In the Bible, leadership is never one-dimensional. In both the Old and New Testaments, God provided different kinds of leaders to serve different functions. In the Old Testament we see patriarchs, prophets, priests, judges and kings. In the New Testament there are apostles, pastors, evangelists, prophets, teachers, shepherd-elders, deacons, and overseers. While there is some overlap between these various roles, they each have a specific purpose.

Why do you think God provided so many different kinds of leaders?

Could it be that God, in his infinite wisdom, knew that there would never be a one-size-fits-all solution to the wide variety of physical, spiritual, and emotional needs that his people would experience throughout their lives? Consider the following situations that a church member might find themselves in:

  1. Some people might be a little too at home in the world and need a prophet to confront their spiritual laziness and call them back to a life of sacrifice and discipleship. They need boldness, honesty, and a clear call to repent.
    1. No doubt there are others who are entrenched in spiritual warfare and need a priest to go to God and intercede fervently on their behalf. They need devotion, prayer, and a partner in their spiritual battle.
    1. Other are walking through the valley of the shadow of death and need a loving, caring pastor to walk alongside them in their grief and despair. They need compassion, patience, and a non-anxious presence to sustain them.

When we read the Gospels, we realize Jesus excelled at each of these leadership roles:

  1. As a prophet, he boldly and courageously called out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders (Matthew 23:13-39) and the worldly thinking of his own disciples (Matthew 16:23).
  2. As a priest he offered heartfelt prayers of intercession for his disciples (John 17:6-12), the future church (John 17:20-23)—even the soldiers who were crucifying him (Luke 23:34).
  3. As a pastor—the Good Shepherd—he showed grace, love and compassion to the “least of these” (Matthew 9:36).

Jesus not only knew how to be a prophet, priest, and pastor—he knew which one people really needed in each moment.

What would our leadership look like if we tried to follow Jesus’ example in our lives? Perhaps we’d recognize that one key to great leadership is cultivating the necessary emotional intelligence and spiritual awareness to know the kind of leaders our people need us to be. It’s knowing the right thing to say, at the right time, with the right attitude.

Listen to Paul’s words in Philippians 1:9-11:
“9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” (emphasis added).

Paul prays that the church would grow in love, knowledge and insight so that that would be able to discern what is best—to listen for God’s guidance on the best way to live, serve God, and be in community with others.

Let’s apply the principle of “discerning what is best” to our leadership in the church: When someone needs a pastor, we can’t show up as a prophet and expect good results. We’ll burn them out and come across as harsh and uncaring. At the same time, when someone really does need a bold prophet to confront them, and we show up as a pastor to soothe them, we’re depriving them of the tough conversation they need to really get back on track with God.

When you think about the different kinds of leaders we see in the Bible, no one is going to be an expert at all of it. You will have strengths and weaknesses and aspects of leadership that come more naturally to you. At the same time, we should always be striving to grow in our leadership skills—and our ability to know the kind of leader we need to be in each moment.

5 Responses

  1. We have three perfect words, elder, shepherd and overseer. Why muddy the waters with the term “pastor?” According to the current definition, a pastor is, “A person, as a priest or minister, in spiritual and jurisdictional charge of a parish, church, congregation, or community. A Christian minister or priest having spiritual charge over a congregation or other group. A layperson having spiritual charge over a person or group.”

    When “others” hear the word ‘pastor,’ they think of a single person (male or female) who “… is described as the head of the administrative body, commonly called the church elders…” . When someone is introduced to “the” pastor, they assume to be speaking with “the” boss of the congregation. Within Catholicism, the pastor is the head of the local parish

    I noticed that many congregations are no longer using the word “elder,” but have changed to “shepherd.” Which, by the way, is the English translation of the Latin word for… you guessed it, pastor.

    Why is it that we seem to work so desperately hard to be like “all the others?”

    1. Hey Rudy, I agree with your point about the way most people hear / understand the term “pastor.” Really the simplest explanation here was just my desire to use alliteration to try and capture three ways of approaching leadership. I probably would have gone with “Shepherd” instead of of “Pastor” if I wasn’t trying to stick with all “P” words. I tried to link those words as much as possible to make it clear that the role of a pastor is to shepherd a flock.

      You might be familiar with the various terms for the elder / shepherd/ overseer role in the New Testament, but one of them is poimén (a shepherd) and its corresponding verb poimainó (to shepherd, to be a shepherd). Acts 20:28 is helpful because it says the role of the overseer (episkopos) is to shepherd (poimainó) the flock. There is a title (overseer) and there is a function (shepherding). Our church primarily uses the word “shepherd” for that elder/overseer role, and it’s because we want to emphasize what they do (the ministry of shepherding) instead of the office they hold.

      I appreciate your comments and hope my response alleviates some of your frustration over my use of the word pastor.

  2. Saw this tweet about standing in the gap:
    Adam Fields @fields
    May 24

    “Never Again” is a fairly common refrain about the holocaust, but I think a lot of people don’t really internalize that that means “defend marginalized groups ***before it gets bad***” and not just “don’t let people marched off to death camps”.

    I suppose every Christian is bouncing between Numbers 11:29 and Acts 7:51…

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