The Case Against the Senior Pastor

Article
08.29.2011

Should churches call one of their pastors the “senior pastor”? To state my answer as moderately as I know how, I will lean in the direction of saying “probably not.”

Certainly there are many places where I would agree with those who would answer that question with a “yes.” Churches who use the title of “senior pastor” might, like me, affirm that the Lord has given a plurality of elders real authority in the church (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Phil. 1:1; Jas. 5:14), and that elders should lead by their teaching and living (1 Tim. 5:18; Heb. 13:7, 17; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). And I would affirm, like those who say “yes,” that one man’s particular gifting may cause him to rise above the other elders in leadership and influence in the congregation.

Still, for all this agreement, I’m hesitant to say that a church should formally recognize one elder as the senior elder. This is not a settled conviction either for me or for the other elders in the church I serve. We hold this position lightly. We have dear friends and mentors whom we greatly respect who are called “senior pastor.” In fact, a minority of us would be fine with the title “senior pastor,” and I can foresee the day when our church calls a pastor “senior pastor,” whereas I pray we never deny the doctrine of the Trinity or the substitutionary nature of the atonement. But for now, our church has chosen not to adopt this title for any of our pastors.

At our church we are blessed to have many gifted men who serve as elders, both in a non-paid and in a paid (or staff) capacity. We have chosen to title the staff elders according to their functions in the church in order to distinguish them from other staff and to identify the areas of ministry over which they have special responsibility. For example, we have a “pastor of preaching,” a “pastor of discipleship,” and a “pastor of member care.” But we don’t call any one pastor “senior pastor.”

I would like to explain our hesitancy to call a man “senior pastor” by asking four questions.

TITLES MATTER

First, what does calling a man “senior pastor” communicate?

Titles communicate how significant we view a person to be and what we gauge our relative status vis-à-vis that person to be. I have taught my children to reply to instruction by saying, “Yes, sir.” I refer to the leader of the seminary where I teach as “president.” I have approached the bench in a courtroom and called the person sitting there “Your Honor.” Words of address matter greatly.

And they matter in the church. They matter to the congregation and they matter to the person who is being addressed. At a school or in a court, deferential titles of respect are appropriate. But they don’t seem to be proper in the body of Christ. We want to be careful that our titles of address reflect the reality of who we are as a body in Christ. In Christ we are brothers and sisters; we are all saints; we have deacons and pastors/elders/overseers who are servant leaders protecting and serving the body. But I don’t think we have New Testament warrant to label anyone “senior” as if his status is above that of others in the body.

Our church is located very near a seminary and we are blessed to have many members from there, some of whom are professors, including me. Yet every year our elders send a letter to our church members encouraging them not to elevate seminary professors in the congregation above others by calling them “Dr.” at church. Whereas we think it may be appropriate for students to call a professor “Dr. Wright” in the classroom, we don’t think that this is appropriate in the church. In church we’d prefer for them to say “Shawn” or “Pastor Shawn.” Though we are surely called to give special honor to certain kinds of individuals within the church, such as older men, widows, elders, and even the vulnerable (see 1 Tim. 5:1, 3, 17; 1 Cor. 12:23), there are no distinctions between members of the church in formal status or the deference we should show to some over others.

We feel that Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 are apropos here. Our Lord told his disciples, “You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant” (vv. 8-11). Although Jesus wasn’t directly addressing titles in the church, the principle seems to apply. As much as we can, we desire to follow him in this way and not give anyone a title that may tend to communicate to him or others that he has a status above theirs. We are all one in Christ and each part of the body is as important as the others.

MAINTAINING PARITY AMONG THE ELDERS

Second, what does labeling one elder “senior pastor” say about a church’s view of the parity of all the elders?

There is no biblical command for elders to submit to a “senior pastor.” But doesn’t calling one of the elders “senior pastor” subtly suggest that he is above the other pastors/elders? All the lawyers in a firm may have certain academic qualifications and professional abilities, but the junior partners understand that there is a difference between them and the privileged senior partners. Is this the sort of difference we intend to communicate about the body of elders in a local church?

Each elder needs to fulfill the biblical requirements for being a pastor. Each must be a man of character, gifted with leadership and teaching abilities. Because of this, we think there should be parity among the elders of a church, with no one sitting in authority over the others. Each is gifted to be an elder, and the church needs each of the elders to be on par with the others in order to protect from any usurpation of power on the part of one elder or a group of elders.

Sometimes advocates of a senior pastor position argue that the senior pastor “only has one vote” together with the rest of the elders. But this doesn’t account for the fact that the job title itself formally, if subtly, increases his authority, whether or not this extra respect has been earned.

In the New Testament, the apostles held plenary authority in the churches. So isn’t it instructive that when the apostle Peter writes to scattered churches in Asia Minor he addresses the churches’ leaders not as an apostle but as a “fellow elder” with them (1 Pet. 5:1)? Even the apostle doesn’t elevate himself above these other gifted leaders in the church.

BEING A SERVANT

Third, can a pastor be “senior” and “servant” at the same time?

A strong tenor of NT teaching is that leaders in the church are to be servants (cf. Mk. 10:43-45; 1 Pet. 5:3). Of course, other passages also show that elders have true authority in the church and are accountable for how they exercise that oversight (cf. 1 Tim. 3:4-5; Tit. 1:6-9; Heb. 13:17). Given our culture’s understanding of what a “senior” position means, and given the fact that Scripture never calls an elder “senior,” might it be better to call the primary preaching pastor simply “pastor” or “preaching pastor”? Might this be less confusing to our church members?

WATCHING OUT FOR PRIDE

Fourth, might being called “senior pastor” lead a pastor to pride?

Pride is a slippery beast. Of course, simply being called “pastor” or being recognized as a leader in a fellowship can lead one to be puffed up, so it’s not just the title “senior” that’s a danger to a pastor.

Yet I have noticed some zealous young men, especially those going to plant churches, call themselves the “senior pastor” of a non-existent congregation. The church has no members, let alone any other pastors, yet somehow they’re the “senior” minister. This may be attributable to the zeal of youth, or it may just be a concession to traditional usage. But it may also function as a warning to all elders.

We need to battle any desire to have others think highly of us because of our office. Rather, the church is to follow us as we follow Christ. They should see in us humble, teachable, steady guides who are fellow followers of Jesus. Jesus is the “senior” partner in this relationship. He alone is the “chief Shepherd” of his church (1 Pet 5:4).

By:
Shawn Wright

Shawn Wright is an Associate Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also the Pastor of Leadership Development at Clifton Baptist Church.