How Senior Pastors are our Biggest Obstacle and our Only Hope

5 04 2008

In this discussion of returning to a more simple form of church one of the biggest questions is what to do with the Senior Pastor. Some have said, “isn’t this position an extra-biblical invention of a church wanting to both follow a man (preferably a celebrity) and delegate their responsibility to be a full-time, sold-out, radical disciple to someone else so they can get on with their self-focussed lives?” Yes, this and many other fair and well substantiated critiques have been leveled against this model of church leadership. But rarely do those who deconstruct this destructive form of church leadership give a satisfying answer to the next question and that is what do we do with these men if they are no longer Senior Pastors? Many of my house church friends think it’s realistic to plop men like John Piper, Billy Graham and Tim Keller in a house church for the rest of their lives where their gifts are equal with everyone else (1 Cor. 12). But you only have to imagine this arrangement for 10 seconds to see how this equalization will both largely neutralize their gifts or they will be so active in that little group of people that the same stifling could take place there that often happens in Senior Pastor dominated churches.

So what’s the answer? How are these men fully released?

First, I want to acknowledge how incredibly valuable and essential these men are. We need them! In Ephesians 4 Paul writes that when Jesus ascended into heaven he gave gifts to men. These gifts were in the form of 5 types of specially gifted and called people: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. We call this the 5-fold ministry. Almost every Senior Pastor embodies one of these 5 gifts given to the church. These are not in the same category as situational spiritual gifts given to the body as it gathers (1 Cor. 12-14) nor the unique gifts given to each believer at the point of salvation (Romans 12) these gifts are embodied in and through a man with a unique calling from God. Often the calling and gifting is so profound it makes sense to pay these men for periods of time so we can free them from non-ministry work so we get the privilege of enjoying more of their ministry through their gifting.

One of the biggest mistakes we make when transitioning to a simple structure of church is to design the church so it can no longer receive ministry from these men. But simple churches need MORE of the 5-fold ministry not less! And not just from one gifted man but many. We need all five to minister to all the churches at their point of need.

The problem with the Senior Pastor is not their gifting, it is their position. When the church structures itself like a medium to large size organization it requires the continual presence of a CEO style leader for continued growth and success. In fact, in that structure, the Senior Pastor’s level of gifting determines the growth potential of the church. Last month at a church planters boot camp Mark Driscoll said that in the Acts 29 network there is only one factor that determined the relative health and effectiveness of churches in their network and that is, in his words, “the dude”. He seemed to attempt various forms of verbal gymnastics to avoid calling this guy the Senior Pastor naming him the “dude of dudes” and “first among equals” as an elder but this describes one form of the Senior Pastor led church.

Few would deny that the concept of “Senior Pastor” is foreign to the New Testament but fewer seem interested in asking the question why. Why, if this man determines the effectiveness of his church did Paul not appoint Senior Pastors? Why is this position never mentioned? Why, when a church plant would blow up, like the Corinthian church, does Paul not tell “the dude” to get control of his church? Why, among all the leaders at Cointh, does Paul not address one of them as the solution to the problem? The lack of any appeal to a single leader in the book of 1 Corinthians, where church structure is described in more detail than anywhere else in the New Testament, and where things were going south, illustrates the enormous separation between the church structure Paul utilized and our structure today.

But Paul absolutely loved to discover, train and release the 5-fold ministry. But with a profound difference from us. When Paul discovered someone with a 5-fold calling and gifting he never, in recorded biblical history, told them to become the permanent church planting Senior Pastor of one of his church plants. Instead they joined Paul’s team and he would dispatch them for months or years at a time to build up specific churches when that church’s specific needs lined up with the specific gifting of one of the 5-fold members of Paul’s Apostolic team. So Titus was dispatched to Corinth NOT to replace Christ as the head of the Corinthian church but to build that church up so that they could better align themselves underneath their Senior Pastor – Jesus Christ.

But having a permanent Senior Pastor in one church will inevitably result in that church tilting toward the gifting of that man. Not because he is not gifted enough, but because his gifting is so powerful. So Prophets who become Senior Pastor often lead very charismatic churches.  Teachers who become Senior Pastors often create theologically obsessed churches (eg. Grace Community Church).  Evangelists lead outreach centered churches (eg. Willow Creek) etc.

I believe a day is coming again where men who receive one of the 5-fold gifts will equip churches and not lead them. Where thousands of apostolic teams will crisscross the globe on coordinated planting and building missions. Where these men will be in the foundation of the churches and not the roof tops. Where Jesus Christ will once again become the head of the Body and each member will align themselves underneath him alone being built up by the 5-fold ministry, shepherded by Elders and filled with the Holy Spirit.



8 responses

6 04 2008

Solid one tonight, Jeremy (or whatever time of the day it is way the heck out there). I’m just glad I’ll still have something to do.


5 05 2008
David Reaves

Well spoke. I totally agree with this post. I’ve often speculated as to what would happen to those “heavy hitters” if the existing church structure was abandoned.

We often hear about the problems with the way a church is structured, but blaming those ministries and personalities who have achieved success in it is just a convenient oversimplification. I think seminaries and bible collages play a huge and largely negected role as an obstacle to change. I mean you just aren’t going to find a curriculum that includes “The Pastor-ization of Christianity – An Alternative” as a core value. Students with all sorts of gifts are molded (forced) to conform to the “senior pastor” track.

I just feel sorry for the young student plowing his way through college or seminary, and if successful, maybe he lands a steady, full time position at a church. Over time the pressure to perform, the frustration of unrealized ideals, and the nagging disappointment of non-mentoring bosses eventually cause him to question the system or sometimes his calling. I’ve seen it many times. Some I know never recover.

What is your advice to those young ministers already in ministry? What about those who are just graduating high school? Would you say “just find a good house church and get someone to disciple you.”? “Oh, and study business and investing”. That seems to be my answer right now. Is that right?

And finally, do you think schools can become catalysts of positive change or should we just abandon the idea?

25 08 2008
Transitioning Pastors from Paid Positions to Released Callings « From Eden to Zion

[…] context church here = universal church) and are not commanded to lead but to train (read here and here for more on […]

17 12 2008
The Sin of Sheep Cloistering « From Eden to Zion

[…] institutional churches are often based on a strict hierarchy where everyone ranks under the Senior Pastor who has only one of those gifts, if I were to attempt to shift your allegiance from that […]

13 01 2009

I couldn’t disagree more with the notion of the “extra-biblical” nature of a pastor, senior or otherwise.

The New Testament does call for a church with elders and deacons. The book of Philippians tells us that the church at Philippi had both.

“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:” . . . (ESV) Philippians 1:1

In this passage, the apostle Paul speaks first to the general congregation and then to the elders and the deacons. The leaders are addressed last and not first. That is the way it should be in the church. The New Testament recognized only two types of leaders in the church: elders and deacons. There are many passages in the New Testament that refer to elders(overseers) and deacons.

The early church had both overseers and deacons. We can also find both of them in 1 Timothy 3. 1 Timothy lists the qualifications required for any male who will be part of the leadership team. Both elders and deacons are included, and no other category of leaders is mentioned. The New Testament does not see any difference between an elder, a bishop or a pastor. They are the same person or office. Titus 1:5 and 7 reveals this when it uses “elder,” and “overseer” for the same person.

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain” … (ESV) Titus 1:5-7

An elder is also an overseer. Later in 1 Peter 5 we discover that an elder is also a pastor, when the apostle Peter encourages elders to do “their job,” that is, to pastor (“to shepherd”) the flock.

“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly” … (ESV) 1Peter 5:1-2

All three terms – elder, overseer, and pastor – are grouped together in Acts 20:17-28. Here we find that the apostle Paul had asked for the elders of Ephesus to come to him. Upon arriving in Ephesus, Paul meets these men, and while speaking with them he says they are overseers and commands them “to shepherd” the congregation.

“Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. … Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” … (ESV) Acts 20:17, 28

What was the institutional organization of the church in the New Testament? It had both elders and deacons. The elders functioned as pastors and as equals. The two groups had different responsibilities. The elders had the responsibility to provide direction, and the deacons served or supported the will of the elders.

I agree few churches today follow the New Testament pattern. That is not to say that there is no biblical support for a pastor, but that the some in the modern church have organized to please men not God. The most serious problem in the church today may be not the organizational structure but the heart attitude of the some of the men who are in ministry.

In summary, the New Testament church leadership was comprised of elders and deacons. But these leaders were to be different from the world’s concept of leadership (Jesus states that biblical leadership is contrary to that practiced in the world). Jesus tells us that elders and deacons are to be servant-leaders of the flock of God. In Matthew 23 Jesus said,

“Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” … (ESV) Matthew 23:10-12

Or again in Mark 10:

“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” … (ESV) Mark 10:42-45

Our Lord uses two very important words in this passage. They are the Greek words for servant and slave. R. C. H. Lenski says,

A [servant] is one who is intent on the service he is rendering to others. Greatness in the kingdom is measured by the readiness and the amount of blessed ministrations rendered to Christ’s people. Whether they reward and exalt us for this service or not makes no difference. The idea is carried to its climax. One may will with a holy will to be “first,” above even those who are “great” in the kingdom. The way to attain this height is to be ‘your slave’ . . . the humblest and lowest of all servants who actually slaves for others for Christ’s sake, and who despite all his slaving is ready to be left without reward of honor. (Lenski, R. C., The Gospel of Mark, Augsburg Publishing House., 1961, pp.)

That is the biblical role of an elder or pastor. God calls us to respect such an elder:

“The LORD himself has scattered them; he will regard them no more; no honor was shown to the priests, no favor to the elders.” … (ESV) Lamentations 4:16

“We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” … (ESV) 1 Thessalonians 5:12

14 01 2009

Ken, I’m not sure what your point of disagreement is. Your opening statement, “I couldn’t disagree more with the notion of the “extra-biblical” nature of a pastor, senior or otherwise” indicates to me that you’re misinterpreting what Jeremy is saying. I don’t believe at all that he is saying that pastors are “extra biblical” in nature. On the contrary, he writes repeatedly of the 5-fold ministry, which includes pastor. It is the specific position of Senior Pastor that he regards as problematic.

In this model, where a single dominant figure leads a church for many years that church can, and I believe will, develop a leaning toward the specific gifting of that man while quite possibly being deficient in the other gifts. And that that doesn’t appear to be the model used in the NT.

This line of thinking is sure to be controversial, but I wouldn’t discount it that quickly.

5 03 2009
Kiwi and an Emu.

[…] How Senior Pastors are our Biggest Obstacle and our Only Hope. […]

21 08 2013

Love it love it love it

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