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Is the Pastor an Employee of the Church?

A starting point for an important discussion.

Does your church view the pastor as an employee of the church? Does your pastor view himself as the church’s employee? Pastors and church leaders answer these questions in many different ways. Most will have biblical and practical reasons for their answers, but their answers will also reveal how they view three things: (1) What is their view of the pastor as a person? (2) How do they treat the office of pastor or elder? and (3) When there is disagreement, who gets the final say?

Point of Conflict

The differences between how the church views the pastor and how the pastor views his own role may be the greatest potential for conflict in a church. I know pastors who have left their church over this issue and others who were let go because of it. If the pastor and the church are not in agreement about the nature of the pastor/church relationship, this conflict is inevitable. When this happens, the debate gets heated and the whole church loses. Bitterness springs up and everyone gets dirty (Hebrews 12:15).

Below are a few different ways that both churches and pastors view the role of the pastor. Each one emphasizes a different aspect of biblical shepherding. My purpose is not to clear up which one is best or most biblical. I believe each church has to work through those issues on their own. Instead, I want to present some options for how the role of pastor may be viewed. This list is not meant to be exhaustive but as a starting point for an important discussion. It is vital that the church and pastor fully understand one another and agree how they will navigate their differences. Without this discussion, the church becomes a ticking time bomb of conflict.

Pastor as Employee – Just Another Job

Some pastors see the ministry as just another job. They expect to work for the church and do what they are asked to do. They serve as an at-will employee – meaning that at any time, for any reason they can leave or be let go. They have no particular sense of call from God; they chose this occupation and it seems good to them (for now). Tomorrow they may decide to sell cars, build homes, or take up some other job.

Likewise churches can see their pastor as an employee – the pastor works for the church to do the church’s will. Many (but certainly not all) deacon-led churches or churches with congregational government fall into this category. If the pastor and church disagree, it is the pastor who must change or leave.

The church must be intentional about creating a good working environment for their pastor. They should ask themselves and their pastor, “What is it like to work for this church?” They should also seek guidance from their denomination, who may be against treating the pastor as an employee:

“Pastors cannot be evaluated as ‘employees’ and that is very difficult for congregations to understand.” from Don’t evaluate your pastor as an employee

Pastor as Hired Hand – Temporary Help

Karl Vaters believes“No pastor should ever function as the ‘hired hand’ or ‘paid religious functionary,’ no matter what size church they serve” (From One change every small church pastor needs to make). However, some pastors view themselves as independent contractors hired to do a specific job. I knew one pastor who was not a member of his church so that he could maintain this type of independent spirit. It helped him to speak with objectivity and to advise the church from a distance. The problem was that he was never really part of the church – he was their teacher and consultant. Maybe this type of distance can be good, keeping the shepherd separate from the sheep. It can also lead to all sorts of problems, depending on how the church and pastor navigate this relationship.

Pastor as Called by God – Steward of God’s Purpose

Many pastors have a clear call from God. They can point to a specific time when they were called to vocational ministry (the word vocation comes from the Latin meaning “one who is called”). These pastors often have a clear understanding of what they are called to do. Some are church planters; others are called to church revitalization. I’ve even known one pastor who was called to a church hospice ministry. It was his job to make sure churches close well and to care for the people as they looked for new church homes.

In this approach to ministry, pastors usually see themselves as working for God as a steward or servant of God. They are here to do what God has charged them to do. If the church doesn’t understand this calling, or if they believe the pastor is called to something else, the conflict will be intense.

I’ve found that many churches want a pastor who has a strong sense of calling from God but then treat him as an employee or hired hand. The pastor thinks he works for God. The church thinks he works for them. What could possibly go wrong?

Pastor as Leader – CEO of the Church

In the last thirty years the pastor as leader has been a huge focus in Christian literature and at pastors conferences. With the rise of the megachurch movement, this type of leadership became essential. But it’s not only found in big churches. In many small churches the pastor calls all the shots. Sometimes it works, and sometimes the church turns into a cult of personality. We are beginning to see that the level of pressure these pastors endure may not be healthy. Both the pastor and the church should set clear boundaries so the pastor doesn’t become a dictator (even if he is a benevolent one).

Pastor as Teacher – One Elder among Many

In churches with a plurality of elders, the pastor is often the teaching elder – one leader among many with equal authority and mutual accountability. This model can work well if all the elders are people of prayer who possess spiritual and emotional maturity. If not, the pastor can quickly become a target for the failures of the whole board. Immaturity creates a critical atmosphere that destroys relationships. However, when mature believers live together in unity, this approach can be a beautiful example for the whole church.

Navigating the Differences

Here are some questions for both church and pastor to help you navigate the differences. Use these to develop unity and mutual understanding. If the discussion gets heated, it’s time to back away from the table and remember you are one in Christ.

Questions for the church:

  • How does your church view the role of the pastor?
  • Does your church treat the pastor in a way that affirms his humanity?
  • Is your church properly honoring the pastor according to the Bible’s commands?
  • Given the way you treat your pastor, would you want to serve in his role?
  • What are your pastor’s honest views about how the church is treating him?
  • Is it safe for him to answer the previous question honestly? Can you prove it?
  • Does your pastor possess the appropriate authority for his responsibilities?
  • What is your pastor’s sense of call to ministry? How does this influence his work?
  • Where do the church and pastor disagree about the role of the pastor? What is the mutual plan for navigating these differences?
  • Do you have someone charged with thoroughly understanding your pastor’s call and serving as an advocate for him to the church?

Questions for the pastor:

  • How do you view your role as a pastor? Have you made this clear to the church?
  • Are you teaching the church the biblical commands for how they should treat a pastor? Would you consider doing this for the benefit of the next pastor?
  • Have you been honest with the church about how you feel they are treating you? Can you express your concerns without complaining or feeling entitled?
  • Are you using your authority to lift up others or to dominate over them?
  • What kind of shepherd are you (teacher, caretaker, leader, etc.)? How does this influence your ministry?
  • Do you work for God or for the church? How do you make this distinction clear?
  • How are you leading your church to pursue God’s will together with you?
  • Do you respect those in authority over you? Who are these people?

Working Through the Pastor-as-Employee Issue

I encourage churches, church boards, search committees, and pastors to have this discussion for the sake of the unity of the body of Christ. Pick a time to talk about how you will approach this issue together. Remember to always act with mutual respect and love for one another. Be sure you work toward agreement biblically and practically. Whatever you do, do not assume you are on the same page. Be certain you have mutual understanding of the pastor’s role or that time bomb will go off . . . eventually.

(M.Div. Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is the director of The Pastor’s Soul, and pastor at First Baptist Church in Tustin, Michigan since 2001. A third-generation pastor, he grew up listening to pastors and their families talk about the realities of ministry. Now he wants to use this knowledge to bless the church. Sean is married to Amy, a poet, and freelance book editor. Together, they have one son.

4 comments on “Is the Pastor an Employee of the Church?

  1. So much interesting. Thanks

  2. Interesting discussion! My church for the past 12 years includes the pastor as part of the Elders who manage the church. The model seems to work well because the Elders have a Gospel-inspired form of leadership.

    • That’s an excellent model for shared leadership. The elders still need to be clear about how they and the pastor view the pastor’s role. Even within a good model, there can be differences that could hurt the pastor and church.

      • Sean, thanks for sharing your points. I agree that the model must account for what a pastor’s role will look like and what the expectations will be.

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