Although most of us wouldn’t pick Steve Martin, all of us do have a list of what we want in a pastor. The list may be short or long, general or detailed, but we all carry a set of expectations with us every time we go to church. Some of our lists may even look like this old one:
–The ideal pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes.
–He condemns sin, but never hurts anyone’s feelings.
–He works from 8AM to midnight, and also serves as the church janitor.
–He makes $40 a week, wears good clothes, and donates $30 a week to the church.
–He is 29 years old and has 40 years of experience.
–He makes 15 house calls a day and is always in his office.
Ok, so what makes that list funny? Because we see the nugget of truth in the joke, that everyone tends to have some unrealistic expectations of their pastors. What the list also hints at is that there may be a real difference between what we want in a pastor and what we need in a pastor. Which begs the question, what qualities do we actually need in a pastor? How can we tell?
Unfortunately, history amply demonstrates that people don’t always know what they need in a pastor. From past glaring examples of leaders who poisoned kool-aid to the disgraced pastors who make the news almost every day, we know that giving people want they want or can be convinced of is not the same as what they actually need.
However, we don’t need to speculate or wonder or argue over the qualities of the ideal pastor: the Bible gives clear guidance regarding what a church needs in a pastor. One of the best pictures occurs in Acts chapter 20, where Paul is meeting with the leaders of the church in Ephesus. In a few short words, he lays out what he sees as the critical roles that a godly pastor must fulfill. You might even call it “Paul’s Picture of the Perfect Pastor.”
Here’s the background: Paul is traveling by ship back to Jerusalem. He is passing near to Ephesus, where he started a church and pastored it for three years before moving onto other cities. He has retained a special care and concern for this church, since he spent longer in Ephesus than any other city he traveled to. He is under a time constraint, trying to return to Jerusalem before the feast of Pentecost, but his ship is passing the shoreline within about 20 miles of Ephesus. So he puts to shore, and has the elders of the church to come and meet him, for what he believes is his last time before his death.
Paul has one last opportunity with them, one last time to impart wisdom and encouragement and warning to the leaders of this young church. What does he say? He focuses on the kind of man a pastor should be to his church, using himself as an example. He knows that the whole health of any church hinges on the kind of men that are leading it and the kind of ministry they are committed to.
Why is this important to you and me today? If you are in any kind of teaching, eldership, or leadership position in your church, this is your biblical blueprint for how you are to live out your life. If you are a member of a church, then this is your blueprint as to what to look for in your pastors, what to appreciate about their ministry, and how to pray for God to lead and strengthen them.
Paul immediately starts out by challenging these leaders to remember what kind of man he was and what kind of ministry he had in verse 18, “You yourselves know how I lived…” He then sets out his list of what they should focus on:
First and foremost, Paul states that a church needs pastors committed to serving God (verse 20). Unless a pastor is looking only to God for direction, strength, and approval, he will be tempted to follow whatever course will give him the most popularity from others. Paul mentions two keys to a life of serving God: a humble heart (before God and men) and a broken heart (for the glory of God and the needs of men).
Paul also knows that a pastor must be committed to teaching people (verse 20). If a man does not truly love people and love teaching them, he may become a capable administrator or leader, but he cannot be a pastor. In verse 20 Paul states he taught both in public proclamation and in group discipleship. Every church needs both types of instruction by the pastors and other gifted teachers in the church.
Paul goes on to say that a pastor must be unafraid to cut across racial and social barriers (verse 21). Paul often found himself in the middle between squabbles and outright hatred between Jews and Greeks, but refused to concede to the either side, firmly loving and promoting reconciliation between them. Pastors must follow Paul’s example, and draw all people to Christ and to each other.
Also in verse 21 Paul reminds them that he was unafraid to tell the hard truth of the Gospel. Paul never shirked or side-stepped away from the necessity of teaching “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,” even at the cost of beatings and imprisonment. Paul well knew that people do not like being challenged on their need for repentance and for Christ, but he also knew that there was “no under name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
To sum up this need for courage, Paul stated, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24) Paul’s bottom line was that a pastor values his ministry more than his own life. The preacher Charles Spurgeon advised young men that if there was any other career they could do besides the pastorate, then they should do it. True pastors are not in it for the money or because they enjoy it or because it seemed like a good idea: the true pastor would rather die than fall short of the ministry he knows God has called him to.
Paul throughout the passage challenges them to consider how he did everything he knew to do for them while he was their pastor. In short, Paul knew that a pastor needs to have a clear conscience. Paul knew he was not perfect; in fact, he once called himself the chief of sinners in 1st Timothy 1:15. But Paul also knew that he had given the ministry his all: at the end of his life he wrote in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Paul also reminds them that a pastor remembers the source of His calling. In verse 28 he says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” They did not choose their calling; they were chosen by the Holy Spirit. Keeping that reality firmly fixed in their minds was vital for their success, when struggles, frustrations, and trials would tempt them to give up or compromise.
Paul next reveals himself as a pastor who values the preciousness of the church. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven being precious enough that a man would sell all that he had to obtain it (Matthew 13:44). A pastor has to regard his flock as that precious, because their value is determined by Jesus shedding his precious blood on their behalf (verse 28). Three hundred years ago a young German college student was in an art museum looking at a painting of Christ with his crown of thorns. Beneath the painting was the inscription, “I have done this for you, what have you done for me?” Broken by the preciousness of Christ’s blood, he went on to become one of the founders of the Moravian church. Every pastor should look with broken heart upon his church as purchased by the precious blood of Christ.
Because of the preciousness of the church, a pastor is aware of the danger of false doctrine & the need for persistent vigilance against it. In verse 29-31 Paul warns them of a future where “fierce wolves” will try to lead the flock astray. Twenty centuries of Christian history have proved Paul right, and the need for a faithful pastor to be faithful to true doctrine is ever more important today.
Of course, there is only one way to be faithful to true doctrine: for a pastor to be a man of the Word. In verse 32 Paul blesses these early church leaders by commending them “to God and the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” There is absolutely no substitute for a pastor immersing himself in the Scriptures. Charles Spurgeon once described John Bunyan as being so full of the Bible that, “Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.” Every pastor should strive to be described so.
Before ending his teaching, Paul once again points to his own ministry to emphasize that the church needs a pastor who is free from materialism. Jesus bluntly taught that you cannot serve both God and money in Matthew 6:24, and Paul reiterates that a pastor’s lifestyle must demonstrate a heart that does not covet either his flock’s money or their possessions. His flock should never have a reason to doubt the selflessness of his motives toward them.
Finally, Paul’s instructions reveal that a pastor must have a heart of a shepherd. The care and concern of a shepherd is woven throughout Paul’s discourse, but is summed up in verse 35 where he speaks of working hard to help the weak and to remember that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
What happens when a church has a pastor like Paul? They love him. The chapter closes with the men embracing Paul and kissing him, praying with him and weeping with him. When a faithful pastor and a faithful church bond together for the glory of God, there is no end of the good that is done for the Kingdom of God.