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?