The Modern Pastor — Sent or Called?

The methods we’re using to choose local pastors are a problem.

Most churches identify their pastors by some sort of “calling” method. That usually involves the equivalent of an extended job application process and some form of vote. If the church approves, they “call” the pastor. The United Methodist Church prides itself on “sending” pastors instead. We tout that as the better way, saying something like “pastors are called to be sent, not called to be called.”

Both methods have major problems and actually strike against the typical model found in the New Testament.

Whether a church’s pastor is identified by a “calling” model or a “sending” model, both tend to begin with the same assumption: the pastor is an outsider.

We start by assuming that whomever the church’s next pastor will be, he/she will come from somewhere else. We ask where a pastor is called to serve.

No Basis in the New Testament

The first major problem with this: it’s a model with no basis in the New Testament. From all that we see, we would reason that the local pastors mentioned in the New Testament (elders, sometimes called bishops) were existing members of a certain community who were appointed to give their community pastoral oversight. See Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5. Scripture never suggests that one of these pastors is sent, or called, to another location.

A point while we’re on calling: no pastors in the New Testament are called. Calling is used in two ways in the New Testament. There are many references to the calling of all Christians, and twice, Paul writes about being called as an apostle. That’s it. We come across a number of elders and bishops, but never are they “called.” How much stock should we put in the pastoral “calling” that gets so much attention today?

Pastors as Outsiders

The second major problem: all of our pastors are outsiders. We have established a system where it is assumed that the pastor of a congregation is a temporary outsider. I recently heard someone tell the congregation’s pastor, “I was here before you got here, and I’ll be here after you leave.” She was right.

In the UMC, the pastor is not even considered a member of his/her local church. Therefore, the one providing our pastoral leadership is always someone sent from the outside and likely to be “sent” away from us. Someone who is specifically recognized as a non-member of the local community is sent to lead it. Is this a healthy system?

Furthermore, this system assumes that pastors are developed and come from somewhere else. What would it change if local congregations expected that their next pastor was someone in their midst? Would it give them an increased urgency to disciple and develop leaders?

Outsiders can certainly play an important role in the life of a community. They’re able to see and speak from a different perspective. See Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Galatians. The person from the outside with a certain prophetic authority is important. But that doesn’t negate the need for people who will shepherd a community from day to day.

Where Have the Apostles Gone?

The third major problem: we have lost the role of the itinerant apostle. Moving around is institutionalized in the UMC and relatively expected elsewhere, as pastors climb the proverbial career ladder (a whole other problem to deal with later). By making our pastors itinerant, we have not only lost the role of the truly local pastor, we have also forgotten the role of the itinerant apostle.

The roles of apostle and elder are distinct. Paul never claims the role of an elder. John Wesley noted that they were entirely separate roles, and claimed that his itinerant preachers were not pastors, but apostles who traveled “to proclaim glad tidings to all the world.” [See “John Wesley never heard of a traveling pastor.”]

Where are the true itinerant apostles in America today? Those who claim no pastoral authority over a particular congregation, but instead have the freedom to travel from community to community proclaiming good news? Those who are identifying and appointing local pastors to shepherd their communities?

The itinerant evangelist proclaims broadly. The local pastor disciples deeply. By taking these two roles and creating one hybrid itinerant pastor, what have we lost in the way of evangelism? What have we lost in discipleship?

What do you think? What questions or thoughts does this raise for you? Can the American Church re-embrace truly local pastors and traveling apostles? Should we?

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11 thoughts on “The Modern Pastor — Sent or Called?

  1. Thanks, Teddy. Good thoughts.

    On a historical and much more pragmatic note, the original purpose of itinerancy in the UM was established due to the frontier nature of the early American Methodist movement. Since every pastor was placed to care for multiple charges, the often had to travel 5–6 weeks on horseback, carrying all of their belongings with them (which wasn’t very much) to be at each church in their charge for only one-two days. Thus, the term coined for them as “circuit-riders” or “saddlebag-preachers.” Unlike pastors in a singular settled location, these itinerant preachers were always on the move and preached daily (and sometimes more than once a day) at any site available whether a log cabin, the local court house, a meeting house, or an outdoor forest setting.

    I don’t bring that up to defend the itinerancy but rather to point out the simple fact that the original purpose of the itineracy in the UM has gone. I, for one, do not see very many of our itinerant pastors traveling daily on horseback and carrying all of their belongings in a saddlebag. As the church culture changed and became more settled, the itinerant form did not change with it. Thus, a form is still being used that is far separated from its original purpose. Unfortunately this is not an uncommon problem in church history.

    • Good points, Jonathan. Those early Circuit Riders were certainly functioning in a more apostolic, itinerant evangelist role. Hard to compare that sort of model to what we call “itineracy” today. Some would argue that we don’t need “saddlebag-preachers” anymore. Perhaps so. But as you suggest, then they need to explain why we still believe in itineracy. They had itinerant (i.e. multiple locations per week) preachers/evangelists; we now have itinerant (i.e. multiple locations per decade) chaplains. The form has (loosely) remained, but the function has drastically changed.

  2. we really do need saddlebag preachers again. It is going to look different (cars) but the point is the same, to go where the people are. They ain’t in church.

  3. He who DESIRES the work of an Elder, DESIRES a good thing. (I Timothy 3:1)

    It’s interesting how often I hear pastors talk about feeling called (or sent), but how little I see pastors that actually DESIRE the good work they’ve been called to. And that’s sad.

    • Good word, Tom. My versions call it “a noble task.” Which probably should lead us to ask what that task is, and whether we are really still looking to our pastors for that task.

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  9. The pattern of structure or lack thereof found in the New Testament demonstrates that the primitive church was not yet rigidly committed to any particular model. To suppose that any current model for ministry must some how match up with a assumed N.T. model may suit romantic assumptions but otherwise it is unconvincing. To suppose that any institutional interest or social priority should be so privileged that utility is discounted leadership of the local church is equally unconvincing.

    Ideally pastoral leadership would be developed in house. Paul’s practice of sending various proteges to serve various local churches was even in his day problematic. Given the multitude of local churches that rapidly developed, the few pastors that he sent cannot be considered normative practice throughout the N.T. era church.

    Unless developed in house, all pastors called or sent begin as outsiders. If they are to ever be a part of the local church they serve, it is not going to be the result of some formal institutional action but rather a result of the commitment of that pastor to his people and the people to their pastor. An apt comparison is to look at the relationship of coaches to the teams they lead and the schools in which they work.

    If apostles of the N.T. sort are today lacking, is that a problem? There is little indication that Peter or James accomplished much beyond the Jerusalem conference, the results of which are nebulous. Paul’s apostolic status was often questioned so that he often defended it. Yet the broad expansion of the primitive church did not depend upon the work of the apostles. It depended on the multiple numerous local churches pastored by a broad range of men and women who served as pastors. The churches that today are growing are doing so as a result of local church pastoral leadership. The contribution of leaders at the larger executive level to that growth of the local churches is not apparent. From the perspective of utility, function and results, the role and work of the pastor in the local church merits attention. The lack of modern day apostles of the N.T. sort is not so significant.

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