What Most Christians Don’t Know About “Church” and How It’s Hurting Us Right Now – Part III – The Leadership of the Church

“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” (Ephesians 4:11)

God created the “office” of pastor and teacher, right?  Well, yes and no.  If you mean leadership functions and positions within the body of Christ, then yes.  If you mean the contemporary 2011 positions that we see, then you might want to pause for a second before you answer.

Oftentimes we’re inclined to read back into Scripture whatever it is that we see today and assume things must have been the same way in biblical times.  This leads to misunderstanding.  Take for instance the position of “pastor” just mentioned in the above passage.  Did you know that it’s really the only verse in the New Testament in which we find the word “pastor” referring to a position?  (Typically it is an activity described for church leaders in general, “shepherding,” as in John 21:16, Acts 20:17, and 1 Peter 5:1-2).  It is the Greek word poimenas and it literally means “shepherds” (“pastor” is merely the Latin word).  Clearly it is a metaphor to describe a role within a church, but not necessarily a specific office or title to be held.  Despite the concept of pastor as a specific role being mentioned only once in the New Testament, it remains the focal point or mainstay in churches that came out of the Reformation.  (And since I often get questions about Catholic terminology, just so you know, “priest” is only used several times for Christians in the NT, as opposed to the Jews where high/chief priests are mentioned frequently, and in each case it refers to all Christians universally, not church leaders.)

The early Christian church unquestionably had leadership.  But they didn’t necessarily have certain offices that required filling as we see in churches today.  In first century Christianity, you saw a faith group without priests, temples, or sacrifices, who were led under the headship of Christ.  Sure, there were appointed post-apostolic elders and leaders (e.g. Timothy, Titus, etc.), but there didn’t appear to be much hierarchical structure.  This would start to change at the time of Ignatius of Antioch towards the end of the 1st century AD.  Ignatius was an influential early church leader who began to elevate one elder in each church above the others.  This elder was called the “bishop.”  Ignatius would go on to write much about how the bishop, in essence, stood in the place of God on earth while the elders (or presbyters) functioned in place of the twelve apostles.  And over time it began to fall solely on the bishop to be the one dispensing the Lord’s Supper, conducting baptisms, counseling, leading church discipline, approving marriages, and preaching & teaching & leading prayer.  In the second century this model was adopted by many churches and by the end of the third century, it was the norm most everywhere.  The bishop was now “the professional” of Christian worship.

Subsequent early Christian leaders and writers would further the cause of a separate “ministerial” class of Christians.  Clement of Rome argued that the Old Testament order of priests should find fulfillment in the Christian church.  Clement and Tertullian both used the word “clergy” to refer to a special class of ministers and Clement referred to the common members as “laity.”  Cyprian of Carthage was a pagan orator and teacher of rhetoric who converted to Christianity and became an influential leader, but didn’t appear to give up many of his pagan notions about worship when it came to priests, temples, altars, sacrifices, and dramatic influential speeches.

By the fourth century AD, there was a clear caste of clergy.  There was one bishop to each church, under whom functioned presbyters (a position that eventually became the local “priest”), under whom functioned deacons, under whom was the laity.  At this time, there also came about more organization and hierarchy as some churches (and bishops) began exercising authority over others.  Furthering the authority of the bishops was Cyprian (208-258 AD, mentioned earlier), who sought to strengthen the office of bishop by arguing for the succession of bishops tracing back to Peter, an idea known as apostolic succession (which is also mentioned in the writings of Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus, but Cyprian was the first to turn this into doctrine).  This all led to a non-New Testament concept called sacerdotalism – the belief that there is a divinely appointed person to mediate between God and people.  (By the way, if you are wondering, Catholicism accepts this.  Lutheranism rejects this.  See an explanation here if you’re interested in more details.)  By the fifth century, the universal priesthood of all believers that the Apostle Paul speaks about in 1 Peter 2:9 was all but lost.

From the time of Constantine, clergy had been singled out as “different” from the rest of Christians.  Constantine mandated that the clergy receive fixed annual salaries, tax exemption, freedom from trial in secular courts, special clothes (that of Roman officials), special hair-cuts (called tonsures – trust me, not flattering) and other points of separation from “the average Christian.”

Years later, the Reformers would do a great deal to recover the priesthood of all believers.  But was it enough?  While men like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli rightly taught that every Christian has direct access to God without need of a human mediator (as had formerly been prescribed for years in the church), they still held a fairly narrow view of the ministry they had come into – namely, that the work of the church was still to be done by the trained few, typically those who had been “ordained” for such work, rather than the work being done by the gifted assembly of believers.

All  of this affects what we see as the normal role of “pastor” in the Christian church today.  And while we have freedom with positions in the church in the same way that we have freedom in worship, I’m not convinced that the contemporary view is always the healthiest for churches or pastors.  The following I believe is evidence of that….

There are currently about 1/2 million Christian pastors in the U.S.  Things like high stress, burnout, emotional breakdown, and depression occur at abnormally high rates among them.  Take a look at the following statistics about pastors (mostly gathered from research by The Barna Group):

  • 94 % feel pressured to have an ideal family
  • 80 % work on average more than 50 hours a week (often 6 or 7 days a week)
  • 81 % say they have insufficient time with their spouses
  • 80 % believe that pastoral ministry affects their family negatively
  • 70 % do not have someone they consider a close friend
  • 70 % have lower self-esteem than when they entered ministry
  • 80 % currently describe themselves as feeling discouraged or having dealt with depression
  • about 1/2 say they are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and unrealistic expectations
  • 1/3 have seriously considered leaving ministry in the past year

These statistics are significantly higher than corresponding questions to other professions.  And there are other interesting findings.  Most pastors are asked, on average, to juggle 16 major tasks (of which they feel they inadequately do most).  And over the past 25 years the length of the average pastorate in the US has been almost cut in half, from 7 years to 4 years, the most common reason for resignation being pastoral burnout.  Think about that…4 years!  I challenge someone to find me a career that has a faster average burnout rate.

Many pastors feel a tremendous stress (to be fair, often self-induced) that they are getting paid to make people feel good, entertain people, be friendly, have a popular wife and well-behaved children, behave flawlessly, and always be cheerful, highly spiritual, and available to everyone at a moment’s notice.  Who wouldn’t crack under those conditions?

Statistics seem to show that there is a non-New Testament pressure on many contemporary pastors to be perfect, talk perfectly, and work perfectly, often involving work that has little if anything to do with God’s Word.  (I once heard a pastor say that he needed to be at the church building at a certain time to open the door for a plumber because “that’s my job” and “my responsibility.”  I’m certainly not suggesting that a pastor considers himself above others or above certain work.  But, if that’s this man’s “job,” then the congregation really isn’t looking for a spiritual leader that will help them grow spiritually and serve one another.  They’re looking for a property manager who will also throw together a weekly sermon.)

The health of the pastor is one concern.  The larger concern in my estimation is the health of the congregation.  If a congregation predominantly believes that their “duty” as Christians is to show up, passively be there, and let the pastor (or worship leaders in general) do ministry, the entire congregation suffers mightily.  Then we’ve missed the concept that the Jewish priesthood has ended (a main message of the book of Hebrews), the notion of every Christian being uniquely gifted (the message of 1 Corinthians 12-14), and the idea behind the universal Christian priesthood (the message of 1 Peter 2).

My personal understanding is that every single person in a congregation should have a role/job/duty.  If you were all of a sudden removed from your local body of believers, they should hurt in the same way a physical body would have to compensate if a leg, hand, or other appendage were amputated from the body.  Your congregation (the body of Christ) should have to find a way to replace the work that you are currently doing with your talents.  We’re promised that every single Christian has gifts.  If those gifts are not being managed in such a way that there is service to others in the body of Christ, they’re being used (or unused) selfishly.  And the truth is that the person who isn’t using their gift(s) regularly to serve others is undoubtedly hurting themselves primarily.  God designed Christians to serve one another.  If you’re not serving others with your talents, you WILL feel incomplete and dissatisfied in your faith.  If you don’t currently have an outlet for your talents, talk to your pastor.  Part of his job is to train you to develop your talents and it’s important for him to be humble enough to understand that the ministry is not going to fall apart if he’s not micromanaging every detail, but flourishes according to New Testament design when he hands it over to gifted members who are often MORE qualified for certain acts of service.  This is good for the church.

So, am I trying to write myself out of a job :)?  No.  Am I trying to complain about the roles of pastors?  No.  Am I saying that the role of pastor in 2011 may need some reconsideration?  Probably.  Mostly, I’m trying to continuously push towards a healthier church – members growing healthier and into their potential through Christian development, pastors that are spending time in the right areas so that they grow themselves (since it’s rare for a congregation’s health to improve if a pastor’s spiritual health plateaus), and that we continue to grow up as a church, founded on the writings of the Apostles & Prophets, with Christ Jesus as our cornerstone.

For further reading and research: Early Christians Speak (Everett Ferguson), Paul’s Idea of Community (Robert Banks), Christian Priesthood Examined (R.C.P. Hanson), History of the Christian Church (Philip Schaff), The Ministry in Historical Perspectives (H. Richard Niebuhr).

8 thoughts on “What Most Christians Don’t Know About “Church” and How It’s Hurting Us Right Now – Part III – The Leadership of the Church

  1. Pastor Hein,

    I am loving this series. Please see it through to completion.

    Isn’t this neat? I don’t know you but we are both WELS, located on opposite sides of the continent yet I am learning and growing as a result of your sharing.


  2. Midge Rodenbeck says:

    I am sharing this series with my former LCMS pastor by his request. God is blessing His work in His Kingdom through your blog and your faithful use of gifts He has given.

  3. R.F.Westendorf says:

    I appreciated the historical background and agree that gifted laity should join in providing ministry.

    It is distressing to see how many of my brothers are suffering from “burnout.” In fifty years of ministry I had my share of stress, but never wanted to quit. And my family shared in that blessing.

    I wonder if there is isn’t a more subtile and significant reason for dissatisfaction in the pastoral ministry. I know it’s an antiquated question, but what if Barna could tell us how many of these unhappy pastors grew up with full-time mothers? So much of our self-esteem comes from the unearned attention we receive in early childhood. If that attention was minimal, our self-esteem is weaker than it could have been, and low self-esteem is a primary cause of burnout.

    Not the whole story, of course, but something to think about.

    • Pastor Westendorf,
      Thanks for reading and of course, thanks for your 50 years of ministry!

      My guess is that there are likely a number of reasonings contributing to pastoral burnout. I think that since the statistics are so closely related specifically to the pastoral field, however, that it may pertain to increasing pressure in the position of pastor. 2011 pastors are asked to be preachers, teachers, counselors, administrators, worship leaders, role models, motivators, entertainers, disciplinarians, fund raisers, youth program directors, theologians, historians, sociologists, linguists, writers, evangelists, wedding planners, human resource departments, and on and on. I believe this is (part of) the reason behind the megachurch phenomenon in society in the past 20 years. Some have figured out that one or two men simply can’t do all of those things well, so you need (whether or not some of these things are truly “needs” is debatable) experts in each area.

      I think the short answer is that too many pastors are asked to do too many tasks, often in areas they were never really trained in. It’s perhaps sometimes their own fault (pride) and sometimes the congregation’s fault (lack of ministry ownership). The overall ministry suffers though. I believe many pastors are giving their best with the time and tools allotted, but their “best” isn’t as good as it could be if their job was more narrowly focused. My guess is we’d see fewer burnouts and better quality ministry.

  4. byby5555 says:

    Author Wendell Berry has his character Jayber Crow [who began training for public ministry, but became the village barber] ponder this way: “I am, I supppose, a difficult man. I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think.”

    And in the words that tell us that not all are meant to be eyes, ears, or feet, but each to use his/her own gifts as members of the Body, I agree that each Sunday as we leave church we are His gifts to the harvest fields we walk through all week long, thousands of His people/priests, meant to share and distribute His word and blessings to those we meet.
    And thus His kingdom come among us also.

    [a grandmother in Wisconsin]

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