What is a Senior Pastor and Why Do We Have One?

August 7, 2008

This is a summary of the fourth sermon in the six-part series, “God Gave Pastors and Teachers,” preached on July 6, 2008. The audio is available here.)

What is a senior pastor, and why do we have one?

In this series, we are exploring what the Bible says about the role of pastors and elders in the local church. These are vital truths, often misunderstood in the church today, which are key for us to understand if we are to build a church that brings glory to God.

Let me remind you of some of what we’ve seen in first three sermons:

The first sermon focused on the centrality and necessity of preaching. The most solemn exhortation in all of Scripture precedes Paul command to Timothy to preach the word. God calls men to a preaching ministry, in part because naturally we don’t want to hear the Word – instead, we want to gather teachers to tell us what we like. A man who will preach the Word faithfully in season and out of season, whether people like it and large crowds come or whether they walk out, is a gift to the church.

The second and third examined biblical teaching on elders/pastors/overseers (which are all the same office.) The Holy Spirit makes them overseers, not man. They exist to help the church fulfill its threefold purpose:

  • To Express joy in Christ
  • To Spread joy in Christ
  • To Deepen joy in Christ.

Elders accomplish this through shepherding/pastoring. So think of shepherding/pastoring in the terms of Ephesians 4:12: Equipping believers for the work of ministry so that that we all might express joy, spread joy, and deepen joy in Christ. We saw that shepherding or pastoring is a comprehensive term for all that elders do: Preaching, teaching, and exhorting are all parts of shepherding. Indeed, the emphasis biblically in direct commands to elders is on prayer and the public aspects of ministry, though it is also clear that caring for the flock as individuals is important also.

We also noted that in calling us sheep, the Bible is not flattering us. Sheep are quite stupid; they are in desperate need of a shepherd. We have that shepherd, the Great Shepherd, Jesus Himself.

We also noted that human pastors/shepherds are actually sheep too. They must depend on the Great Shepherd, or they will accomplish nothing.

Finally, the ultimate goal of the pastors/shepherds is not healthy sheep, happy sheep, or well-fed sheep. Instead, the goal is for all of us to become the kind of sheep Jesus is: a sacrificial lamb. So the central task of the elder/pastor is to prepare you for sacrifice, to prepare you for laying down your life.

So: How do elders function together to accomplish this? Are there different types of elders? Are there authority relationships among elders?

The Bible doesn’t provide us with detailed instructions here, but it does give us some necessary guidelines. My goal this morning: To look at those guidelines, to describe how Fred and I understand them, and to communicate how we as a church will try to live that out, now and in the future.

Two headings:

The Position of Senior Pastor

The Role of Senior pastor

I’ll conclude with some thoughts about how you respond to pastors.

The Biblical Position of Senior Pastor

Four biblical observations that define the role of senior pastor:

We’ve already seen the first two:

1) The centrality and necessity of preaching

2) God calls individuals to preach.

3) Paul commands the church to support preaching elders

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.  18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 1 Timothy 5:17-18

The word “rule” here means elder leadership; that is, doing all that we’ve mentioned: Preaching, teaching, guiding, equipping, and building up the body.

Which elders rule well? Paul primarily has one type of elder in mind: those who labor in preaching and teaching. Among elders in a local church, frequently one is especially called and gifted at preaching and teaching. What should be done with such elders?

The English translation might seem to imply that such elders should be “considered for double honor” – as if the church has a choice, and must decide whether that elder is worthy or not. But that’s not what the Greek says. We could render this sentence, “The elders who rule well must be considered worthy of double honor, especially, those who labor in preaching must be considered worthy of double honor.”

What does “double honor” mean?

All elders get honor. Some should get something more. Not more honor, but an additional type of honor. This additional type of honor is financial support, v 18 shows.

In verse 18, Paul quotes Jesus from Luke 10:7, when he sends out the 72 and says, “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages.”

Question: If Paul means “Pay your preacher!” why doesn’t he just say that?

Because that’s NOT the primary point. Money is not primary. Honor is. Respect is. Paul is saying, “Value this ministry. Esteem it highly! Know it is central for the church!               Exhibit this by honoring the office through financial support.”

4) Most local assemblies have only one who is financially supported, who

labors in preaching and teaching

Most assemblies at this time were small. They often met in homes, as we see in verse 2 of Philemon. Although these small assemblies most often would have more than one elder, most are unlikely to be able to support more than one financially. (By the way, this is still true today, even in this country. About three-quarters of churches in the US have less than 100 in attendance on a Sunday morning. Big churches get publicity. But most churches are small, and support financially one pastor/elder, if that.)

The Bible doesn’t give a title for this elder who teaches and preaches and receives financial support.  What should we call him?

Teaching elder? – but that has specific connotations among some churches

“The pastor”? – this is misleading, since all elders are pastors

“Senior Pastor”? – In writing our constitution, this is the term we decided on.

The term “senior pastor” isn’t perfect. It too could be misleading. But we intend this term to mean the biblical position of the elder who has primary responsibility for preaching and teaching, and thus in accordance w 1 Timothy 5:17 is honored through the church’s financial support. That is the senior pastor.

The Role of the Senior Pastor

From the description of the biblical position, it’s already clear that the senior pastor does much of the preaching and teaching. This implies:

  • That he has a deep knowledge of Scripture;
  • That he not only is able to teach but is gifted in preaching and teaching;
  • That he has the main responsibility for lifting up a biblical vision of God, of the church, of our neighbors, of missions, of joy in God;
  • Thus, he has a special role in helping the church to fulfill its threefold purpose of expressing joy in Christ, spreading joy in Christ, and deepening joy in Christ.
  • Because he has this role, he often becomes the public face of the local church – representing the church with other churches and with others in the community.

Five clarifications and Implications of the role of the senior pastor:

1) Must a church have a senior pastor?

We have seen biblically that most churches will have someone in this position, whether they use this title or not. Sometimes a man will be playing this role without the double honor of receiving financial support.

But not infrequently a biblical church will have no senior pastor. Most often this will occur in months or years of transition between senior pastors. Indeed, in our church in Massachusetts in the late 1990s, there was no one in this role.

2) Though the senior pastor is the most prominent elder, this does not imply that he is the most important.

We have already said that the senior pastor is often the public face of the church. He thus is prominent. And his role undoubtedly is very important. There is no one in the church with a more important role.

However, all members of the church are important.

Consider two biblical analogies:

First, the human body. How prominent are the tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder? Not at all. But if you get a tiny stone in one of those tubes, you’ll realize how important they are. Your eyes and your hair are much more prominent, but those tubes have a vital role that they need to play.

Or consider the Trinity itself. God the Son undoubtedly is more prominent that God the Holy Spirit. But does that then imply that He is more important? That is a nonsensical question.

Just so with the body of Christ, the church. Every believer is gifted by the Holy Spirit; every believer is unique. There are ways that each of you can picture Jesus, ways that you can witness to others, that Fred and I cannot.

Ephesians 4:11-16 hangs as a banner over this entire series of sermons: The work of pastors and teachers is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry so that we live out verses 15 and 16:

We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

So yes, the senior pastor has the most prominent role, but he is not more important than others in the way that God builds His church.

3) There are differences in roles and thus in responsibilities among the elders

In addition to having no difference in importance, we believe that there is no difference in authority among the elders. If the elders are dealing with an issue that comes to a vote among them, every elder has one vote. The senior pastor is no different than the others. If the elders are dealing with an important issue that requires consensus among the elders, any single elder, including the senior pastor, can veto that consensus.

Nevertheless, there are differences in roles among the elders, and thus in responsibilities. Clearly the senior pastor has the primary responsibility for preaching, unlike the other elders. He and any other elder receiving the double honor of financial support rightly should have many responsibilities associated with their roles. That financial support is intended to free up their time so that they can devote more to the church. Thus with very rare exceptions, the responsibilities of those receiving double honor will be greater than the responsibilities of those not supported financially.

So here at DGCC: Fred and I have roles in building up the body that will differ from those of any future non-staff elders. These roles in part result from our positions of senior and associate pastor, and in part from the way the Holy Spirit has gifted each of us, enabling us to build up the body. As a church we should celebrate these different gifts, and the consequent different roles and responsibilities.

4) While they therefore have different roles, the elders should be one united team.

  • Those with more prominent roles should have no pride; there should be no lording it over others with less prominent roles.
  • Those with less prominent roles should exhibit no jealousy, no envy; they should feel no sense of inferiority.
  • There should be no factions, no one with an agenda, no representatives of different elements in the congregation.
  • Instead, there should be deep respect for each other, deep trust in each other. All the elders together should prayerfully seeking God’s face, praying for direction; all should use their talents, gifts, and skills to unite the body behind the biblical vision cast by the senior pastor
  • As a team, the elders should be working to live out all the different implications of shepherding the flock that we discussed previously, so that the church might fulfill its purpose by expressing joy, spreading joy, and deepening joy in Christ.

5) Given the prominent role of the senior pastor, and the importance of united, well-functioning team, his gifts/talents/skills should have large impact on the makeup of the leadership of the church.

That is: Build an effective leadership team around the senior pastor God gives you.

Thus: Different churches rightly should look quite different in their leadership.

Although this is a clear implication of biblical ideas, I had not really considered these issues until I consulted with John Bradley of IDAK Group in April, and had follow-up discussions with Fred and others in the church.

Once again, the point is not that the senior pastor is especially important. Personally, I am a sheep. And I share the sheepy characteristics of being stupid and prone to wander, just like the rest of you. But the office of senior pastor is key for the church. Having a senior pastor who fulfills his ministry (2 Timothy 4:5), who is focusing on the exercise of his particular gifts, who is guiding a united team of leaders who are all pulling the same direction, is vital if a congregation is to fulfill its purpose.

So, it makes sense to set up structures in the church to take advantage of the senior pastor’s strengths, and that don’t require him to operate most of his time in areas of weakness.

For example: Here is one insight gained through the analysis I went through in April: I’m an initiator, a vision caster, and a preacher. I am not a manager. When new ministries start in the church, I should be involved, helping to cast vision, to ensure we are all on the same wavelength. Once the ministry gets going, it can then run smoothly without my management. But suppose this church had a different senior pastor who was not an initiator yet had high management skills. He might well find helping to initiate ministries tedious, and say, “Just do it! Start the ministry! I’ll meet with you and make adjustments as things go along.”

The point is this: Because of the unique biblical role of the senior pastor, it is important to consider his gifts, his strengths, and his talents, and design leadership structures to best take advantage of those gifts.


Some thoughts about how you respond to a church’s senior pastor:

A number of pastors and leaders of churches give this impression: “We really know what we’re doing – we’ve got church figured out. Come and join this well-oiled, well-functioning machine.”

I hope the pastors and elders of DGCC never give that impression.

I look at the goal of the church in the New Testament – everyone serving, everyone spreading, everyone growing – and think it’s impossible to achieve. There’s no human technique, no manmade system, that will bring that about. Nor is there a plan within Scripture for bringing it about other than devotion to prayer, preaching the Word, reading Scripture, loving, encouraging, admonishing, teaching, and singing to one another.

Furthermore: Look at the leaders:

Right now this church has two men named as elders/pastors/overseers/shepherds: Fred and me. We have something to say to you this morning: We’re really sheepy shepherds. We see our limitations and our sins very clearly. We are on our faces every day, looking to the cross, turning to God, seeking wisdom.

We praise God for the gifts and talents he’s given us. But, frankly, we see our sins and weaknesses more clearly.

So: Don’t choose a church because you think the senior pastor or the associate pastor is particularly talented and skilled. Choose a church because you think pastors and elders are following Christ, are dedicated to glorifying Him, are full of joy in Christ.

Don’t come to this church to follow Coty or Fred. Don’t come here because of any human accomplishment, personalities, or skills we may have. For those human skills, on their own, will not lead you to green pasture.

Yes, it makes sense to build a leadership team around whoever holds the office of senior pastor – the office is important; the office should be protected and guarded and used well.

But Fred is just a sheep in the office of associate pastor, and I am just a sheep in the office of senior pastor.

Come to this church – to follow Jesus Christ. Fred and I, by God’s grace, will point you to Him.

For every one of us has rebelled against our Creator. Every one of us, though created for His glory, has chosen to delight in the things of this world more than in Him. Every one of us deserves his just condemnation. But He sent His Son Jesus to live a perfect life, to die on the cross, to pay the penalty on our behalf, so that all who turn to Him, all who trust in Him, might be united with Him – and, as part of His body, might express joy in Him, spread joy in Him, and deepen joy in Him.

This is what every church should be about: A group of sinful, wandering sheep, led by sinful, wandering sheep, who by God’s grace and by His power are daily becoming more like Jesus the Lamb of God laying down His life, and less like self-centered sheep.

He is our shepherd. By His grace, He will lead us, through pastors and elders He raises up; He will equip us; and we will become the glorious bride of Christ – to the praise of His glorious grace.


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