Would a Pastor by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?

Pastoral Ministry Tuesday (PMT) posts give some insight or background into my “philosophy of ministry” or my best understanding of the practices that help people become mature followers of Jesus.

One of my favorite quotes from Anne of Green Gables is about the power of naming. Anne observes “I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose would be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.” We’ve all met people we didn’t feel fit their names or their names didn’t fit them.

I think what we call things really does matter, especially when we’re talking about the church and following Jesus. It’s easy to feel like you’re talking about the same thing when you’re using the same words as someone else but then discovering that you were meaning very different things. That happens when we talk about the Church and (fancy word warning) ecclesiology.

Ecclesiology is a shorthand way of saying the nature and structure of the Church Jesus builds.

I once believed that the New Testament, particularly Acts and the epistles, gave us a pattern to follow in regard to ecclesiology and we were meant to follow that pattern very precisely. The reason I don’t believe that any more is a story for another time but I think it’s important to note that this was my view at one time.

Today I believe that our ecclesiology is less a pattern and more an ethos or culture that develops as we follow Jesus. I don’t think we recreate it over and over and over but I do think that it is necessarily adaptable (to a degree) to our time, our place and our people. But I also believe that a first century believer wandering into a 21st century community of Jesus followers should be able to recognize that they are with their people.

Back to the power of naming.

I agree with some observations by people like N.T. Wright and Eugene Peterson that the trouble we get into after 2000 years of church history, most of which happened before we were born, is that old and very good words have become infused with new and sometimes very bad meaning.

Take for example the word, “leader.” We talk about “church leadership” as if we all know what that means or that we all mean the same thing by using it. But we don’t. Even Jesus had to differentiate with his 12 disciples the difference between how he was asking them to lead versus the typical leaders of their day. A quick survey of the church will prove that we use the world “leader” for a multitude of roles and expectations. Working on my master’s thesis project it was impossible to come up with a definition for “pastor” that everyone would agree with from the first to the present century. It’s not that it has some subtle nuance over time but that it has developed wildly different meanings and expectations over a couple millennia.

In my life, I’ve been a part of an ecclesiology that was based on the American democratic republic. It took root during the early days of the United States and its westward expansion. The minister of the church was voted on and hired by the church. The board was made up of elders and deacons, basically the senate and the house and Trustees functioned as the Supreme Court. Each year (or regularly) the minister or ministerial staff would be voted on again by the congregation and if they won a majority or two thirds of the votes, they stayed another year.

So much dysfunction.

When I left that group I experienced two other forms of church leadership. One was the King = the Senior Pastor model and the other was the Entrepreneurial model (the Entrepreneurial model often gives way to the CEO model once the planted church is established and financially independent). Very little voting takes place in these two models though the CEO model will often have congregational meetings for voting on things much like a shareholders meeting in corporate America. In fact, you may even hear church members referred to as “share holders” or “stake holders.”

The King = the Senior Pastor model is usually in charismatic or Pentecostal churches and it follows the model of Israel. The irony is almost always lost on the people who utilize this system. In this system you might sometimes hear individuals referred to as “shield bearers.” Even if they don’t use this title (which is an Old Testament reference), you can still recognize the role. Loyalty is the key quality and they may function as body guards, filters, goons, gophers or groundskeepers.

Eugene Peterson writes, “The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns – how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.” And then he goes on to say to his fellow pastors, “I don’t know of any other profession in which it is quite as easy to fake it as in ours.”

I was once visiting with the leader of a very large para-church ministry (yes, you would recognize his name). He had a couple young guys carrying in boxes of his books to a new office while we sat and talked. “I’m serving these guys,” he told me, “by letting them serve me.” A real inspiring “Jesus washing his disciples feet” kind of moment.

In the book of Judges there’s this potent refrain, “In those days, there was no king in Israel so every man did what was right in his own eyes.” When it comes to ecclesiology there is a danger that we form on one hand, non-flexible structures and rigid expectations or on the other, something so flexible as to be easily manipulated and gamed to our own advantage. In my next post I want to describe what I think healthy ecclesiology looks like and how “none of the above” is it.

When you think of church leader, what picture comes to your mind?

Tune in next week for part two of “Would a pastor by any other name smell as sweet?”

Published by APastor'sStory

Trying to squeeze this life for all the juice I can get out of it.

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