The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. – 1 Timothy 3:1
I can still remember the season in life where I sensed God was calling me to be a pastor. After becoming a Christian, I was charged with excitement, energy and enthusiasm to help others know Christ better as I myself had been helped.
As I related this to an older mentor, he affirmed my passion, but gently tapped the brakes.
“You know just enough to be dangerous,” he cautioned. Looking back, he was right.
His comment helped me slow down and initiate an intentional process that eventually led me to answer the call.
Whether you’re younger like I was, or considering a later-in-life change, through this article I hope to help you navigate through this same process. We’ll examine what a pastor is, what he does, his qualifications, and the process that leads to the pastorate. Hopefully by the end, you’ll be well on your way to discovering whether God is calling you to serve his church in this way.
What Is A Pastor, Anyway?
Before you decide whether you actually want to become a pastor, it’s probably good to learn what a pastor actually is. And for that, we begin with the Bible itself.
There are three primary biblical words that fall under the umbrella of what we call ‘pastor’ today. They are:
- Overseer (or bishop)
Let’s explore these terms, and see what we can learn. If your eyes start to glaze over, stay with me. I promise that i’ll bring it all together for you in just a moment.
- Pastor (Greek poison): Despite its familiarity to us, this term only occurs once in the New Testament (NT) in Ephesians 4:11, then another two times in its verb form in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2. ‘And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [pastors] and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:11-12). As John Piper puts it, this ‘is a functional description of the role of elder stressing the care and feeding of the church as God’s flock.’
- Overseer (Greek episcopes): The English word ‘overseer’, or ‘bishop’, emphasizes the leader’s role of governing or overseeing the church. For example, in Acts 20:28, Paul cautions the Ephesian elders (see 20:17) to ‘pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.’ They are to play a guardian-like role because of the ‘fierce wolves’ who will try to rip the church away from the truth through false teaching (verses 29-30).
- Elder (Greek presbyters): Paul uses this word three times to describe church leaders in 1 Timothy 5:17 and 19, then again in Titus 1:5. Looking at the qualifications for elders from Titus 1, 1 Timothy 3, and 1 Peter 5, there are at least 17 different qualifications for elders, but the key one is ‘being above reproach’. The other qualifications simply define what ‘being above reproach’ means.
Even though the bible uses three unique words, the NT suggests that they all refer to one office in God’s church. For example, in 1 Peter 5:1-2, Peter calls ‘the elders [to]… shepherd [Greek pastor] the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.’ We find other, similar places of overlap throughout the NT.
Other modern words shed light on different aspects of the pastor’s role. Minister (from Latin minus, ‘less’) emphasizes the pastor’s role as a servant, and reminds us of Christ’s humble service to us, especially in his death on the cross (see Isaiah 52:13-53:6). Reverend (from Latin reverendus, a ‘person to be revered’) suggests that pastors are to pursue Christlikeness and be worthy of the respect that comes with their office (1 Timothy 5:17). And Father (from Latin pater) reminds us of the tender strength our Heavenly Father has for his children (Psalm 103:13; Proverbs 13:24; 1 Thessalonians 2:11).
The Big Picture: What Does A Pastor Do?
But don’t get hung up on the different words, or, the distinctions between them. It’s the composite picture God wants us to come away with.
That composite–the elder’s overall job description–is summarized nicely by Alexander Strauch in Biblical Eldership:
• ‘lead the church (1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 5:1–2),
• teach and preach the Word (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 4:2;Titus 1:9),
• protect the church from false teachers (Acts 20:17,28–31),
• exhort and admonish the saints in sound doctrine (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 3:13–17; Titus 1:9),
• visit the sick and pray (James 5:14; Acts 6:4),
• and judge doctrinal issues (Acts 15:6).
In biblical terminology, elders shepherd, oversee, lead, and care for the local church.
Who is a pastor, minister (more important)
While it’s important to understand a pastor’s main roles and duties–what a pastor does–it’s even more important to understand whoa pastor is.
Philip Moore puts it nicely:
‘The biblical qualification for an elder par excellence is to love the Jesus of the gospel with all his heart and to live out the ramifications of that gospel in all of his life.’
Pastor aren’t first and foremost obsessed with acquiring skills. While pastoral skill can differ wildly on required competencies like preaching and administration, those can be learned, and weaknesses can be compensated for by other staff or church members.
But genuine, battle-tested awe of God and his love for us in Christ…not so much. The best pastors pursue Jesus with passion, then incarnate him to the people they’re called to serve. You need to be able to say, with integrity, ‘be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
I remember a friend of mine, Pastor Ed, preaching and begging us, often through tears, to follow Jesus with all of who we are in response to God’s great love for us. That’s a pastor’s heart.
The Apostle Paul possessed a pastor’s heart, too. He was consumed with pursuing Jesus, and‘count[ed] everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3:8). That shaped the way he shepherded his churches, including the Thessalonians:
‘We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.’ – 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8
A true shepherd pursues the Chief Shepherd as his highest priority. That allows him to live out the gospel with the flock under his care. As he does that, the other qualifications tend to fall in place.
Other Prerequisites To Becoming A Pastor: More Than Just ‘Loving Jesus’
There are other prerequisites, to be sure. Although all potential (and current) pastors fall short of God’s ideals, it’s not enough to simply ‘love Jesus’ in a vague, ethereal way, either.
1 Timothy 3, Titus 1 and 1 Peter 5 fill in the pastor’s portrait under the overall heading of being ‘above reproach’(above disapproval), which appears first in the lists in both Timothy and Titus. So, the other 17 requirements found in these passages define what ‘above reproach looks like.
You can learn more in the passages themselves and this article, but a pastor must:
• be a man(1 Timothy 2:12; 3:2)
• if he is married, be devoted to his wife alone (Titus 1:6; 1 Timothy 3:2);
• manage his children and home well (not perfectly; Titus 1:6; 1 Timothy 3:4-5)
• display gentleness and humility rather than anger (Titus 1:7; 1 Timothy 3:3)
• exercise self-control, including the way he uses alcohol (Titus 1:7-8; 1 Timothy 3:2-3)
• be able to teach God’s Word faithfully (Titus 1:9; 1 Timothy 3:2)
In the entire lists of qualifications, the only ability-based requirement is being able to teach. Apparently our character in Christ is–by far–the most important asset we bring to the table.
So, pastors must be ‘an example to the flock’ (1 Peter 5:3). As the article above concludes, pastors ‘should be someone your sons could pattern their life after and the kind of man your daughter should marry.’
The Hardest, Most Joyful, Work On The Planet
Before we talk about the process of becoming a pastor, you need to know that pastoring is some of the hardest, most joyful, work on the planet. It’s not a 9 to 5 job you leave at the office.
You will walk alongside your congregation through the brightest–and darkest–moments of their lives. As you incarnate the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4) to your flock, you will participate in the pattern of death and resurrection that shaped his own life.
Sometimes this calling will break your heart. Some time ago, I did a funeral for the child of friends from college. Their son had only lived a few short hours before they had to say goodbye. You’ll invest hours counseling couples, only to see them get divorced. The ugliness and intensity of sin will shock you and bring you to your knees.
But despite the heartache, you will also witness Christ’s victory over sin and resurrection power in your ministry. As you earn the trust of your people, they will open up their lives to you so that you can help them experience the joys of turning from sin and pursuing Christ.
Am I Called?
So far we’ve seen that pastors are elders who shepherd, oversee, lead, and care for the local church. This ultimately flows out of a heart on fire for Christ, a pastor’s primary qualification. It’s deeply personal work that involves you in the highest highs, and lowest lows, of the people you shepherd.
But now that you know what–and who–a pastor is, how do youknow if you should become one?
In his article on spiritual gifts, and calling in general, Pastor Tim Keller highlights these three elements and some key questions around each one:
• ‘Affinity: What human needs do I ‘vibrate’ to? What interests me? What are my passions?
• Ability: What am I good at? What do people say I am effective in?
• Opportunity: What doors for service are open? What needs to be done?’
When all three factors come together, you can have confidence that God is calling you to move forward in a particular direction.
In his article, ‘Is God Calling Me To Be A Pastor?’, David Mathis lays out a similar framework more specific to men seeking pastoral ministry:
• Do I Aspire?(Aspiration): God wants his pastors to shepherd ‘not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you’ (1 Peter 5:2). Pastors should have an internal desire to do the work.
• Am I Gifted?(Affirmation): Affirmation looks for God’s blessing on a man’s ministry efforts, however small. Are others spiritually benefitting from your teaching or counsel? In other words, do others from your local church and Christian community think you’d make a good pastor?
• Has God Opened The Door Yet? (Opportunity): Imagine that you’re over-the-moon excited to become a pastor, and, everyone around you thinks you’re a (ministry) rock star. Are you called to be a pastor? Not quite. Since God is the one who sends preachers (Romans 10:15), the final step is actively waiting on God to open the door to a real opportunity.
In summary, you know you’re called to the pastorate when you want to do it, when others affirm your gifts and ministry, and when you are invited to pursue a specific opportunity.
Three Practical Questions
While these basic guideposts should help, some of you may still want more practical, nuts-and-bolts guidance. After re-affirming the essential requirement of godly character, Pastor Kevin DeYoung provides some more specific questions for potential pastorsto mull over:
• Do I like to teach all kinds of people in all kinds of settings?:Most people considering pastoral ministry like to preach. Even though you won’t be equally excited to preach to every group in the church, you need to be ready, willing and able to teach anyone.
• Do I enjoy being around people?:You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend, or even an extravert. (I’m not.) But if you don’t enjoy people, and generally avoid them, the pastorate is not going to work for you or those you shepherd.
• Do I make friends easily?: Do you have real friends, and connect well with others? If not, DeYoung shares, ‘It could be an indication that you are too harsh, too much a loner, or frankly too awkward to be effective in pastoral ministry.’
The Fine (But Important) Print
In addition to the biblical requirements from Timothy, Titus and Peter, and the areas of aspiration, affirmation and opportunity, each church or denomination has its own requirements for pastors.
They are far too diverse to cover here, but often include things like:
• a college and/or seminary degree
• written and/or oral exams on a variety of topics pertaining to candidates’ life and doctrine
• a ministry internship to help you–and others–assess suitability for ministry
In most cases, approaching your pastor will help you get started with this more formal part of the process.
Hope In The God Who Calls
Figuring out whether God is calling you to be a pastor can feel overwhelming. We see other pastors who seem more educated, gifted, and holy, than we are. We see the list of requirements laid out before us. And we start to wonder why God would ever choose us to pastor his church.
In other words, it’s easy to take our eyes off of God, and become consumed with others, ourselves and our circumstances.
When that happens, we need to redirect our attention back to ‘the Holy Spirit [who] has made [us] overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood’ (Acts 20:28). Would God send his precious Son to die for his church and then not provide pastors (‘overseers’) to care for it?
No, that’s not the character of our God. Until Jesus returns, he will provide pastor-shepherds for his church.
As you faithfully pursue Christ, he will make it clear to you whether he is asking you to be one of them. For the sake of the harvest, I hope that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’!