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The Ever-Broadening Role of the Pastor

Over the centuries, shepherding a flock has gotten a bit more complicated.
The Ever-Broadening Role of the Pastor
Image: Stefan Kunze

More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find the source of the Missouri River, and from there to discover a relatively easy water route west to the Pacific. Such a waterway, they discovered, doesn't exist.

But they did succeed in mapping the Northwest and, 15 months after they began pushing themselves upstream from St. Louis, they found, near today's Montana-Idaho border, the source of the mighty Missouri.

Lewis's journal records that on August 12, 1805, a member of the expedition, Private Hugh McNeal, "exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri."

The Missouri at its source looks a lot different than the powerful current that flows into the Mississippi River.

Likewise, the role of the pastor has broadened significantly from its origins in the hills of Galilee. Several major tributaries have contributed to the currents of contemporary ministry, but it's the same river.

The pastor's biblical beginnings

The term "pastor" comes from the Latin word for "shepherd," the metaphor used in both Old and New Testaments for one responsible for God's people. The primary shepherd/pastor is the Lord himself (Psalm 23), but the Bible also recognizes human undershepherds—some good, some not so good.

In his day Ezekiel condemned these undershepherds for looking after themselves and neglecting the flock. "You have not strengthened the weak … or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost" (34:4).

The New Testament instructs elders to be good shepherds. "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock," writes Paul. "Savage wolves will come in among you. … So be on your guard!" (Acts 20:28-31).

Peter tells elders to willingly be "examples to the flock. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of glory" (1 Peter 5:3-4).

Thus the Bible presents pastoring primarily as protecting and feeding the flock of God and being an example to them of a living faith. Over the centuries, these functions developed into specific and distinct roles.


The Reformation recovered the emphasis on the pastor as the "teacher of God's Word." Preaching had long been neglected in the church; it had given way to sometimes thoughtless service at the altar. The Reformers placed preaching in the central place of worship as the primary way to feed the flock of God.

And preaching and teaching has ever since been a primary role of a pastor.

Curer of souls

In the 1600s, the Puritans enhanced the concept of pastor, by stressing the role as "physician of the soul." A pastor must know the flock—and discover each person's spiritual condition, healthy or unhealthy, primarily by asking questions (How is it with your soul? Are you resisting evil? How are you serving God?).

And if the pastor discovered a fundamental ill, the pastor’s role was to prescribe some remedy to restore spiritual health and vitality.

As theologian (and contemporary Puritan) J.I. Packer describes it: "There is such a thing as spiritual depression. Relationships or a marriage can collapse. Children can disappoint you. The business can go bankrupt. Grief or trauma produce states of mind and emotion that call for spiritual counsel. Because we're to live to the glory of God, all our moods have to be brought into relation to God, his love, his work, and the ongoing process of sanctification.

"The sanctifying of troubles is a prominent New Testament theme. Troubles are to be expected, but God can sanctify them. The pastor, in the Puritan understanding, is there to be God's agent, God's lightning rod, the transforming link between the distress of the Christian and the love and power of God."

Arranger of relationships

For a group of Christians to become “the body of Christ” doesn’t happen automatically. A flock left to its own devices will disintegrate. A distinguishing characteristic of the Methodist awakening in the 1700s was organizing people into groups in order to "maintain the glow" that the Lord had ignited in their hearts.

Thus, every Methodist conference (regional group) would be subdivided into "classes"—12 persons with a leader. Like home groups today, they would meet once a week between Sundays to pray together, discuss Scripture, share their experiences, and encourage each other.

So in Methodist circles pastors became overseers of small groups for the purpose of nurturing believers. And ever since, and well beyond Methodism, this task of arranging relationships for the spiritual health of the flock continues to be part of the pastoral role, so that a group of Christians can indeed become the body of Christ.


In the twentieth century, new tributaries entered the broadening stream of pastoral expectations.

With individualism and isolation increasing, the need for community became stronger than ever. Pastors assumed a greater role in maintaining the organizational life of the congregation, or put more crassly, "running a church"—recruiting, motivating, administering programs.

Put positively, this merely extends the role of "organizer of nurturing relationships" who tends to the health of the community.

The downside is that a pastor may feel more like a manager of church business than a shepherd of souls, but some amount of managing is inescapable when shepherding today’s flock.


Surrounded by a decreasingly Christian society in the 21st Century, the need to evangelize the world at the church's doorstep is unavoidable. "Missionary to our own neighborhood" has been added to the pastor's role. Pastors today feel the burden for those not yet in the flock.

No pastor can be content to simply supervise those currently in the fold.

Jesus, of course, affirmed the shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek out the one that is lost (Luke 15:4-7). No pastor can be content to simply supervise those currently in the fold.

Today every pastor is aware of the need for evangelism and outreach and, more recently, working for justice and compassion in the name of Christ.

Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said, “Pastors have always faced high demands, but [in the last two generations] the level of expectations has rapidly risen. The internet has given easy access to the country’s best preachers—and local pastors are often expected to compete. Pastors are expected to be masters of leadership, counseling, communication, management, finances, biblical truth, theological expertise, and current social issues. In a country with polarized politics, pastors struggle over which side to take or try to keep neutral—and, no option seems acceptable to all parishioners.”

So the task of protecting and feeding the flock has widened, as has exemplifying a living faith.

CTpastors.com tried to encapsulate today’s widening role by identifying six categories into which fit all its articles on pastoring:

If you’re a pastor, your job as shepherd means you lead. That means defining the realities your group is facing, knowing what resources you have, determining what direction to go, and helping the group know what steps to take. Because a pastor leads.

Perhaps the most visible part of pastoring is the upfront teaching and preaching. Perhaps the most invisible part is how those words are used by God’s Spirit to transform those listening. Bringing a timely and truthful message demands preparation, knowing the Scripture, knowing the audience, and knowing how to connect the one with the other.

Being a pastor isn’t just what you do, it’s who you are. In spiritual leadership, that means tending your own internal life: your relationship with God, the health of your soul, emotions, attitudes, ambitions, and temptations. It’s consciously living in the presence of God, with prayer the primary means of doing that. Being a pastor means bringing truth and grace and transformation to the human soul, starting with your own.

Jesus told his followers, “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The prime function of the church, which a pastor oversees, is to introduce and initiate and instruct the entire congregation into the life of allegiance to Christ. And usually, since that life is “more caught than taught,” that means the pastor is the living example of a living faith.

Faithfulness in ministry isn’t just keeping the doors of the church open, hoping that people will walk in. It means finding ways to take the good news to wherever people are, whether they are in another neighborhood, another subculture, another language group, or another country. A pastor’s role includes extending ministry to those who need it most.

It’s no coincidence that the root word of “administration” is “ministry.” Taking care of people means caring for the health of the congregation, taking care of the systems, the facilities, the finances, and laws that affect them, and keeping the flock safe, legal (if possible), and financially sound.

Within these six categories, there are 52 subtopics in CTpastors.com that further define the myriad elements of a “pastor’s role.”

At times we are tempted to reduce the pastoral role to a simple, uncluttered role. But it’s a multifaceted responsibility, accomplished only by the power of the Holy Spirit. As Private McNeal discovered, standing astride the narrow rivulet can be exhilarating, but he was also more than eager to ride the broader current all the way home.

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