Pastoral Authority: Earned, Taken, or Granted?
It depends who you ask.

Pastor. In the eight years since this label first applied to me, it has been fascinating to notice who uses it and who doesn't. The church that first entrusted the title to me was suburban, predominately white, and largely middle-aged. As a twenty-something associate pastor, I was mostly referred to by my first name. The lack of a title before my name suited me fine. At the time I was coming to grips with being a pastor and, frankly, the idea of regularly being identified as such by people ten to twenty years my senior was frightening.

In hindsight I realize there was something more to my timidity about this title. Being identified as a pastor carried with it a level of intimidating responsibility and authority that I felt I didn't deserve. Surely I needed another ten years or so in the trenches before anyone could confidently call me their pastor. Being called simply by my first name was a relief, evidence in a way that I was still trying on this vocation to see if it fit.

The fact that this congregation indulged my skittishness with my pastoral role didn't mean I had no authority. As Matt Tebbe pointed out, there is a kind of authority that comes over time, one that is established through faithful relationships. I felt both honored and surprised when congregants twice my age confided their struggles and listened to whatever biblical counsel I might offer. Despite my meager experience the church elders willingly listened to my ideas for future ministry. My authority as a new pastor came from ongoing presence in the community, being faithful to the church despite my insecurities and mistakes.

Five years of pastoring in this church left me with a bit more confidence in my vocation, though I remained happy that the title pastor wasn't a primary part of my identification. But accepting a position at a multi-ethnic, urban church meant I would once again confront my skittishness about pastoral authority.

In this new church I was slightly older than most members and my ethnicity was shared by less than half of the congregation. Though I remained an associate, all of a sudden I was "Pastor David" to most of the church. The relational side of authority I'd become used to in the suburbs was still important in the city. But there was also an added component: calling.

Many people in this new church were willing to grant me authority by virtue of my call to ministry. This was especially true of the non-white members of the church. These women and men often assumed that if God had called me to pastor, then God had also equipped me to speak and lead with the authority of one submitted to God's will for the good of the church. Biblical memory of God's anointing for service and leadership was invoked when people described how we pastors were chosen to fulfill the work of equipping the church. I quickly came to recognize that my authority came not from my training, experience, or even from the relationships I was forming in the church. These were all important aspects of how I pastored, but the source of pastoral authority was clearly and simply God's call. If God calls a person to the pastorate–a calling that is affirmed by the community–then that person is granted authority to respond in obedience to the work of ministry.

July 11, 2011

Displaying 1–10 of 17 comments


July 19, 2011  7:58pm

Michael, I was wondering in what verses Jesus made it quite clear that the terms rabbi, master, etc should not be used? I am not a "red letter" only believer, I accept all Scripture to be authoritative. Jesus certainly accepted the Old Testament as He quoted from all of the books except from the book of Esther. So, I'm just curious as to where it is taught that Jesus said that. I read the Bible all the time, and I don't remember coming across that, but of course, I'm far from perfect.

Report Abuse

Michael Yarrow

July 19, 2011  3:55pm

To me the main issue is, "Should anyone bear the title of "pastor"?" Jesus made it quite clear no one should be called "rabbi", "master" and the like. To be a pastor is to have a role, an activity, not a label. Put titles like Rev, Apostle, Pastor, on letterheads and business cards and surely one is into disobedience.

Report Abuse

Vik Feodorov

July 14, 2011  3:03pm

Bro. Mark, I hope you won't be surprized to know that in, for example, Israel's Army all soldiers and generals call themselves by names. Which does not mean that that Army loses its main purpose - to defend the people and the land much more effectively, than that nations neighbors, does it? I come from the persecuted church environment, in which everybody would be called "brother", regardless of position. There was never a lack of preachers in the churches in spite of anything that happened to any preacher/minister. On another hand, modern church's extremely structured environment cultivates love for the titles, PhDisms and so forth; however, isn't it evident enough that this kind of non-gospel approach to the ministry failed miserably the church itself and this nation in general?

Report Abuse

-woman in ministry

July 14, 2011  9:50am

Women? anyone out there? I'd love to hear a perspective from a female pastor on what it's like to be called "pastor" and pastoral authority. My guess is you've probably had to think about this on another level.

Report Abuse

Ben Simpson

July 13, 2011  12:08pm

Sound reflections. Pastoral authority is earned, taken, and granted, though any authority that is established is ultimately a gift. Your words on vocation are helpful, particularly in an age that Eugene Peterson has described as being very hard on the pastoral office. While at first I may have understood my own ordination as a pastor as a choice or as a calling that I pursued, over time I have come to recognize that it is the Caller who has given me every gift for ministry and granted me every success. Thus, my authority is not my own, for I speak on behalf of another who is greater than I.

Report Abuse


July 13, 2011  2:39am

@Tim Yeah i definitely agree with you that the system of one man, being the authority of so many, in a church/clergy or whatever context is not how Jesus intended. I find that wrong, and yeah, it really does stunt the growth. My point is not to have institutionalised leaders over us all, but as you said mutual brothers. Maybe i wasn't clear. I'm pointing more to an older/younger brother thing here. because frankly, i can be a true idiot. I stuff up, yes i do not try to, but i still have desires and passions that may get mixed in with what i believe God is saying, especially as i am really developing as a christian. I choose to have people over me. They did not ask, demand or seek out to speak into my life, but i asked them, as i respect their wisdom, their years and their character. Now you dont have to do this. But i want people in my life, who i can be 100% open and honest with, and realistically that just cant happen with every person in my church or whatever. I know that they can speak into my life, but having people there for you, yes in authority over me, that can correcct me, and yes discipline me. Is godly i belive. I take all that they say back to God, but i still want their input. I hope that i have been clear, its so hard over the internet! :) Also, if i come across as demanding or angry i am sorry. It's not my attitude at all, i just like lively discussion! Thanks Tim and everyone else for your input and ideas, very challenging!

Report Abuse

Mark Gomez

July 12, 2011  1:31pm

David, keep letting the work of the ministry and everything connected to it draw you into an awe over all that God is and all that God can do through you. That is a good place to be. As for some of this noise in the comment section; well, some of it is nothing but need to listen. God knows.

Report Abuse


July 12, 2011  12:58pm

@ Daniel Thanks for your response. Your point is clear regarding institutionalized faith and pyramid authority thinking. "…there are God given authorities in this world" Yes there are, but in the church, Jesus is the head and we are all "members of one another". Jesus said in the great commission, "all authority has been given unto me". The authority He passes on is to EVERYONE to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations…" He has not given institutional / positional / titled authority in His church to anyone. The scripture I give above is very clear He rejects that. Spiritual maturity does not posses authority, title or position. It chooses that which is lower so that others can be lifted up and "fully trained" to be "like him" Luke 6:40 Brotherliness means mutuality - two way openness for building to go both ways. When you gather and one man does 99% of the personal expression of truth in one-way communication, there is no mutuality or brotherliness. How can you contribute to him here? He considers himself an expert doctor and you an unlearned patient and you like it this way. This is not Christ's design for His body. The clergy can only posture brotherliness for you to feel like it's happening all the while they dominate the meeting. Everything outside the meeting takes it's cues from the meeting. Oversight, a legitimate Biblical dynamic, is not over-talking, over-visioning, over-bossing, over-thinking, over-managing, over-positioning, over- anything else in the clergy system. It is only oversight. Secondly it is not a "special call from God" to be an overseer / pastor. "ANYONE who desires the work of overseer desires a noble task…" No believer needs anyone over them to speak into their life. Any brother, sister, even a child can speak into my life, and they do in gatherings set up for mutuality (speaking to one another in psalms, hymns…Eph. 5) the dynamic of being "filled with the Spirit". One-way communication / lecture is the opposite of this. There is far more man driven corruption in the clergy system. Too much to confront here. Be a Berean who examines the scriptures DAILY to see if what you are told is true… Acts 17:11

Report Abuse

Phil Wood

July 12, 2011  9:23am

You might be interested to know that this thread has generated another lively discussion over at St.Joseph's Vanguard(

Report Abuse

David Swanson

July 12, 2011  9:07am

Jelani- this paragraph of yours really resonated with me: I've found the word "pastor" to be a very loaded term, loaded with a whole set of cultural assumptions and presuppositions that, when you are operating in a multi-cultural context, can be very confusing and contradictory. This has been my experience as well in a multi-ethnic context. As some of the comments have pointed out, some of the way we grant (or not) pastoral authority is related to our theology. But just as often, in my experience, it is related to our own cultural context. My own understanding of pastoral authority has shifted in significant ways as I've had the chance to learn from those whose cultural and historical vantage point differs from my own.

Report Abuse