Modern American pastors need to return to the role of spiritual father.
A chance remark by one of my younger staff members this week brought this truth home to me. She told me how she’d described my ministry to some first-time guests to our church. “He’s fatherly,” she said to them.
My first thought was she meant I was old and sometimes needed help climbing the stairs (not true) or maybe hard of hearing (true). Later I realized she was describing my approach to ministry as parental in addition to theological and organizational—and to that charge I’m happy to plead guilty.
The pastors in the Bible were spiritual fathers
The best way to describe the leadership style of pastors in the Bible is that they served as spiritual fathers. The apostle Paul, for example, called his young associate Timothy “my true son in the faith” and the apostle John frequently labeled his own congregation as “my little children.” Those weren’t just terms of endearment. They identified the fundamental way leaders in the early church related to their congregations. Just as earthly fathers engender life, reveal truth, provide safety for their children and challenge them to growth and maturity, so spiritual fathers like Paul and John worked toward the same goals for those entrusted into their care.
While this isn’t the only way the Bible describes pastors—in the Greek language of the New Testament “pastor” in fact means “shepherd”—fathering is part of the deal. The two metaphors overlap in some important ways because both shepherds and fathers are personally responsible for those within their care. Their joy is the safety of their charges. They’re motivated not by personal ambition but by others’ success. Their focus is personal more than organizational.
Pastors have drifted into less biblical ways of leadership
I’ve come to realize how far many American pastors have drifted from the New Testament model for ministry and adopted less biblical ways of leading our congregations.
For instance, some pastors today use the word “professional” to describe themselves. By virtue of their education, training and standards they want to be thought of in the same way as other professionals in our society like doctors, lawyers and teachers.
And while at the time I was excited to join the ranks of professional ministers, I’ve learned since that pastors aren’t professionals, not by a long shot. We’re instead God-called, Holy Spirit-led servants of Jesus whose ambition is to love, serve, lead and care for God’s people. Our place isn’t as local celebrities but as servants of the invisible Kingdom.
This was the model of pastoral ministry I learned in my seminary education. The text book in my first class had the daunting title of, “Profession: Minister!” And while at the time I was excited to join the ranks of professional ministers, I’ve learned since that pastors aren’t professionals, not by a long shot. We’re instead God-called, Holy Spirit-led servants of Jesus whose ambition is to love, serve, lead and care for God’s people. Our place isn’t as local celebrities but as servants of the invisible Kingdom. It would have saved me a lot of grief if the first book I read in seminary had been John Piper’s much more biblical perspective on ministry, “Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.” For more on pastoral leadership from a biblical perspective, here’s a previous blog.
Other pastors view themselves through the lens of American business. In this model, the pastor’s job is to manage a religious organization and lead it to expand its clientele and influence, just like secular companies do only with a religious flavor.
This has become the most influential model of church leadership, and it’s easy to understand why. Since a church is composed of many different sub-systems like membership, mission, budget, facilities and staff a pastor can easily drift into the notion that his job is to lead all these areas. He becomes the CEO of the congregation.
Pastors who lead this way take as their chief task the responsibility of managing programs that grow attendance and lead to even more people involved in more programs. The bottom line for pastoral leadership is the same as for any secular business manager: if you don’t have more people attending your church this year than last—and more dollars—then you’ve failed.
Another model of pastoral ministry is when the pastor becomes so engrossed with a single agenda that he loses sight of his main task of caring for his people. I’ve seen many such agendas down through the years. Morality, politics, social issues, denominational changes—there’s no shortage of painful and even immoral conditions in America that require attention. And we pastors can’t ignore them—but the main thing must always be Jesus. When we lose sight of him we lose the ground of our spiritual authority.
The main responsibility for pastors is to be a spiritual father
I have to confess that from time to time I’ve lapsed into these styles of pastoral leadership. It’s hard not to because churches look for their pastors to function in just these ways, and for many if not most pastors, our leadership is more a reflection of congregational expectations than biblical precedent. But now that I’m older and less interested in people’s approval than I used to be, I’ve come to understand that the main responsibility for pastors is to be a spiritual father.
The word “father” today has so many shades of meaning that it’s hard for many people to grasp its true meaning. For those whose early experiences were with absent or even abusive dads, talking about spiritual fathering brings up all sorts of painful memories. Others with a history of a controlling or immature father wrestle with fear over trusting anyone with that title. And then there are those who think that this perspective on leadership somehow diminishes a mother’s place.
I get those concerns and I try to be sensitive to each one. At the same time, though, I’m convinced that the secular styles of pastoral leadership so prevalent in modern churches have hurt more than helped. The more pastors shift to a more biblical style of leadership and take on the responsibility to be spiritual fathers, the healthier our congregations will become.