Here’s my thesis: Any discussion about congregational church polity must begin with the role of the pastor.
So let me introduce you to the conversations we’ve had with the deacons (in our last training) and with the Strategic Vision Team regarding the office of pastor. There are basically three ways churches (and I’m thinking congregational, locally autonomous, Baptistic churches here) structure the pastoral office.
[Note: We understand the three terms—overseer, elder, pastor—are each used in the NT to refer to the same office. In this post I will most often use the term “pastor” instead of “elder” or “overseer” as the term “pastor” is most natural for this discussion. You will see below where I transition to “elder” in the third model as a way of emphasizing an equally shared pastoral plurality.]
Let’s briefly take a look at each:
1. The Single Pastor
This is the “one man show.” The pastor in this model is the sole and siloed shepherd of the church. All pastoral responsibilities are laid on his shoulders. As a result, many tasks are often neglected or outsourced, and as an unfortunate result, the sheep suffer and church leadership wanes. One man simply cannot do it all.
However, in some unique circumstances, churches may find themselves with only one pastor. A new church plant for example, may start with one pastor until they can install more. But most single pastor model churches are there for other less intentional reasons: they know no other model, they fear change, or there are simply no other qualified men to join the pastor in his role.
Additionally, being that almost every time the pastoral office is mentioned in the NT it is in the form of the plural, the single pastor model seems to be at odds with the witness of scripture.
2. Senior Pastor and his Staff
The staff pastor model can often appear under the “senior pastor” nomenclature. This model assumes other pastors, given that “senior” assumes other “associate” (as opposed to “junior”) pastors. These other pastors are often referred to as pastoral staff, which gets at the heart of this model. As you may have guessed, it is the current model of Coats Baptist Church.
Our current bylaws state:
“The officers of this church shall be a pastor and other vocational leadership as needed… Staff positions: The only required staff position is the senior pastor. Others may be created, or modified, as needed.”
Ministerial staff is defined in our bylaws as:
“Those serving in a position of ministry typically filled by an ordained minister. The following is provided as an example but not an exhaustive list: senior pastor, associate pastor, worship pastor, youth pastor.”
You get the picture. At present, we are a “staff pastor” model church. Pastoral ministry is conducted by a staff of pastors at the direction of the senior pastor. However I believe there are some unintentional consequences that arise from the “staff pastor” model. I’ll mention three of the most prevalent:
The “boss / employee” dynamic
Largely influenced by corporate business models, many churches have taken a secular approach for structuring pastoral ministry. This type of structure is most prevalent in the western church context where many have sought to professionalize the pastorate.
The “hired pastor” mentality
Pastoral ministry is a line-item(s). Ministry for hire becomes the norm, which, over time, works against a culture of service from the pew. Hired staff are responsible for not just leading but performing, likely under the oversight of a consequentially needed personnel team. Most significant is that pastoral ministry is contingent on the financial ability of the church.
The “staff v. deacons” friction
With a smaller staff or sole pastor, the deacons usually outnumber the staff by a considerable amount. As a result, the deacons will likely be the most qualified deliberative body in the church and will typically be expected both to serve as true deacons and also stand at the helm of directional leadership. Most deacons found in such roles are there out of necessity and not by choice, as a consequence of only one or a small group of pastors.
But as the staff begins to grow, two deliberative bodies emerge—the deacons and the staff. Instead of one directional voice, there are two. Deacons sense the expectation from historical precedent to continue leading. However, significant financial investments have been made to acquire choice pastors to lead and oversee ministries. The conundrum is clear, and the deacon chair often takes the full force of the stress. He is the quintessential “man in the middle.”
With all of the expediency, history and familiarity this model may bring, I’m not convinced this second model is best for the local church, nor that it’s the closest to what is seen in Scripture.
3. A Plurality of Pastors (Elders)
The office of pastor is marked by a few leading characteristics: the office is reserved for men; the requirements are largely concerned with character; the man must possess the competency of being “able to teach,” and, like the office of deacon, the pastoral office is almost always described in the plural.
A difference in expression of plurality distinguishes this third model of pastoral ministry from the two above. Churches have often debated as to how to define plurality. Some churches simply see more than one pastor as equating to the NT description. To be sure, churches like Coats Baptist have more than one pastor. However, it may be a stretch to see a hired staff of pastors as the NT vision for pastoral ministry.
How does this model differ from the two above? Or you might say, what, then, is the difference between a plurality of pastors (elders) versus a pastor and his staff?
Plural by conviction
Seeking the best accordance with Scripture, this third model begins with a baseline (and the benefits!) of plurality. The conviction is that pastoral ministry is best performed by a team of pastors who share the ministry. Yes, there is a lead pastor—a first among equals, if you will—who leads the church in teaching and preaching. However, each pastor is equal in his essence with the others, yet they are distinct in their roles and responsibilities, as God has uniquely gifted them.
The lay pastor (elder)
The pastoral office does not assume compensation. It should never be a pastor’s expectation to be compensated for his ministry. However, the NT does assume the church gives “wages” to those pastors who “labor in teaching and preaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). These should be thought of as “vocational” or “staff pastors.” Scripture also indicates that qualified men can serve as elders without adding a financial expense to their local church—these would be “lay pastors.” Such opens the door to expand pastoral ministry beyond the financial ability of the local church.
The unpaid lay pastor is a distinguishing mark of this third model of pastoral ministry as compared to the compensated pastoral staff of the second model above. Coupled with paid, vocational staff pastors, the unpaid, lay pastor expands pastoral ministry past those who “labor in teaching and preaching” and those whose skill sets are needed in a full-time capacity. Most churches seek to have at least one more lay pastor among the plurality than they do vocational, staff pastors.
Terms of service
Many churches already practice a rotating term of service in many of their ministry teams. Coats Baptist, for example, does this very thing with our deacons and committees. Like others, we understand that burn-out is a real thing, not everyone is serving the church vocationally, and most importantly, there is always a great need to develop leaders. This third model of pastoral ministry incorporates that same philosophy of terms of service for the lay pastors. Every church needs to create and implement their own system that works in their context. But the goal is the same—creating a healthy ministry context for service and Sabbath, while at the same time a space to install new pastors as God raises them up in our midst.
As represented in this third model, the plurality of pastors is a team of men charged with the responsibilities of pastoral ministry — leading, ἐπισκοπή (episkopē) overseer/bishop, cf. 1 Timothy 3:1; Titus 1:7; teaching, πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) elder/teacher, cf. 1 Timothy 5:19; 1 Peter 5:1; and caring/pastoring the flock, ποιμήν (poimēn) pastor/shepherd, cf. Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:2. Three terms, one office. Elders wear three hats. They are all, at the same time, overseers, teachers and pastors.
We need more shepherds. That’s a phrase that I’d like to shout from the rooftops as a clarion call for more men to enter the pastoral ministry, to lead the church, teach the Scriptures, and shepherd the flock of God’s people.
Do you know any qualified men?