Church leadership terminology

Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

I haven’t posted anything for a few months, and I appreciate those who’ve asked when I’ll be posting again. In addition to my pastoral ministry for The Orchard, I’ve also been immersed (as time permits) in another writing project. As soon I’m done with that, I’ll be posting more often once again. Thanks for your patience. In the meantime, I thought some of you who are especially interested in church leadership and the ministry role of pastoral elders might be intrigued by something we just posted on our church website:

A Change in Terminology

When we look at the passages in the New Testament discussing the pastoral leadership of the church, we see a consistent pattern of the church being shepherded or pastored by a team of pastoral leaders. (For more on this, see Why We Don’t Have a Senior Pastor.) We also see another interesting pattern. The most common word used for these congregational pastoral leaders is “elders.” This word was especially common in the cultural history of Israel.

But this isn’t the only word Scripture uses for this role. We also find apostles (particularly Paul) frequently using the word “overseers” to describe the same pastoral role. (Again, you can see Why We Don’t Have a Senior Pastor for the way Scripture uses these words interchangeably for the same church office.) The word “overseers” was much more common in Greek and Roman culture. Neither word had been previously used in distinctly religious contexts, and “overseer” was especially common, used in the same way we would use words such as “manager” or “supervisor.”

So throughout the New Testament, from the earliest apostolic writings to the latest ones, Paul, Peter, James and John show a consistent model of each church being led by a team of elders or overseers, with no designated senior pastor, elder, overseer or bishop leading the team. The pattern they followed and taught gives us Christ’s design for the leadership of his church. They did not conform to the leadership structures of the culture around them. However, they were flexible in their terminology in order to communicate this distinctive leadership structure in a way that was as clear as possible. They didn’t compromise the structure to be more accessible to the culture around them, but they intentionally used words to describe this structure that would be accessible and familiar.

This is the kind of wise balance we want to emulate. We must resist adapting our church leadership structure to corporate models, or even to common church models, that don’t match what we find in the New Testament. But we don’t want the way we communicate our leadership structure to be unnecessarily weird, becoming an additional obstacle to people who might be drawn to the life of the Spirit in our church.

So why is this even an issue for us? Why are we looking at this? Well here are some of the challenges that come with the different leadership terminologies we could use:

We’ve been referring to our elders or overseers as “pastors.” The advantage to this term is that it explicitly brings out the pastoral nature of the role of the church elders, avoiding the perception of a “board of elders” (or trustees). We’ve also been referring to those who lead various ministries in the church as “ministry leaders.” This role is equivalent to the role of deacons in Scripture. Unfortunately, the word deacon is understood quite differently in different church traditions, so we’ve used the simple term “ministry leaders.” However, some ministry leaders serve in shepherding or pastoring ministries, and our current terminology obscures this, making it seem as if only the elders serve in a pastoral way. For instance, if we were to hire someone to be a vocational shepherd or pastor for our children, they would still be designated as a “children’s ministry leader.”

Another approach we could use is to simply call the elders “elders,” and then refer to people serving in shepherding roles as “pastors,” such as: worship pastor, youth pastor, etc. But, as you can see, this would cause us to lose the clear understanding (inherent in the terminology itself) of the elders as pastors of the church. To many Christians, “elders” sound like “members of the board.” And—even though it’s entirely biblical—many non-Christians today find the term “elders” strange and unfamiliar, even vaguely cultic. Some churches have attempted to address these kinds of problems by referring to their leaders as “elders/pastors,” but we find that to be unnecessarily awkward and confusing.

The word most often used for those in church ministry in our culture is: “pastors.” And the word most often used to communicate a role of leadership that encompasses that of other leaders is: “senior” (as in “senior vice president”). Now, we’ve frequently described our leadership structure by noting: “We have no senior pastor.” And the term “senior pastor”—even if used for each of the elders—still, by itself, conveys to everyone a sole pastoral role which is incompatible with our leadership structure. However, to communicate most clearly, it seemed best to somehow use both the terms “pastor” and “senior,” but in a way that truly fits our leadership model. (Remember, we don’t want to copy the culture’s models, but we do want to communicate meaningfully and clearly to our culture.)

So we’ve decided to adopt the term: “senior pastoral team.” The pastors serving on this team won’t be individually called “senior pastors” but are simply members of the senior pastoral team. (This is a subtle, but important point of clarity.) The term itself includes the idea of plurality (“senior pastoral team”), so there’s no implication of a single person in charge. It shows a continuity between those who pastor the whole church and those who pastor ministries within the church, with the senior pastoral team having a senior, oversight role to the other pastors. And it uses what is currently the most common terminology of pastoral leadership in our culture (and even in current evangelical church culture), but changes it in a way that explicitly fits our scriptural conviction of team pastoral leadership in the church. Instead of having a senior pastor we have a senior pastoral team. This is simple and clear. It avoids being unnecessarily weird in the terminology we use, and effectively communicates our values in the most understandable language.

So our leadership structure remains unchanged, but we now refer to those who pastor the whole church as our senior pastoral team, and those who pastor or direct ministries within the church as pastors or directors. (For example: worship pastor, youth pastor, facilities director, etc.) Please let us know if you have any questions or comments:

4 thoughts on “Church leadership terminology

  1. I really like so much of what you do in not having a senior pastor position, CEOs, etc. To me, the senior pastor, as far as today’s church leadership goes, is the guy who is really calling the shots, no matter what might be said about the elders or others. Having said that, I’m disappointed to read that you now have a “Senior” Pastoral Team. I could say more, but instead, I wish you God’s very best. Tom

  2. Hi, Tom. Thanks for the comment. I understand your reaction to the word “senior.” [It’s just a detail, but we intentionally don’t capitalize any leadership role.] We wrestled with this as well. Because of our insistence that we don’t have a senior pastor, the word was just about toxic to us. But that caused us to reconsider what it was exactly about the word that was biblically problematic. And that came down to just one thing: it’s common use in a way that describes a sole, exalted leadership role in the church. On the other hand, we couldn’t think of a more clear way to describe the biblical role in current, common vernacular, than to utilize the common words “pastor” and “senior.” Like it or not, the biblical model is one of elders having a “senior” pastoral role in relation to the deacons and congregation. So we sought to describe this pastoral role in a way that unavoidably, inherently connotes a plural, coequal structure, utilizing the most commonly used, most easily understood words. And this is what we came up with.

    As I described in the post above, we see this is as following the example of the apostles in using the common word “overseers.” I wouldn’t be surprised if there were Jewish believers (and Gentiles who came to the faith after exposure to the Jewish synagogues) who were disappointed with the use of the commonplace word “overseers” for the pastoral leaders of the church. I’m sure they would have strongly preferred simply referring to these leaders as “elders” with the rich heritage that word enjoyed. But the apostolic focus and intent seemed to be clear communication and inclusion of those unfamiliar with the cherished heritage and tradition, rather than insisting on one specific word.

    The danger for any of us in questioning what has been accepted on the basis of tradition is that we can end up establishing our own tradition. We can even establish traditions based on biblical words. The apostle Paul shows us it’s not the words that are most important, but the principle. And the best words are the ones that best communicate the principle in our current cultural context, as simply and clearly as possible. (That’s why many churches with biblical forms of eldership refer to their elders as “pastors.”)

    All that said, we certainly understand a visceral reaction to the word “senior.” We’re just trying to not throw out the baby with the bathwater, and to utilize the words that will communicate the most clearly the biblical model to everyone (without forcing them to unnecessarily adopt a new, strange—to them—vocabulary). Of course, I guess we could all be truly faithful to the biblical wording and refer to our pastoral leaders as presbyteroi and episkopoi! 😉

    Thanks again for the comment!

  3. Hey Curt! I’ve been loving your articles lately. Recently I’ve been trying to form an opinion on the end times and when the catching away of the church will take place. A lot of popular pastors and churches teach the Pre trib rapture but I’ve found it to be unconvincing. I’ve read your articles on the Pre Trib rapture and found them to be convincing. Have any of your views changed over the years or are you still convinced of a post trib rapture.

  4. Thanks, Parker! I’m sure there are probably a few minor details I’d nuance a little differently but, yes, I am still very much convinced of a post trip rapture, for the same reasons I’ve written about here on the blog. Blessings!

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