Pastor or elder? Which is more important to the long-term health of a local church?
Scads of cash is invested every year developing current and future pastors. This is important in so far as it shapes leaders and not managers, prophets and not puppets. Well-formed Kingdom servants rooted in an evangelical faith that cannot lie sleeping and smitten by the person of Jesus, his church, and the power of his resurrection are needed.
However, money for degree-centered pastoral formation is increasingly sparse and the model itself is undergoing seismic-shifts in a post-Christian cultural climate. Many pastors now come to church ministry second career—which is wonderful—but this presents new challenges in regards to family and finances. And, it also begs a question: if so many pastors are coming to vocational ministry later in life, why can’t the local church see its eldership as the workshop of pastoral apprenticeship? Why do we assume the distant ivory tower rather than the local coffee shop is the most realistic locale for developing leaders for Jesus’ church? What if every local church saw it as a divine responsibility to develop leading elders with Christ-like character, theological depth, and vocational ministry capability? And, perhaps even more outrageous, what if training institutions saw it as their unique call to partner with local churches and their elders and not just be that far-off place a few struggle to get to?
So, again, which is most important: pastor or elder?
Many say the pastor of course! Pastors come with resumes chocked full of reasons why they are the greatest thing since Simons, Spurgeon, or sliced bread. Three cheers for the certificates on my wall!
But. Yes, we must face this big “but.” In the life of the vast majority of congregations it is elders who outlive pastors. If a congregation finds itself in a pickle, a deadlock, or facing new realities, who is most likely to leave or be asked to leave? Very, very seldom will it be an elder. Elders trump pastors. Read ‘em and weep.
Fully understood, pastors are first elders in character and only secondly those called to live out a particular gift-mix in a unique way. A “pastor” is essentially an elder with benefits in that they are those of elder quality called and freed to focus their time on the health of the local body.
Paul did not instruct Titus to appoint pastors on Crete, but elders (Titus 1:5). He says, in essence, that the whole Jesus movement depends on these people. I concur. Any church I have been part of is as healthy as her elders. In fact, good elders can save a church from a bad pastor, but a good pastor can rarely save a church from the debilitating affects of bad eldership. The future of the church is helped, but does not hinge upon what is produced in colleges and seminaries
What trumps all is the elders we disciple in our churches—of whom only a small minority will ever end up with a nicely matted piece of paper to hang in their office.
So, what might happen if pastors—those with elder quality well equipped through the strengths training institutions have to offer—would spend more of their time making disciples of elder quality instead of running themselves ragged doing tasks that look good on a year-end report?
My hunch is we’d have oodles of elders capable of enormously solid spiritual oversight and so many pastors we’d need to start more churches to give them all something to do. Now, there’s a crazy thought!