What Is a Pastor?

The apostle Paul listed pastors among those God gave to serve the Church. What is the role of a pastor? How does a pastor help and serve the members?

When we hear the title pastor, it may conjure thoughts of a “preacher” or “minister” or even someone dressed in religious garments.

What is his purpose, and what does a pastor do? Are there certain qualities that a pastor should have? Why is it important for you to know what a pastor is?

Reactions to pastors

Having been a pastor for 16 years, I have had some unique interactions with people I meet. Maybe it’s on a plane, or at a meeting somewhere. After some small talk, they ask me, “What do you do for a living?”

When I tell them I’m a pastor, they often take a deep breath, seemingly trying to remember what they had said to me earlier. Some apologize for the profane language they were using. Others say, “I’m sorry, pastor,” after which I simply inform them they can call me by my name.

Most pastors don’t intend to make people uncomfortable! Considering the role a pastor is supposed to play in serving people, I personally hope I can make them feel comfortable.

The definition of pastor

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a pastor as “a minister in charge of a Christian church or congregation.”

The Greek word translated “pastors” in Ephesians 4:11 is poimen. It means a shepherd, but it is used metaphorically of an elder taking care of God’s flock, the Church. (See our related article “A Pastor as a Shepherd.”)

All pastors are elders (also known today as ministers). However, not all elders (ministers) are pastors with the responsibility to care for congregations.

To learn more about what a pastor is, let’s first look at what God says about the kind of leadership He wants.

Christian leadership

Notice what Jesus Christ said to His disciples in Matthew 20:25-28 in response to some who were seeking a position or title:

Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are called the Pastoral Epistles. They include instructions for Timothy and Titus on how to be leaders in the Church, able to train other leaders.“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

This is the key to understanding what a real Christian leader is, including those who may eventually become pastors.

In verse 26 the New King James Version puts Christ’s words as, “Let him be your servant,” while the King James Version says, “Let him be your minister.” The Greek word translated “servant” or “minister” is diakonos.

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines diakonos as “one who executes the commands of another, especially of a master; a servant, attendant, minister.” But the word is also used for “a deacon, one who, by virtue of the office assigned to him by the church, cares for the poor and has charge of and distributes the money collected for their use.” And it can mean “a waiter, one who serves food and drink.”

Some may be thinking, “Wait a minute, isn’t a minister the one in charge?” Yes. Ministers, especially pastors, have the responsibility to lead congregations, but Jesus Christ clearly showed us that those in leadership positions should also serve.

What is an elder?

Elders are those who have shown a commitment to serve faithfully in spiritual leadership roles in the Church.

Elders, including those appointed to the position of pastor, must be officially ordained. One cannot ordain himself; there is a clear chain of authority given through those God has previously placed in office. Ordination involves the laying on of hands by elders and prayer (Acts 6:6; 14:23; 1 Timothy 4:14).

Qualities of a minister of God

Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are called the Pastoral Epistles. They include instructions for Timothy and Titus on how to be leaders in the Church, able to train other leaders. In these letters, the apostle Paul clearly told them what is required for leadership in the Church.

“This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop [elder or overseer], he desires a good work.

“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil.

“Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:1-7).

We see here a description of what an elder must be and how an elder, especially one who is appointed as a pastor, should act.

Paul covers some of the same qualification in his instructions to Titus.

“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint [other translations say ‘ordain’] elders in every city as I commanded you—if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination.

“For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict” (Titus 1:5-9).

The purpose of a pastor

To understand the purpose of a pastor, let’s look in the book of Ephesians. “And [Christ] Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).

Once again, we see the purpose of ministers, including pastors. They equip the saints (meaning to prepare, to perfect or to furnish). They perform the work of the ministry. They will edify (build up or strengthen) the body—the Church. They will work to bring unity and sound knowledge to the membership.

Pastors will teach and explain things directly from the Word of God, the Bible, in a proper way. They won’t take things out of context or use Scripture in a wrong way to promote a personal belief.

But teaching is not their only duty.

What does a pastor do?

Within the Church, pastors have multiple duties. Pastors serve in the role of counselors. For those who request it, they counsel individuals preparing for marriage and work with those who are having marriage difficulties. They give guidance to those who are struggling with addictions. They visit the sick and needy and anoint and pray for those who are suffering or afflicted (James 5:14-16).

Following the example of Christ and the apostles, they teach on the Sabbath day, explaining Scripture, giving direction and support (Luke 4:16; Acts 17:2). They teach the truth of the Bible and its doctrines as they have been taught (Titus 1:9).

They also provide a mix of congregational activities, such as Bible studies, meals and activities that create fellowship opportunities where the members can grow closer to one another (Acts 2:42, 46-47).

Pastors today also serve in other ways, such as writing, serving in camp programs and helping with education and leadership development.

A pastor is there to counsel those whom God calls to repentance, change and baptism (Acts 2:38-39; see our articles “What Is Repentance?” and “What Is Baptism?” and related articles).

The Church of God, a Worldwide Association, has pastors around the world who are dedicated to serving those who are interested and seeking help. If you would like to speak with one of our pastors, you can find the one closest to you on our “Congregations” page.

See also our article “A Pastor as a Shepherd” for more about the role of a pastor.

About the Author

Paul Carter

Paul Carter is pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, congregations in Los Angeles and Bakersfield, California. He is a contributing writer for Life, Hope & Truth, as well as the director of two summer camps for teens and preteens in the Southwest. He is married with three wonderful children, and enjoys the outdoors including hunting, fishing, hiking and volleyball.

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