Three Terms, One Office
Every elder is a pastor. The New Testament uses three terms that are all distinct, but they all describe the same office. They refer to the same realities. One of those is elder, the other is overseer, and the third one—that is actually the least common—is pastor. So, you see all three of these terms used of the same office. For instance, in Acts 20:17, Paul calls the elders of the church of Ephesus to come to him. In Acts 20:28, he refers to them as having been made overseers by the Holy Spirit. In his sermon to them, he exhorts them to care for the church. The Greek word behind that work care is shepherd, which is where we get our word pastor.
So, elder, overseer, and pastor are all describing the same office, the same role. Throughout the New Testament we do see that the elders who rule well, for instance (1 Tim. 5:17), are worthy of double honor. But we don’t see that the office of elder is restricted to those who do it full-time. So you might have someone who is a business owner, a teacher, a gardener, or whatever by day, but he’s also an elder of the church, which means he is a pastor. He is shepherding, he is teaching, he’s setting a godly example, he’s contributing together with the other elders to set the overall direction of the church.
One of the reasons that’s really important for a man who aspires to pastoral ministry to consider is that pastoring is not all or nothing. It does make a big difference whether your day job is an army test pilot or the senior pastor of a church. That is a very significant practical difference. But it doesn’t mean the army test pilot cannot also be a pastor.
I recognize churches of different traditions will have different takes on this, but I think, biblically speaking, it should be recognized publicly—it should be integrated into the life of the church—that every elder is a pastor.
So, for instance, various elders in our local church, Capitol Hill Baptist, including the ones who are not paid full-time by the church, teach publicly in a variety of contexts, do premarital counseling, weddings, funerals. They’ll lead services and they have every bit as much of a vote and a contribution to the eldership as the full-time pastors do. As one of the full-time pastors, I often lose votes on something I propose or something that a lay elder might propose.
So, every elder is a pastor. One of the big takeaways of what that means is that you’re not facing a yawning chasm. If you have a desire to do more pastoral work, to preach and teach God’s word, to shepherd people, care for them and counsel them, to invest really significantly in the health of the whole church, it’s not like your only way to do that is to quit everything, go to seminary, pack up, and eventually try to become a full-time preaching pastor.
There are lots of faithful ways to fulfill that vocation, to serve, and build up God’s church.
It’s really more of a spectrum. We’ve even seen in our church that a number of lay elders, over time, get hired full-time by the church because of certain gifts they had and particular needs or opportunities our church has.
One of the pressures that a man can feel that can lead to a sort of existential crisis is a desire to do more and more for the Lord, a desire to teach and help people understand God’s word. But, perhaps he feels constrained in his day job. Well, that could be a good indication that he wants to, over time, move his vocation toward pastoral ministry. But, it doesn't necessarily mean he has to quit his job. There are lots of faithful ways to fulfill that vocation, to serve, and to build up God’s church without it meaning a decisive career break.
Recognizing that every elder is a pastor can hopefully take some of the wrong weight and pressure off of how you’re trying to make some of those decisions. So, again, every elder is a pastor, every pastor is an elder. For more on that, you can look especially at 1 Timothy 3, 1 Timothy 5, Acts 20, and elsewhere elders are mentioned in the New Testament.
Bobby Jamieson is the author of The Path to Being a Pastor: A Guide for the Aspiring.
Jeramie Rinne lists 10 things we should know about church elders.
Besides having good character, what qualifications must one meet in order to oversee others in the church?
God has called elders to be men worth imitating. A healthy local church typically has many people, men and women, whose example we could follow.
One’s gifting is certainly a consideration (“able to teach”), but it is not the whole, or even the main thing, that Paul is looking for in an overseer.