Tag Archives: pastors

3 Reasons Shared Leadership Rules

Last post I gave a super brief history of where the Presbyterian idea of an elder-led church came from. In this post, I ask the question, “What difference does it make?”

A difference in terms

01v/11/arve/G2582/020One new thing I discovered in my research in preparation for the panel was that there has been some division within the Presbyterian tradition over how to line up the offices of leadership with the words for leaders in the New Testament. I have always understood that the “elders” of the New Testament were the same as in the Presbyterian church, and that pastors were considered to be elders whose special function was teaching and preaching, as 1Timothy 5:17 says. I was surprised to learn that Calvin did not see it that way. As said above, he named four offices: pastor, teacher, elder and deacon. Calvin connects the New Testament “elder” with his idea of pastor. He recognizes that there is a great interchangeability in the words for leaders, and especially notes that “bishop” and “elder” are identical. But he equates that office with pastors. His office of Elder he connects with the Biblical word “governor” in Romans 12. The word, “elder”, of course, at its simplest means older person, presumably experienced and wise. It’s not specifically a title. And Calvin seems to take it that way.

So some strands of Presbyterian tradition link the Biblical “elder” with our current elder. And some do not. This seems to me to question the whole distinction we, in the PC(USA) are now making in our own denomination, seeing pastors and elders both as teaching elders and ruling elders respectively. Calvin did not agree with that distinction, seeing pastors and elders as two separate offices, as two types of one office.

A difference in substance

That’s just the words though. In function the Presbyterian tradition is clear and consistent. Elders and Pastors lead the church together. To shift the focus of this post, I will give three reasons why I think this practice is a good thing.

First, as best as I can tell, it is Biblical. As I already mentioned, it is not easy to read the New Testament and determine how the early church was structured. This is probably because it was not clearly structured yet. That would come later. It is  also because we are really only able to over-see or over-hear how the ran the church in the pages of the New Testament. It is not something that is directly addressed beyond Paul’s qualification lists for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy and Titus. But what does seem clear is that the church in any given city or town was governed by a group of elders, sometimes called bishops, and they were the decisive leaders in that church.

The best view we have of church government in action is in Acts 15, the so-called Jerusalem Council, when the church decided what to do about God bringing in Gentiles into what was up to that point a Jewish sect. I often teach this passage in classes about church government. I ask the question after reading the passage, “Who makes the decision?” I realize that one’s own church background may strongly influence one’s answer to that question, but I see the decision decisively being made after the apostles and the elders agree. It’s not Peter, or James, or the people as a whole, but this representative group that decides the matter. Since the office of apostle, according to the Biblical definition of an apostle as one who has learned the Gospel directly from Jesus (see Acts 1:21-22 and Galatians 1:11-12), ended with the Apostles themselves, that leaves elders, which, unlike Calvin, I understand to refer to leaders who were not, but may include pastors.

powerSecondly, you can’t trust power further than you can throw it. A hallmark belief in the Reformed tradition is the total depravity of man. I remember my seminary professors pointing out that total depravity does not mean people are totally awful, but rather that it means that every area of our lives are touched and twisted by sin. This is true of our use of power. Left to his own devices, it is only a matter of time before a person with power, like a pastor or priest, will use his power for his own purposes. Spreading out that power, in the church among a group of leaders, or in a nation a separation of powers, minimizes the chances of such an abuse of power.

Finally, shared leadership is a demonstration and living-out of the communal aspect of our faith. As Paul makes a point of emphasizing, Jesus is the head of the Church. The rest of us are, together, the body. And we all need to be in it and connected to one another. Jesus is the head. There is no room for another.

Respect Your Elders

My next two posts may be kind of in-house posts as they reflect on the way the Presbyterian Church (USA), my denomination, is governed, but I share them because there can be no more practical idea in the church than who is in charge in any given church. And our ideas in this matter are very much shaped by our church’s and the Church’s history.  

I learned the importance of church government when I worked as Youth Director in a Congregational church back in my first year of seminary. I learned to appreciate the more connectional nature of my own denomination when I got involved with the congregational church’s way of doing things beyond the local congregation.  Needless to say, I was not impressed.  

So, if you are not Presbyterian, think about how your church is governed and what that says about your church’s values and about its beliefs about people and the business of church.

A few weeks ago I participated in a panel discussion at our Prebytery meeting that focused on the heart of what makes Presbyterians Presbyterian—the role of elders in the leadership of the church. This was brought about by a recent change in the names of the ordained offices in our denomination. We have three such offices. They used to be called Minister of Word and Sacrament, Elder, and Deacon. We have renamed the first two Teaching Elder and Ruling Elder respectively. The change provided an opportunity to talk about why the names matter and what they say about how we do church today.

The big thing is that the leadership of the church belongs to more than the clergy, and especially to more than any one pastor or priest. And this makes a world of difference when you talk about discerning God’s will and giving stability to the church.

An elder-led church goes back to the Reformation, when the stranglehold of the clergy on the neck of the church was challenged and broken. While this led to a divided church, it also led to a more faithful church, even within Roman Catholicism. 

It was the so-called Reformed branch of the Reformation, embodied most fully in John Calvin and the church of Geneva, that a new idea of leadership took greatest hold. The church was to be led by a group of Christian men (and it was just men at that time, and for centuries, of course). Calvin named four offices of leadership: pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons. Pastors preached and gave pastoral care. Teachers taught the Bible in the Genevan schools. Elders, with the Pastors, oversaw the spiritual growth of the members of the church and encouraged them to live faithful lives, and Deacons were charged with caring for the poor and the sick. 

The idea of a shared leadership, involving both clergy and non-clergy was a very controversial idea. Calvin got this radical idea from the Bible, turning to such passages as 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 which emphasize that the Spirit has spread out gifts for leadership in the church. These passages, and several others in the New Testament, reveal that in the early church, local churches were led by a group of leaders called elders, not by a sole priest as was practiced by the time of the Reformation. This practice no doubt arose out of the Jewish synagogue which was led by men of the community (elders) and not by priests or even rabbis.  Since the first Christians were Jewish, they continued the practice they knew. Like most of the other Reformers, Calvin did not regard himself as a teacher of innovations but rather as one calling the church to return to earlier, more faithful practice.

To shorten a long story, the path from Calvin into Presbyterianism as we know it today went through Scotland via John Knox who visited Geneva for a time and famously called it “the most perfect school of Christ.”  I suppose the more spread-out power of an elder- and pastor-led church appealed to the Scottish mindset.

That’s a bit on the origin of the Presbyterian-style elder-led church. Next time, the “so what” in all this…

…But Someone Has to Do It: Visiting and the Pastor, Pt. 2

The question we are asking of the history of the Church in this post is, “What place has regular pastoral visitation held in the practice of the church?”

Starting at the beginning, the Apostles, including Paul, went “house to house” preaching and teaching the Gospel. (1)  And in the couple centuries following the New Testament time, many writers, including Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, the writer of the Apostolic Constitutions, Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, and Augustine, spoke about people needing more than the public times of teaching, but private instruction as well. (2)

As the Church came to emphasize the sacraments as the means of grace in the middle ages, the focus of pastoral work shifted to “the glory and power of the mother church rather than the spiritual development of the members.” (3)

ConfessionalThe private confessional, which began in the monasteries and spread throughout the church by 1215, became the main contact point of the individual and the priest/pastor.  It’s purpose was to make an obedient congregation worthy of the mother church. (4)  In the words of Peter De Jong, “Every Roman Catholic manual on pastoral theology speaks at length of the confessional and it’s place in the life of the church. It is the heart of the spiritual care which the church exercises over the lives of her members.” (5)

The Reformers rejected the idea of the priest mediating forgiveness and turned away from the practice of the private confessional.  Eliminating that “heart of spiritual care” they replaced it with the apostolic practice of going house to house.  In doing so, “Protestantism devised an effective replacement for auricular confession that preserved the best aspects of personal pastoral dialogue, yet tended to protect it from familiar medieval abuses.” (6)

Naturally, such a practice was also very useful in spreading the teaching of the Reformers and correcting the practices they were purging from the Church.

John Calvin and the leaders of Geneva visited each family four times a year in preparation for receiving communion.  They distinguished between family visitation and discipline. Visitation was not to “pry into the hearts…but rather to exhort and stimulate the believers to a life of sanctification,” unlike in confession. (7)

English: Title page of The Reformed Pastor

The Protestant teaching visit reached its peak form in Richard Baxter, the English Puritan, who wrote The Reformed Pastor, one of the standard readings for seminary students of all stripes.  In that book, Baxter lays out his program of visitation.  He believed that a church should be no bigger than what was possible for the pastors to visit once each year, which he estimated at about 800 families (!).  Each week he and an assistant would set aside two days to visit with families for an hour each.  Baxter would invite families to come to him in the town.  The assistant would go out to the country.  Together they would visit with 14 families a week.  The purpose of each visit was to catechize, to instruct the families, usually continuing what has been publicly preached, and to inquire about their spiritual life as a family.  Baxter makes a point to emphasize that such visits were always voluntary, but he never had a family refuse. (8)

That, in brief survey, is what I could ferret out about the history of pastoral visitation.  It’s hard to pin down the practice, which isn’t always described, but the overall path from Gospel-proclaiming to sin-confessing to Bible-teaching is a telling one.

But more on that next time…


(1)  Acts 5:42 & 20:20

(2)  Peter Y. De Jong, Taking Heed of the Flock: a study of the principles and practice of family visitation, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1948, p. 21.

(3) ibid

(4) ibid

(5) De Jong, p. 22.

(6) Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology, Harper SanFrancisco, 1983, p. 175

(7) De Jong, p. 24.

(8)  Andres Purves, Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition, Westminster John Know Press: Louisville, 2001, pp. 111-114.


It’s a Tough Job…Visiting and the Pastor, Pt. 1

There are lots of hard jobs out there.  And there are lots of ways jobs are hard.  In a recent article in The Presbyterian Outlook, Clark Cowden points out that the great business guru Peter Drucker once said that being a  pastor was one of the four hardest jobs in America, after being the President of the United States, the president of a University, and the CEO of a hospital! (1)

Being a pastor is hard because no one really knows what the job is, or to put it more accurately, everyone has an idea of what the job is, and everyone’s idea is different.

The idea of what a pastor is supposed to do has shifted from decade to decade.  As Cowden summarizes, in the 1950’s it was to preach and teach and visit people in their homes.  In the 60’s it was to be a social activist.  In the 70’s, a counselor or therapist.  The 80’s required that pastors be church growth experts.  The 90’s, it was business CEO and fundraiser.  In the 2000’s, a pastor has to be a pro at technology. (1)

It is tough to figure out what, of all those things, needs to be done in any given week, or day.  Some things are easy to find time for; some things I seem never to be able to fit in the schedule.

The particular duty I find hardest is planned, routine visitation.  When I first heard the call to ministry, I resisted it because I always heard about those middle of the night calls, and I doubted whether I was up to handling the crises people face.  But after being in ministry for a while now, I don’t have a problem with those, hard as the situations may be emotionally.  It’s the routine, non-crisis, more social type of visitation that I really struggle with.  And I guess I do for several reasons:Door

1)  I never saw it done.  The church in which I grew up was a pretty big and professional church whose pastors were not that accessible.  They just didn’t do home visits, at least not to my family or any family I knew in the church.  The only other church I belonged to was during seminary, and while I saw the pastor there do hospital visits, and went with him when I interned with him, I did not see him do regular home visiting.

2)  I am an introvert, like many (most?) pastors.  I value spending time with people; it is the most meaningful part of being a pastor.  But it takes a lot of energy for me, and it can be emotionally exhausting.

3)  I fear rejection.  Every time you reach out, whether a phone call or a visit, you take the chance that you will be rejected.  On good days, I say, “bring it on!”  On bad days, I say, “I’ll do that tomorrow.”

4)  Regular visiting is never pressing.  In the Stephen Covey Time Management system (2), regular visiting is in the “important but non-urgent” category, which is usually pushed aside by the urgent stuff, whether it is important or not.  It always seems to be the area from which time is taken to deal with the task with a deadline, or to oil the squeaky wheel.

So, what does the history of the Church have to say here?  I mentioned the changing expectations of pastors since the 1950’s.  What can be learned about where routine, regular, home visitation has fit in the list of expectations and duties of pastors over the centuries?  Preaching, teaching the Bible, and ministering to others in crisis have always been a part of a pastors call.  What about regular visitation?

That’s what we will explore next time.


(1)  Clark Cowden, “Appreciating the Pastor as Juggler”, The Presbyterian Outlook, Sept. 30, 2013, pp.13-14.

(2) See his famous “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”