The Case for the Senior Pastor
I am a member of a congregationalist church. I am one of seven elders in my church. I am a senior pastor. And I think all three of these roles are biblical and are good for the health of a local church.
That’s not to say that I believe that all three of these roles are equally weighted in the New Testament. Just to tip my cards, I think congregationalism and plural eldership are clearly taught, such that I would say that a church needs to be structured in both of those ways.
Yet the question of a “senior” or “lead” elder is a bit different in my mind. I don’t think the case for giving one elder primary responsibility for leading and teaching is quite as open-and-shut. In fact, I think a church would be acting within the bounds of biblical legitimacy to be led by a plurality of elders with no senior pastor among them. I know of several churches who operate that way, and they have great ministries.
That said, I would say that there’s enough biblical evidence in the New Testament to warrant the idea of a senior or lead pastor among the pastors. Further, I would argue that such a structure is helpful to a church and that, in some ways, such a practice is close to inevitable. But let’s start with the Bible before turning to pragmatics.
BIBLICAL WARRANT FOR A SENIOR PASTOR
Several things in the Bible provide warrant for the idea of a senior pastor. Here are some:
1. God Gifts and Calls Individuals to Lead his People
First, God has a pattern of gifting and calling individuals to lead his people.
That’s not to say it always works this way. Moses had his seventy, to be sure. But the seventy had their Moses, too. Joshua, the judges, the kings, the high priests—all are examples of God calling a single man to be the point-of-the-spear in leadership.
Don’t misunderstand me: the fact that a point-of-the-spear exists in these biblical cases is not the same thing as a command to establish a point. But it is a biblical pattern which is instructive, and we probably shouldn’t ignore it.
2. Paul Wrote to Timothy, Not to All the Elders of the Church in Ephesus
Second, Paul wrote his letters to Timothy, not to all the elders of the church in Ephesus.
That’s significant for a few reasons. For one, he seems to understand that Timothy has some special responsibility to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). Now why would that charge belong specially to Timothy? It seems that, in some special way, it was primarily his job to teach the congregation. He was the one who would “put these things before the brothers” (4:6), who would “command and teach these things” (4:11), and who would “teach and urge these things” (6:2). Moreover, it is to Timothy as an individual man that Paul gives the charge in 2 Timothy 4:1-2 to “preach the word.” That does not mean that the other elders in the church were not to do those things. It just means that Paul seems to have regarded Timothy as having the regular, primary role of teaching the congregation during his temporary ministry in Ephesus. Thus he encourages him specifically in that work.
3. Some Elders Are Paid by the Church
Third, the New Testament talks about some elders who are specially set aside to be paid by the church.
First Timothy 5:17, for instance, speaks of those elders who “labor in preaching and teaching.” The verse is famously difficult and subject to controversy. Some think it contemplates two classes of elder; others say the word “especially” means something more like “by which I mean,” so that the second phrase just describes again those mentioned in the first phrase. I wonder, though, if the emphasis should be on the words “those who labor,” specifying those whose work, career, and livelihood is preaching and teaching. That’s certainly the emphasis in the very next verse, that when a person is asked to “labor” at a certain task, he should be paid for that work.
First Corinthians 9:6-14 also contemplates those who make their living by proclaiming the gospel. To be sure, Paul isn’t claiming that he was a “senior pastor.” The argument is that as an apostle he could have demanded a living from the church. Neither of these passages, therefore, is without difficulty, but I think the main idea still stands: one way or another, the New Testament contemplates some leaders who are set aside by the church to be paid to do the work of preaching and teaching.
4. The “Angels” of the Churches in Revelation—Maybe
Fourth, the “angels” of the churches in Revelation may be primary teachers of those churches. That position is frequently ridiculed, unfairly I think. There are essentially three ways to understand the “angels” to whom the letters are written.
First, and perhaps most likely, you can understand them as angels, straight-up. That’s the way the book of Revelation uses the word “angel” some sixty-nine times, and not once (except perhaps in these letters) does it mean anything other than a heavenly being. But then again, the letters are talking to the churches, not to any angel. They talk about salvation and glorification and faith in Jesus, stuff that has very little to do with angels. And if the letters are addressed to heavenly beings, how are the churches supposed to find out what’s in them? At best, you have to say that addressing the letters to the angels and not to the churches themselves is one of the many, well, peculiarities of apocalyptic literature.
Second, some have understood the “angels” to be something like the “souls” of the churches, their respective personalities, personified characters, spirits, or something. I’ve never had much truck with that argument. It just doesn’t jibe very well with how the word “angel” is used anywhere else in Scripture. An angel is a messenger.
Third, some have argued that, here, the “messengers” of the churches are those who would deliver the message from the Lord to their churches—the teachers of the churches. The word “angel” is used elsewhere in the NT of a human messenger (see Luke 7:24 and 9:52, for example), and understanding it in that way solves the problem of how the letters would be known to the churches themselves, and not just to their heavenly guardians. On the other hand, it creates the problem that the word “angel” isn’t used of humans anywhere else in the book of Revelation, and angels play a pretty prominent role in the book.
Honestly, I tend to think that the first interpretation mentioned here is the correct one. But I don’t think the third is ridiculous.
So what do we say about all these things? Certainly I think we should admit that there’s nowhere near enough biblical evidence to put the presence of a “senior pastor” at the level of warrant we see for congregationalism and plural eldership. On the other hand, the pattern of leadership revealed in the Bible, the role played by Timothy in the Ephesian church, the presence of paid elders in distinction to unpaid ones, and the possibility of a single human “messenger” in the churches of Revelation provides, I think, enough warrant to keep us from saying that the role of senior pastor is forbidden or unwarranted.
Unless you conclude that the senior pastor model of church leadership is unbiblical, it’s probably a good idea to think about the benefits and drawbacks of that model in an actual church.
I’ve been a part of both churches that did and did not have a senior pastor among the elders. My own church, Third Avenue Baptist, went through a period of two-and-a-half years where we had a plural eldership with no senior pastor. To be sure, there are definite benefits to both models. In the end, though, I think the benefits of having a senior pastor outweigh both the drawbacks of that model and the benefits of not having one. Here are some of the reasons I have come to that conclusion:
1. Continuity in the Church’s Teaching
First, continuity in the church’s teaching is a good thing.
There is definitely something good about a church hearing the voices of a number of men teaching the Bible to them. The variation in style, emphasis, and experience can stoke interest and provide perspective. We experienced all those benefits at Third Avenue during our period without a main teacher.
But we have also experienced the benefits of having one man who does most of the teaching and preaching: The sermons build on one another from week to week. The congregation grows in knowledge of the Scriptures right along with their pastor. And a sustained emphasis and vision can be drawn out over years. Provided that teacher is teaching faithfully, that kind of sustained attention will be a good thing for a congregation. It’s similar to the difference between reading a book written by a single author and reading an edited volume: there’s value in multiple voices, but there’s also value in a sustained argument coming from a single mind.
2. Leadership Is Facilitated by Having a Point Person
Second, leadership is facilitated by having a point person. In other words, it helps to have someone who is individually charged and gifted to push things forward, to direct discussion, and to have his attention focused on the church and its movement every day of the week. In my few months as a senior pastor, I have noticed that a lot of my time—when I’m not preparing to teach—is spent pushing forward projects and initiatives that have stalled for one reason or another. Through emails, phone calls, conversations, suggestions, and encouragement, I’m able to push things forward in a way that a whole board would have a hard time doing. Part of that is simply a function of time: my church pays me so that I will have time to do that kind of work, while the other elders of the church have full-time jobs that prevent them from doing it in quite the same way.
I have also noticed that it’s helpful to have someone (me, as the senior pastor) who is expected to think certain things through before they come to the whole elder board for a decision. There are times when I’ll come to the elders with an open question (i.e., “What should we do about this?”), but I don’t do that with every issue, and my elders don’t want me to, either. Our meetings last long enough as it is! Instead, we have found it helpful and efficient on most questions for me to come to the elders with a concrete proposal; they are then fully authorized to tinker with, adopt, or reject such proposals entirely. But the time which the church purchases for me by paying me a salary makes it possible for me to do that kind of thinking, and that translates into a form of leadership—telling the elders what I’ve concluded would be best, but being completely willing to submit to their final word.
3. The Emergence of an Individual Leader Is Almost Inevitable
Finally, as I said at the beginning of this article, I think the emergence of an individual leader, in some form or fashion, is almost inevitable. You can certainly work against it and seek to push other men to the front. We do that at Third Avenue, even having adopted a senior pastor model. But still I think a congregation is almost inevitably going to recognize that one man is a slightly better preacher than the others, or a slightly better counselor, or a slightly better persuader. And that’s going to mean, over time, that a bit more authority and trust flows to one or two men over the others.
Of course you can say that you want such roles to be distributed among several men, and that’s fine. But still, it’s rare for people to be able to maintain perfect equilibrium in the matter, so that no one man accrues any more authority than any other. Leadership is like water on a plate: it flows very quickly, and it’s very hard to keep the plate perfectly level so that the water doesn’t tend toward one side.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. Yes, I want my congregation to know that they have seven pastors, and I want them to know that all seven of those pastors are godly, wise, super-competent, and spiritual men. But all seven of us also recognize that it’s a good thing for one of us to be able to exercise leadership among the elders themselves, to facilitate discussion, and to do some advance thinking—and then to communicate the leadership and final decisions of the elders to the congregation.
NEITHER REQUIRED NOR FORBIDDEN, BUT USEFUL
All in all, I don’t think there’s a slam-dunk argument to be made here. I don’t think the Bible requires churches to have a senior pastor, and I don’t think it forbids them from doing so, either. There’s enough warrant in the Bible to make it a biblically acceptable practice.
That said, there are practical advantages to having a senior pastor. Both the teaching and leadership benefit by having one man who is set aside to give time and attention to those areas.