Skip to site content

Four Ways That Congregations View Pastors

Church members view their pastors in many ways. Here are four views.

The ruler

One view holds that the pastor is the spiritual ruler of the church and that “he” should be deferred to and even obeyed. Such a pastor is placed on a pedestal as one who is spiritually, morally and intellectually above the church members.

The “chain of command” is much like that in the military with the pastor being the “general” and all others being officers and soldiers. This view is expedient – as long as the church and pastor are in agreement about the role.

A pastor who attempts to impose “pastor rule” on a church that doesn’t expect this approach will wreak havoc. A church that expects “pastor rule” from a minister who doesn’t fit the bill will often cause confusion.

There is biblical precedent for this model, but it is not the only one. One downside of this approach is that people who see others as greater than or less than themselves will rarely have authentic, beneficial relationships.

The hireling

A second view of the pastor is that of a “hireling.” This is the administrative opposite of the first view.

The pastor is hardly the “ruler.” Rather, he or she is “ruled” by the church by virtue of being in the church’s employ.

This should not mean that the pastor is a hired hand who can or should do what individual members demand, and there are obvious reasons why not.

One is that it is impractical or impossible. A pastor whose life is caught up in running errands for the members will do little kingdom work. Additionally, this model of pastor is not biblical.

I don’t see the pastor as either dictator or doormat. A church will not take seriously a pastor whom they do not respect. A pastor can’t lead a church that considers him or her little more than spiritual yard help.

The lightning rod

A third view of the pastor that I often see is that of the “lightning rod” for members’ emotions.

From a negative perspective, lots of people have pent-up feelings but aren’t healthy or courageous enough to let them out on the deserving persons or circumstances. The church or the pastor may be a safe target for misplaced negative emotion.

In worst-case scenarios, an angry church will often turn on the pastor as the supposed problem, sending him or her down the pike and thinking their problems are gone.

Likewise, some people have a lot of positive emotion to share, but lack persons with whom to share.

Leaders are often the recipients or subjects of church members’ positive emotion and actions that need a place to land.

More than a few people through the years have “adopted” me as their son, brother or father. That often feels pretty good, but I need to be aware that this gift is not really deserved or truly mine.

Ron Howard of “The Andy Griffith Show” has said he survived in show business, in part, because of Andy Griffith’s wisdom. Griffith told Howard that he shouldn’t ever listen primarily to his worst critics or his greatest fans.

One’s greatest critics will criticize, no matter how well one does. One’s greatest fans will compliment and adore no matter how badly one does. That is good advice.

Leader, servant, peer

The fourth view of the pastor is that of leader/servant/peer.

The pastor is a leader because he or she has (supposedly) a calling, gifts and training for vocational ministry.

The pastor is a servant because he or she is a servant of Christ and truly should serve the church in any number of ways.

The pastor is a peer in that he or she is also a human being with thoughts, wants, joys, sorrows, needs, failings and shortcomings like everyone else.

This is my view. I think it is biblical and fits most pastors and churches best. It encourages respect for the pastor and the office without expecting infallibility from that pastor.

It rightly expects the pastor to serve as preacher, teacher and caregiver, to officiate at weddings and funerals, to counsel those in crisis, and to do any number of other known and unknown duties in church life.

It also sees the pastor as a human being and avoids super-human expectations.

This model encourages maturity and egalitarianism among church members and keeps both church and pastor from exploiting each other.

I don’t want to be put on a pedestal with people deferring to me. After all, everybody needs someone to keep them honest. I certainly do not plan to live my life bowing and scraping toward others for fear that they might fire me or not like me if I don’t do their bidding. As for becoming a lightning rod, I have no control over that.

Each perspective above dwells in most churches. I hope churches try to build a tradition that doesn’t idolize the pastor or role of the pastor, that respects the role and the person, that has reasonable expectations of the pastor, and that still sees the pastor as a fallible human.

When that happens, we can expect a church homecoming one day that will feature a few former pastors who say that church was one of the best things that ever happened to them.

ReggieWarren is the intentional interim pastor at Bethlehem Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., and former member of the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics.