Sunday, October 21, 2007

Notes on Pastoral Authority

Having difficulty with an argumentative church member, I asked a couple of brother pastors' advice on the issue. From two different pastors, I received two different responses, polar opposites from one another. One pastor said simply tell him that you're the pastor and that's that. The second said I needed to lovingly admonish the brother and walk with him through this issue.

Pastoral authority is a difficult topic to discuss. How much authority should the pastor have, if any at all? If he does have authority then to whom does he answer? Likewise, who answers to him? How should he exercise that authority? Positions on authority are as many as there are pastors and there are several other factors that guide a pastor's understanding of his own authority.

Some pastors feel they don't need to know what is going on in the church; a hands-off approach. Some pastors micro-manage every minute detail of church life. The Scriptures give evidence of some semblance of authority when Peter urges the elders to whom he was writing. "Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain, but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2-3). It is apparent that in Peter's time there were pastors who saw their role in church life as "he who is to be obeyed." Perhaps this attitude did not play out in actual practice but quite certainly the tendency was there.

It was about fifteen minutes before I was to preach at a funeral with one of the predecessors of the church I serve. He is seventy years old. Spending twelve years at the church I now pastor, he asked, "How long have you been here now?"

"Almost six years, sir."

"Well, you've been here long enough to be called pastor now haven't you?"

This is one of the first principles of pastoral authority. Authority is earned. I believe a certain amount comes with the office, but not much. People are not by nature trusting people and when a man comes in from outside their congregation, there is a natural uphill climb to garner respect. Many pastors do not take advantage of this uphill climb to allow their muscles to be hardened by the difficult work of winning people's hearts.

A good friend of mine (and if you're reading, you know who you are) often says, "A man who leads and nobody follows is only taking a walk." Pastoral ministry is not some kind of divine follow-the-leader. It is an earned respect, an earned influence.

A second principle is just to simply love people. We emphasize the Great Commission as well we should, but often we have done it to the detriment of the Greatest Commandment. Loving people is hard and its much easier to tell people about Jesus than to love them to the point of acceptance.

Moreover, people are needy and demand care. One brother pastor jokingly said he had 85 children. Though I disagree with the spirit of that retort, there is a grain of truth in it. As children are needy so God's people are needy and need constant attention and provision.This does not mean God's people won't act unloving. The pastor then can take the lead in a delicate area of church life and show the congregation he serves how to love unloving people. Peter did say "be examples."

A third principle I guide my ministry by is trod where they have trod. Walk with the folks through their difficulties and burdens, rejoice in their rejoicings, weep when they weep. Sometimes pastoral ministry just needs to be a ministry of presence. For the pastor's watch to stop for just a few moments means the world to a lonely elderly person, a grieving widow, or a hurting divorcee.

A final principle is to always pray. I pray with the people God has given me to serve every opportunity I get. I never leave a congregant's home, bedside, or hospital room without praying. Whether the time is happy or sad, I always pray.

One final concern is when to exercise authority. The pastor only has as much authority as the congregation allows him to have. It can raise incrementally through a life of integrity, dealing well with mistakes, and living an authentic Christian life before them. A real pastor and not "super-Christian" fosters an environment of trust when times to exercise authority comes yet hypocrisy can do irreparable harm.

Pastoral authority has its limits and can be abused. The Bible does not even call for "servant-leaders," the vogue, falsely humble moniker for how pastors ought to be. Rather, Jesus just calls for servants.
You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first of all shall be slave of all. Mark 10:42-44


Steve Sensenig said...

It's that "examples to the flock" part of Peter's statement that I think gets so often overlooked.

I've sat under "sledgehammers to the flock" and "motivational speakers to the flock" and "comedians to the flock", but I've never had the privilege of being involved in a church where I saw an "example to the flock".

I think you are really trying to be that, and I applaud and support you in that, Tony.

By the way, just my personal opinion, if you punt to "I'm the pastor and that's that", you have already lost whatever battle you thought you were fighting.

selahV said...

Tony, this is an excellent post. There are many many pastors who are examples to the flock and I am ever grateful for the ones who showed me Jesus in their lives.

Sadly, there are several pastors who are examples to the flock who are bad examples and that is where so many people go astray in their walk with the Lord. The greatest words my husband shared while he pastored were to look to Jesus as their example, for in Him they would never be led astray or disappointed. selahV

Elder's Wife said...

"Authority is earned."
That is so true. People can spot a fraud pretty quickly when they expect authenticity. People listened to Jesus' teaching because he spoke with authority. His disciples lived with Him 24/7. They submitted to His authority because they saw that He lived what He said.
Shouldn't His "under-shepherds" do the same?
Good post, Tony. Kat

Tony said...


I apologize for being so late responding to comments. That isn't the norm for me. I had a very long day yesterday plus I felt horrible yesterday evening. Thanks for your patience!


I agree. If a pastor has to tell a congregation that he is in charge, then he isn't (not that I think he should be in charge, but the principle applies). For a pastor to say "I'm in charge" it is rather his own insecurity in who he is in Christ, not a need to be recognized as "in charge."


There are many bad examples in pastoral ministry and sadly, with the way media works, we see them too often. I also am thankful not just for ministers who are good examples, but also fellow believers.


I think we should practice what we preach, plain and simple. His undershepherds should do exactly that and Jesus will empower his ministers to do that.

Thanks everyone, for the favorable comments. I am a blessed blogger!

Anonymous said...


On the argumentative church member issue. I am a layman in our church and work in the business world. Many times I see the argumentative church member as an individual not very high up on the pecking scale at his or her place of employment who find the only "authority" that they have is in the church.

What I have seen my pastor do - and our chruch averages about 500/sunday, is to invite the argumentative member(s) in for a talk to talk about things that are coming up and plans that he or one of the committees is having. He essentially is getting those people on board early in the process which does two things for him - it strokes thier egos and reduces the arguments in business meetings

Jim Champion

Tony said...


That is good advice in dealing with argumentative people. I pastor a church of 85 or so but we still have those who want to assert themselves in some way. Most of them, in my case, are folks who have been at the church for millennia and see something some young whipper snapper is doing and they want it to stop.

Typically, though, I have not had difficulty in getting people to talk with me so as to try to bring them along to some place they need to be in their spiritual maturity.

I ain't much into ego strokin', though. :)

Anonymous said...


Its not that you have to stroke thier egos, it seems that these folks need to know that they have a say and that thier opinons matter. The earlier in the process you can get them on board, the easier the business meeting :)


Tony said...


Just to be sure, I was being facetious. I do respect and honor the opinions and views of all the folks God has given me to serve, even that "argumentative church member."

He is after all, one of God's children too, as fretful as he can be!