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Pastors or teaching elders?

Recent letters to the editor describing the inadequacy of “teaching elder” as the primary title for clergy exercising ordered ministry merit further consideration. Jill Moorman considers “teaching elder” misleading and likely to be misunderstood in and out of the church. Carl Wilson calls it an impoverished term for describing what really happens in ministry (June 25, 2012).

The revised Book of Order calls for all ordained clergy to be called “teaching elders” rather than “pastors.” It explains that, while all pastors are teaching elders, not all teaching elders are pastors. Teaching elders can be called to a variety of forms of ministry (G-2.0501; W-6.3004).

However, as Moorman points out, not all pastors are trained as teaching elders, and some of them are not good teachers, no matter what they are called. In most communities, moreover, the title “teacher” is reserved for professional educators in public schools, colleges and universities, or theological seminaries. The confusion is aggravated by the Book of Order itself, since the titles “teaching elder” and “pastor” sometimes appear to be used interchangeably, but occasionally “pastor” is used when the broader term is more appropriate (see references to preaching, weddings and funerals (W-2.2007; 3.3200; 3.3400; 4.9003; 4.10003).

A more serious concern involves the fear that the substitution of “teaching elder” where “pastor” or “minister” formerly applied signals that we Presbyterians may devalue and shortchange the professional pastoral role in the future church. Biblical texts make it clear how critical the pastoral ministry is for the spiritual functioning of God’s church. As is well known, the word “pastoral” comes from Old Testament images of the people of God as God’s flock and the need for God to serve as a true shepherd when human beings fail in that critical function. Psalm 23 is only one reference among many (Psalm 78:52; 80:1; 95:7; Jeremiah 23:1-8; Ezekiel 34). In the New Testament, Jesus is the good shepherd (John 10: 1-18; Hebrews 13:20; I Peter 5:4; Revelation 7:17; also see Mark 6:34) who tells Peter that a post-resurrection follower of his must feed his sheep (John 21:17). The church uses this same language to describe its central ministry in Acts 20:28 (“Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God …. ”) and 1 Peter 5: 1-2 (“I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge … ”). In Ephesians 4:11 the word translated “pastor” is literally “shepherd” in Greek.

At a time when we are searching for new forms of ministry and are rather frantically trying to analyze why many old ones are no longer attractive (LeeAnne Watkins, “This Just Isn’t Working, When People Don’t Show Up,” Christian Century, June 4, 2012), we at least need to be clear about the vital nature of pastoral calling and how it is important to members and nonmembers alike that church leaders be committed to minister to personal spiritual and emotional needs in significant ways. As Alan Richardson succinctly puts in it a careful study of the New Testament words used to describe ministerial offices, “The very concept of Israel or the church as a flock involves the institution of pastoral care and oversight; the flock must have shepherds who rule it and feed it under the ultimate supervision of the Chief Shepherd himself” (“An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament,” Harper and Row, 1958, p. 293).


EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired pastor living in Johnstown, N.Y., an adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College and the author of “Selected to Serve, A Guide for Church Leaders, 2nd ed.”, Westminster John Knox, 2012, revised for the New Form of Government.

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