This afternoon I had a great conversation with a top judicatory leader of one of the largest denominations in the US. We were talking about what kind of leader the church needs in a culture like ours. The problem with the whole discussion, we concluded, is that language completely fails us in the church.

Every leadership term we tried to use came with lamentable baggage.


There’s a good solid biblical word, so long as we understand that it appears exactly once between the books of Genesis and Revelation. The word pastor suggests shepherding, which really is a pretty good metaphor if you understand that shepherds don’t feed the flock. They don’t multiply the flock. Shepherds lead the flock and the flock follows. Shepherds don’t need to reason or argue with their flocks. They don’t consult the flock about where the best grass might be or what color the grass should be painted. The shepherd leads, the flock follows.

But the word pastor today doesn’t mean leader in today’s church. A pastor is someone who does less leading and more flock maintenance. The pastor is expected to feed the flock and to pretty much do whatever the flock dictates… after all, the flock employs them and pays them. By and large, North American seminaries have been churning out good “pastors” for at least six or seven decades, if not more. And, frankly, the last thing the North American church needs (our conversation concluded) is more classically trained  pastors.

We went through other possible names. We thought the word “apostle” expressed the best definition of what the church really needs in a culture like ours, but we agreed there were at least two problems with it. First, the rank and file church member, let alone those in our culture, has no earthly idea what an apostle is or does. That would probably not be such a bad thing, except for the second problem. Over the years, there have been some denominations and individuals who have co-opted the title and used it to designate a position of near-excessive power or prestige… and the church doesn’t need that kind of leader either.

We bandied about other names, but after several minutes of silent brain-racking, our conversation meandered over to other issues. But that conversation continues to  haunt me. How can we communicate what we need?

A church by any other name is still a church leader, but that’s a circuitous argument that doesn’t help. What do we call the church leader that the church desperately needs? Well, whatever we call them, we need more of them… those apostolic leaders who aren’t too timid to lead, who are undaunted by wolves in sheep’s clothing, who know the difference between leading and feeding, and who have no problem leaving the bleating ninety-nine in order to find the sheep that aren’t of this fold… yet.

Question: What other name would you call a pastor? Do you think the baggage the word “pastor” carries needs to be shed in favor of a new term? Or do you prefer the word “pastor”? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.