Should churches have a “senior” or “lead” pastor?

My last post was on whether the title “lead pastor” was an improvement from “senior pastor.”  Mark Driscoll thinks so and last week I posted on why I respectfully disagreed.  In the comments to that post, three commenters astutely raised the question as to whether it was appropriate to have a senior/lead pastor or not.  I briefly responded to those comments but now want to explore that question here in more depth.

First let me say that as I begin to plant a church in Los Angeles, while working on a draft of the constitution I have considered whether to have a senior/lead pastor or not in the constitution.  I’m deciding to propose against having such a title in our constitution or in the vocabulary of our church, but that begs a little explanation.  To do that best, I thought I’d quote my good brother’s (Mark Dever, who’s way smarter on issues like this than I am) argument for a senior pastor and then make some comments.

If you ask the question, “Does the Bible teach that there is to be a Senior Pastor-figure alongside, or inside the eldership?”  I think the answer to that question is “No, not directly.”  Having said that, I do think that we can discern a distinct role among the elders for the one who is the primary public teacher of the church…

[L]et me give you four glimpses of this kind of role that I think we see in the New Testament.

  1. Even in the New Testament, there were some men who moved from place to place (like Timothy or Titus) who served as elders, and some who didn’t (presumably like those that Titus (in Titus 1:5) appointed in every town).  So, while Timothy came from outside, others were appointed from within the local congregation.
  2. There were some who were supported full-time by the flock (cf. 1 Tim. 5:17-18; Philippians 4:15-18), and others who worked at another job (as Paul often did when he was first establishing the gospel in an area).  One would think that not all the elders Titus made sure were appointed on Crete would have been paid full time.
  3. It is interesting to note that Paul wrote to Timothy alone with instructions for the church there, even though we know from Acts that there were other elders in the Ephesian church.  Timothy, though, seems in some sense to have had a unique function among them.
  4. Finally the letters of Jesus to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 are addressed to the messenger (singular) of each of these churches.

None of these, of course, are air-tight commands, but they are descriptions that are consistent with our practice of setting aside at least one (perhaps more) from among the elders who is not necessarily from our own community, supporting that one, and giving him the primary teaching responsibility in the church.

We must, however, remember that the preacher, or pastor, is also fundamentally one of the elders of his congregation (Display of God’s Glory, 23-4).

So Dever is arguing for a senior pastor-figure who may come from outside the community, may receive financial support, and who is given the primary teaching responsibility in the church.  I can agree with those descriptions/characteristics.  I think that is indisputable.  But should we call this person “senior pastor”?  I don’t think so.  If he has primary teaching responsibility then he could be called “preaching pastor” or “pastor for preaching” or “preaching elder” (or we can substitute “teaching” for “preaching” in those titles).  If he is paid then maybe he can be called a “staff” pastor/elder or “vocational” elder (but I question the usefulness of this distinction for most situations and cases).  So given the glimpses Dever cites, I think it shows that there are certain circumstances that may attend a pastor in a church.

But is the title and position of “senior pastor” consistent with these glimpses?  What does the title “senior pastor” or “lead pastor” convey?  Among other things it includes leadership over other leaders (pastors).  Some would argue for this from the idea of “first among equals.”  I do think there is inevitably a first among equals in most churches, but the title of this position emphasizes and formalizes the idea of “first among equals” rather than letting that seniority and leadership flow naturally with one’s ministry of the Word.  If one rises as a first among equals it should be by virtue of his grasp of the Scripture and application of it and not by virtue of his position.  This helps give the other pastors the confidence of equality and ability to humbly challenge the first among equals in ways that can bless the leadership and church.  This also helps keep the pastors out of the way of Jesus Christ, the chief pastor, leading his church by virtue of his Word and Spirit, while all the other pastors seek to follow his lead.  Certainly the one most in tune with Christ’s Word and Spirit will carry more weight in the discussion, but that would be by virtue of his echoing Christ and the Spirit and not by virtue of his office and title “senior/lead pastor.”

As I’ve learned at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a pastor doesn’t have coercive power but power insofar as he communicates and applies Scripture to the church.  The reason we have such an office/position/formalized role of “pastor/elder/overseer” is that the New Testament clearly teaches it.  It is not so with “senior/lead pastor.”  In that case, the power and influence of different pastors in a discussion and decision should flow from communication and application of Scripture, not formal title as “senior/lead pastor.”

Update: Mike Gilbart-Smith posted on this in the 9Marks blog. There’s a good word by Aaron Menikoff on this topic here. I also posted on this topic with a relevant quote by Don Carson here.


About pjtibayan

I love Jesus Christ and live to share life and share Jesus together with First Southern Baptist Church of Bellflower primarily to Southeast Los Angeles County.
This entry was posted in church, church planting, church polity, Leadership, Mark Dever. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Should churches have a “senior” or “lead” pastor?

  1. Noah Braymen says:

    Very good post brother! Clear, helpful, and…we miss you guys! We’ll be praying for your family, and your church!

    In Christ,

  2. Pastor Glenn says:

    These comments and links are great. For years I’ve disagreed with the senior pastor idea for many of the reasons you cite here. Currently I am the “Preaching Pastor” at a Baptist church in Colorado. We are an elder led church with four lay elders and two pastor or full-time elders. The other full time pastor handles education, counseling and administration. I teach and preach. I also lead the staff meetings and prepare the agenda for the elder meetings. I’ve been here for over seven years, and so far, it has worked well. I have three observations about this arrangement that you might find interesting.
    First, no mater how often it is explained, I am viewed by many as “the” pastor or as the “lead pastor,” because I am the one up front. Some people have even challenged the arrangement saying, “but certainly you are (or in some cases, must be) the leader of the others.” The idea of lead/senior pastor is so engrained in the minds of Christians in this culture, that they can’t understand what we believe is the biblical model.
    Second, some church growth experts will tell us that this team approach to ministry is a slow and inefficient way to make decisions. With that I must agree. However, I have seen too many abuses of the one-man-in-charge approach, and I know the depths of my own depravity, so I don’t want to be the one man in charge. I would rather be inefficient and right, than efficient and wrong.
    Third, for this model to work, everyone must be a team player. Any pastor who thinks he is in charge, or thinks he should be in charge, could never work in a real elder-team environment. Unfortunately, I have met way too many men in ministry who take a “God called me, so I am the leader” approach to the church. That attitude ignores the seriousness of sin.

    Blessings in Jesus,

  3. JR Woodward says:


    Thanks for your words brother. I appreciate your spirit and this approach reveals a sense of humility. All of this made me think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:

    25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

    Thanks again for your post.

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