I never liked the title “pastor.” My plan was to practice law and pursue politics. I was fascinated with leadership, and all those career tests told me I had a knack for it. But unexpectedly, at a youth summer camp my junior year of high school, I felt a distinct call to become a pastor.
When I informed my high school debate coaches that I wouldn’t be pursuing my college debate scholarships and would instead be attending a small midwestern Bible college, one pleaded with me: “Why would you throw away the gifts God has given you?” Like her, I imagined pastoral work would be pedestrian and marginal—a sacrifice of my potential and plans.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Our Hope in Leadership
The late-21st-century landscape of Christian ministry turned out to be dominated by abundant optimism in the potential of leadership technique. Pastors were dropping their “senior” titles for the more relevant “lead pastor” label. They no longer had studies—they had “offices” or “board rooms.” Responding to this trend, my Bible college rebranded its “pastoral theology” degree as a “church leadership” degree. Leadership jargon was everywhere. There were leadership conferences, leadership books, leadership podcasts, leadership magazines, and leadership development pipelines. Everyone seemed to be talking about leadership.
I imagined pastoral work would be pedestrian and marginal—a sacrifice of my potential and plans. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
For most, our leadership interests were grounded in a genuine desire to be better pastors and build healthier churches. Mine were. Being a pastor is hard and often includes responsibilities far outside our original expectations. If learning to be better leaders helps us become better pastors, who wouldn’t take up that task?
Upon being hired for my first church job, I promptly opened my Moleskin journal to the back page and wrote in a box at the top: “Leadership Lessons.” I was constantly scribbling down these bits of leadership wisdom, imagining they were the insights I would someday need to lead my church.
- “Leadership is influence.”
- “Fail to plan; plan to fail.”
- “Leaders are readers.”
- “Great leaders are made, not born.”
- “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”
Like so many I know, it didn’t take long for inspiration to yield to frustration. For all those lessons, I never quite became the leader I’d imagined, and it never seemed to pay back what it promised. I also began to recognize that my leadership ambitions eclipsed my desire to shepherd souls. This is the great cost of our leadership obsession: we’re too often left with an anemic interest in what it means to be a pastor.
This is the great cost of our leadership obsession: we’re too often left with an anemic interest in what it means to be a pastor.
I eventually came to realize that my romanticized interest in leadership had become a thin golden veneer, allowing a cheap interior of ambition and anxiety to be passed off as something more valuable. Could our desperation to be leaders reveal a fear of being simply pastors?
Pastors will always carry leadership responsibilities. I’m not against the idea of leadership. We can’t escape the organizational necessities of worship and ministry, nor should we try. But we don’t become better pastors simply by becoming better leaders. Pastoral work isn’t a mere subset of leadership development. We’re called to something far more than influence and technique. Thank God our churches rise and fall on more than our leadership! Thank God, we’re called to be their pastors and not just their leaders.
But how many of us still know the difference?
Hearing ‘Pastor’ in a New Way
At some point, I stopped recording all those leadership maxims. It wasn’t a decisive moment, but I do remember when I fully embraced the simpler title of “pastor.”
We don’t become better pastors simply by becoming better leaders. . . . We’re called to something far more than influence and technique.
We were in the first year of our church plant, and I had just sat down with my wife and son at a Mexican restaurant. My phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize. I stepped outside and answered. It was a man from our church—a man who had never called me before. He went on to explain that his younger brother had just received devastating medical news. There was nothing I could do. There was no applicable leadership lesson recorded in my journal. He simply wanted to let me know, and, I sensed, share his brokenness with someone. So, we prayed together. It wasn’t a long conversation. I asked him to keep me up-to-date and promised I would continue to pray. Before we hung up, he responded simply, “Thanks, pastor.”
It wasn’t a title or a reference to my position. It was an affirmation of a calling. This was exactly what God had called me to do—to take a few minutes away from my chips and salsa, to share in his brokenness, to take that moment before God together in prayer. I’ve felt it many times since, but I’ve rarely felt more like a pastor than that moment. And that’s enough for me.
Pastoral Identity and Gospel Power
There’s a long tradition of cultivating this unique pastoral identity, a tradition much older than our interest in pastoral leadership. There have long been pastors and writers who described the pastoral vocation not as a task to be done but as a habitus, a pastoral temperament or habit to be personally cultivated.
The first-century world wasn’t lacking for images of leadership potential. They had the great King Herod for imagining leadership as organizing and building. They had the Maccabeans for imagining leadership as the spark of revolution. They had a long line of Roman emperors for imagining leadership as political power and strength.
But the early church wasn’t interested in these models—they had something unique to contribute. They followed a crucified leader, and they saw themselves as his humble shepherds, called to care for his flocks. Was anyone impressed by their vocational achievements, by the image of pastors praying, preaching, and comforting sheep?
We can’t afford for the uniqueness of our pastoral vocation to be replaced with the image of a mere organizational leader. When we do, we risk far more than our careers: we risk the power of the gospel—the power that frees us to live out this peculiar way of being in the world. We must rediscover and faithfully cling to that unique vocation to which we’ve been called.
Learn to be a better leader, but never at the expense of being a better pastor.