July 11, 2011
Pastoral Authority: Earned, Taken, or Granted?
It depends who you ask.
Pastor. In the eight years since this label first applied to me, it has been fascinating to notice who uses it and who doesn’t. The church that first entrusted the title to me was suburban, predominately white, and largely middle-aged. As a twenty-something associate pastor, I was mostly referred to by my first name. The lack of a title before my name suited me fine. At the time I was coming to grips with being a pastor and, frankly, the idea of regularly being identified as such by people ten to twenty years my senior was frightening.
In hindsight I realize there was something more to my timidity about this title. Being identified as a pastor carried with it a level of intimidating responsibility and authority that I felt I didn’t deserve. Surely I needed another ten years or so in the trenches before anyone could confidently call me their pastor. Being called simply by my first name was a relief, evidence in a way that I was still trying on this vocation to see if it fit.
The fact that this congregation indulged my skittishness with my pastoral role didn’t mean I had no authority. As Matt Tebbe pointed out, there is a kind of authority that comes over time, one that is established through faithful relationships. I felt both honored and surprised when congregants twice my age confided their struggles and listened to whatever biblical counsel I might offer. Despite my meager experience the church elders willingly listened to my ideas for future ministry. My authority as a new pastor came from ongoing presence in the community, being faithful to the church despite my insecurities and mistakes.
Five years of pastoring in this church left me with a bit more confidence in my vocation, though I remained happy that the title pastor wasn’t a primary part of my identification. But accepting a position at a multi-ethnic, urban church meant I would once again confront my skittishness about pastoral authority.
In this new church I was slightly older than most members and my ethnicity was shared by less than half of the congregation. Though I remained an associate, all of a sudden I was “Pastor David” to most of the church. The relational side of authority I’d become used to in the suburbs was still important in the city. But there was also an added component: calling.
Many people in this new church were willing to grant me authority by virtue of my call to ministry. This was especially true of the non-white members of the church. These women and men often assumed that if God had called me to pastor, then God had also equipped me to speak and lead with the authority of one submitted to God’s will for the good of the church. Biblical memory of God’s anointing for service and leadership was invoked when people described how we pastors were chosen to fulfill the work of equipping the church. I quickly came to recognize that my authority came not from my training, experience, or even from the relationships I was forming in the church. These were all important aspects of how I pastored, but the source of pastoral authority was clearly and simply God’s call. If God calls a person to the pastorate--a calling that is affirmed by the community--then that person is granted authority to respond in obedience to the work of ministry.
This made me nervous. Shouldn’t I first prove myself before people trusted me in this way? What I have slowly come to learn is that my fear of owning this authority is directly related to my own vocational doubts. Do I trust that God has called me to serve the church as a pastor? Do I believe the Holy Spirit has given me everything I need for the multi-faceted work of pointing people to God? Do I know that it is Christ and not I who ultimately pastors the church I serve? Encountering calling as a source of pastoral authority has pushed me towards a more sober-minded analysis of my own abilities and an increasing confidence in the power of God to form the church.
A year ago I was sent with a group of people from our urban church to start a new church in our city. For the first time I am a lead pastor, so the lessons in pastoral authority continue. I am coming to see that, in our context at least, my role and title give me a measure of authority even outside our church. As the primary representative of a church that is seeking the good of our neighborhood, I am beginning to have a small voice in our community. In this case, the source of my pastoral authority comes primarily from our church’s budding credibility as we find small ways to love our neighbors in practical ways.
I no longer fear being called pastor. Now the title prompts my awareness of God’s gracious presence. The authority that comes with this vocation is a constant reminder that both the call to ministry and the fruit of ministry come from God alone.