A Job for Superman?

A Job for Superman? A call to clarify the role of the Adventst minister

The authors explore reasons for the lack of a pastor’s job description and suggest a way to move forward.

David J. Cook is associate pastor of the McDonald Road Seventh-day Adventist Church, Apison, Tennessee;

Ryan L. Ashlock, at the time of this writing, was an instructor in the Faculty of Religious Studies, Asia-Pacific International University, Muak Lek, Thailand.

Adventist pastors are often expected to be involved in a daunting variety of skills. A local pastor may have to function as administrator, caregiver, chief financial officer, chaplain, church planter, coach, counselor, evangelist, fund-raiser, and several more. No matter how gifted, no human can be a Superman.

What is the pastor’s job? It seems like an obvious question that should receive an obvious answer, yet the Adventist Church has not formally answered it.1 As a previous Ministry article points out, for pastors, “a failure to understand their role will result in low self-esteem, lack of job satisfac­tion, anxiety, and serious stress.”2 Yet many pastors, pressured by conflicting expectations from parishioners, church administrators, and the wider culture, wrestle to know where to focus their efforts. This article will explore some reasons for the lack of a job description and suggest a way to move forward.

Multiple accountabilities

The Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Handbook highlights a diffi­culty in defining the pastor’s role when it calls ministry “an intensely personal calling and service.”3 Recognizing that pastors ultimately answer to God rather than to the church, the church becomes hesitant to tell pastors what to do.4 But ministry cannot exist apart from the body of believers, as the ordi­nation service—the laying on of human hands—illustrates. The call originates from God, but is also recognized and affirmed by the church. The “personal” nature of the call should not be an excuse for the lack of a job description.

Churches without pastors

The Church Manual says the pastor is the congregation’s “spiritual leader and adviser” with responsibility to train church officers.5 This is a good start to a job description, but not enough. This manual actually spends more time describing the work of elders and deacons than it does that of pastors.

Adventist pastors are hired by the local field (commonly called a confer­ence/mission/section). As such, we should expect a job description to appear in the working policy docu­ments of the various fields. But in the policy documents we have surveyed, they give scant attention to pastoral roles. In a brief statement about pas­tors, the General Conference Working Policy states that the primary call of the ordained minister is “pastoral, preaching, and evangelistic duties” rather than administration, teaching, or departmental leadership.6

The Church Manual avoids a detailed discussion of pastors because they belong to the larger administra­tive body. The field has little to say about pastors because they are local ministers. Pastors inhabit an undefined no-man’s land—not quite local and not quite something else.

The pastor as elder

An additional difficulty in creating a job description is the role confu­sion between the pastor and church elder. The Elder’s Handbook calls the work of pastor and elder “inextricably entwined”7 and goes on to say that “the interests and work of pastor and elder should be strikingly similar.”8 Elders have a clear job description with three areas at the core: spiritual leadership, general oversight, and nurture.9 Could these three also serve as the core job description of the pastor? The Minister’s Handbook also links the work of pastor and elder by saying that “pastors and elders lead the local congregation, and they shepherd the flock.”10

In fact, the majority of the Adventist pastoral workforce is unordained.11 Since the unordained pastor func­tions with the authority of the local elder, the two roles become nearly identical. If most of the ministers, known to their parishioners as “pastor,” are functioning with the authority of local elders anyway, then what really distinguishes a pastor from an elder? Only two things:

1. Accountability. Pastors are account­able to the local field rather than the local church.

2. Vocation. Pastors have accepted a call to full-time vocational ministry rather than part-time avocational ministry.12 In the last few years, however, several conferences in North America have begun hir­ing pastors on a part-time basis, encouraging them to be bi­vocational. Vocation is becoming less significant in differentiating pastors from elders.

Like the unordained pastor, the ordained minister also differs from a local elder in terms of accountability and vocation. But ordination distin­guishes him or her from the local elder in a third way:

3. Authority. The ordained pastor:

a. Has worldwide, rather than local, authority.13

b. Can conduct the baptismal service and marriage ceremony without special permission from the local field.14

c. Can ordain local elders and deacons.15

d. Can organize and unite churches.16

Most ordained ministers who work as pastors rarely exercise authority outside their own districts and do not organize or unite churches. Conference administrators assume most organi­zational authority. In some parts of the world like North America, local elders are pre-authorized to baptize and marry. The only commonly seen  and consistent difference between an ordained pastor and a local elder is therefore the authority to ordain local leaders.

How we got here

So far we have suggested three rea­sons why the Adventist Church may not have a clear job description for pastors: (1) the church recognizes ministry as something intensely personal; (2) local congregations are structured to function without pastors; and (3) when pastors are present they function much like a local elder. To understand how and why we arrived at this situation, we find it necessary to look at the development of Adventist ministry from its beginnings.

Prior to formal organization in 1863, Adventist preachers functioned as itinerant evangelists. James White described Adventist ministry thus: “We have no settled pastors over our churches; but our ministers are all mis­sionaries, as were the early ministers of Jesus Christ, consequently they are most of their time deprived of the blessings of home.”17

A likely reason for the adop­tion of an itinerant model was its practicality. Adventist congregations were small. If pastors were to make a living from the gospel, they would need to be supported by multiple churches. Furthermore, the itinerant model fit well with the spirit of rugged individualism and independence, so much a part of American culture. Nobody would have dared to tell a pastor what he could or could not do by tying him to a local church and saddling him with a job description.

Even as late as the turn of the century, Adventist congregations were few and scattered. A small and itinerant band of ministers served the burgeoning churches. Church growth was rapid in the early years of Adventism. The church was adding members faster than pastors, forcing ministers to continue in an itinerant, unsettled role with the arrival of the twentieth century. It took about 50 years for church growth to be steady enough that Adventist pastors could conceivably begin to settle into local churches and districts.18 Adventist leaders of the early twentieth century, however, continued to embrace the concept of pastors as itinerant evan­gelists, calling such a ministry model “The Lord’s plan” for the Adventist Church.19

Nonetheless, pastors increasingly began to settle over churches and assume traditional pastoral roles, creating inevitable dissonance. How much authority should pastors have over local churches? If “The Lord’s plan” calls for pastors to work as itiner­ant evangelists, should we call it a sin for pastors to become settled guardians of the flock? This dissonance is a key factor in the ongoing confusion about the pastor’s job that we see today.

Contemporary complications

In the last several decades, the world and the church have undergone immense changes. An explosion in church membership has coincided with an exploding world population, the digital age, globalization, increased affluence, and rising secularization. Growing out of these rapid changes in society, there are several factors pushing the church further away from clarity on the pastor’s role:

1. Specialization. Today, especially in larger churches, pastors may carry titles such as Administrative Pastor, Counseling Pastor, Preach­ing Pastor, or Youth Pastor, and the duties of one type of pastor may scarcely resemble those of another.20

2. New models for doing church. Cell churches, house churches, seeker-sensitive churches, and many other new trends require radically different roles for pastors. Whether or not we agree that these new ways of doing church are valid for Adventism, they unavoidably influence our thinking.

3. The globalization of Adventism. Church membership in the North American homeland is now dwarfed by membership in the rest of the world, bringing diversity of practice and viewpoint. Pastoral expectations no longer arise solely out of an American Evangelical culture. Depending on our back­grounds, we cannot help but think, however incorrectly, of the Advent­ist pastor as an Adventist version of the Catholic priest, Jewish rabbi, Buddhist monk, Muslim imam, or megachurch pastor down the road.

To develop a unified job descrip­tion for the Adventist minister has become harder than ever. And maybe that is acceptable. Maybe each local field needs to develop its own job description. Still, we feel strongly that there should be something at the core of a pastoral job description that does not change from time to time or culture to culture. What is that core?

A push for clarity

There have been some notable efforts to clear up the confusion in recent decades. In 1990, the North American Division (NAD) Ministerial Association published Adventist Pastoral Ministry written by John W. Fowler, perhaps the most direct attempt to answer the question of the pastor’s role. Fowler argues against the itinerant model of early Adventist ministry. He calls for “reestablishing the historic role of the pastor as the guardian of the church, as its spiritual and moral leader.”21 He also calls the minister back to the dual ministries of word and sacrament22—something the Church Manual spends a good deal of time explaining in terms of the ministry of the local elder.

Russell Burrill, former direc­tor of the North American Division Evangelism Institute, is drawn towards the early Adventist model of the pastor as an itinerant evangelist. He scorns the idea of the pastor as primary caregiver in the church. According to him, “the New Testament demands an evangelistic clergy, not a care-giving clergy.”23

In Burrill’s vision, the laity would be actively engaged in both nurture and evangelism. The pastor would serve as a consultant or coach, keep­ing church members at the top of their game. With a healthy church caring for itself, the pastor would be freed from the burdens of local ministry to engage in the work of planting churches in unentered territories. For Burrill, the pastor is not a local leader but a coach who always looks to start a new team somewhere else. This leaves the pastor without much local authority. Burrill recommends a “circular” administrative structure for the local church with the pastor as just one in the circle.24

We have here two mutually exclu­sive models: Fowler’s guardian and Burrill’s evangelist. But there is a third model that both leaders incorporate into their thinking: the pastor as an equipper. Fowler and Burrill both agree that a part of the pastor’s role includes equipping the church for ministry. Pastors should not do all the work themselves but teach the church members how to work. Fowler’s guardian trains the members and then stays by to supervise the work of the church.25 Burrill’s evangelist also trains the church members, builds up local leaders, and then departs to start new work elsewhere.26

Inspired counsel

So which model would you classify as “best”? Our natural inclination, as Adventists, suggests that we settle the issue by appealing to the Bible and the writings of Ellen White. But there are challenges in doing so.

The New Testament gives a snap­shot of the life of the early church, but there is diversity of practice. Leaders meet challenges by adapting. The office of deacon, best translated as “minister,” gets invented to meet a specific need. The apostle Paul roams the world raising up new churches. Some apostles and leaders stay in Jerusalem for many years. Timothy and Titus seem to supervise the church (or churches) within a given territory. No single model emerges.

Comments by Ellen White can easily be used to support Burrill’s evangelist model. She certainly lived and wrote during periods when that was the primary model for Adventist ministry. Some statements can be read to suggest that the itinerant model is best,27 but she makes it clear elsewhere that ministers have a responsibil­ity to spend time caring for church members.28

The consistent message in Ellen White’s comments about the church and pastoral ministry focuses on the health of the church. Pastors are responsible for the spiritual vitality of their churches. One of the best ways to keep churches healthy involves giving the members work to do. She champions the pastor as a trainer and equipper of the laity.29

By reading broadly in her writings, we can discern that Ellen White was accommodating of multiple models of ministry. Pastors can and should be either itinerant or settled as time and circumstance may require. But always she calls pastors to be faithful in taking care of the flock and keeping the church strong.

A path forward

Ellen White’s consistent empha­sis is, not surprisingly, where Fowler and Burrill agree: pastors should train church members to be healthy Christians who are active in ministry themselves. The Bible also provides a basis for seeing the pastor’s role as that of an equipping shepherd. Ephesians 4:12 says that the offices of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher are given “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry” (NKJV).

But a problem exists in applying Ephesians 4:12 specifically to the work of the pastor since the other three leadership gifts/offices have the same job description. Burrill, in fact, suggests that all four of the leadership gifts in Ephesians 4:11 are “clergy gifts.”30 Our use of the term pastor in modern Adventism confuses the issue. If we want to maintain a single title for clergy, then perhaps the older designation “minister” or some other term would be more appropriate since the identification could more obviously cover all four gifts/offices.

We think, however, it is a mistake to conflate these gifts into a single call­ing. In Adventist practice, we ordain individuals to the ministry and then expect them to have all four leader­ship gifts. We expect them to become Superman.

So, what is the pastor’s role as distinct from apostle, prophet, and evangelist? The word pastor means shepherd in the biblical lan­guages—the guardian of the flock. And in Ephesians 4, the term pastor is linked to the word teacher. Here we have a model that looks much more like Fowler’s than Burrill’s picture of pastoral ministry. The pastor is a guardian-equipper. Ben Schoun has an effective description of the pastor’s job: “moving the church and its members forward in a life of health and purpose.”31

An innovative illustration of how the guardian-equipper model might be applied comes from the Sri Lanka Mission. In attempting to revitalize the churches and encourage members to assume local leadership, the Mission has removed the pastoral workforce from day-to-day responsibility for churches. Pastors have been assigned to regional teams responsible for training and supervising local church leaders.32 By working as a team, the pastors can utilize their individual and limited gifts to train and equip the churches. The individual pastor does not have to be Superman. The Sri Lanka model allows for a clear distinction between the pastor and the local elder and moves the pastor in the direction of field administration.

The specifics of application may vary from place to place, but at the core, pastors should be guardian-equippers. They are spiritual leaders, delegated with the authority to super­vise and safeguard the churches under their care, to recruit and train local leadership. Pastors are neither evan­gelists (with an extreme focus on the lost) nor chaplains (with a one-sided focus on nurturing church members), though, at times and briefly, out of necessity, pastors may personally need to do evangelism or nurture. But pastors should certainly not feel guilty or unfit if they are not gifted as evangelists or nurturing caretakers. Pastors are not Superman and should not try to take on all the roles in the church. Their focus must be training church leaders to put church members to work.

The health of pastors and churches lies in the balance. The church needs to study this issue with a view to making a clear statement about the pastor’s role. Points that need to be studied include the following:

1. Mandate. Is a pastor an itinerant evangelist or a local shepherd? Or is the pastor simply a leader, regardless of whether he or she is itinerant or settled, whose responsibility includes equipping the saints?

2. Specialization. In today’s Advent­ism, the most common title for the ordained minister is pastor. Does it make sense to call those in specialized ministries (evangelist, administrator, chaplain) pastor as well? What pastoral function makes a pastor a pastor?

3. Local function. If pastors and elders do the same work, why pay one and not the other? If pastors and elders do different jobs, what are the differences? The differences must be defined in such a way that we do not move any further towards sacerdotalism, something we fear that Adventists in some parts of the world are dangerously close to embracing already.

For the sake of healthy pastors and congregations, the church must respond to these and other difficulties encountered in defining the role of the pastor in order to bring clarity to the pastor’s job description. Perhaps a good place to begin would be to allow pastors to take off the Superman cape and take up the Shepherd’s mantle.


1 In his book, Wanted: A Good Pastor: The Characteristics, Skils, and Attitudes Every Effective Church Leader Needs (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 2011), 91, Jonas Arrais states, “Job descriptions for pastors are rare. Over the years there has been resistance on different levels to establish a job description for pastors.”

2 Eric H. Winter, “Preserve the Vessel, Share the Treasure,” Ministry, June 1996, 5.

Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Handbook (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Ministerial Association, 2009), 52.

4 Ellen White once counseled against requiring ministers to first serve as colporteurs by saying, “It is not the work of any man to prescribe the work for any other man contrary to his own convictions of duty. He is to be advised and counselled, but he is to seek his directions from God, whose he is, and whom he serves.” Pastoral Ministry (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 1995)47.

Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 18th ed. (Hagerstown, MD: Secretariat, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2010), 33. This statement comes from a brief subsection titled “Ordained Pastors,” which is not a job description but an overview of pastoral authority and responsibility in the local context. In addition to designating pastors as spiritual leaders with responsibility to instruct officers, the Manual states that the pastor outranks the local elders and deacons, can perform all church rites and ceremonies, should chair the church board, work closely with the elders, assist visiting evangelists, and plan and lead worship services. Curiously, no mention is made of the pastor preaching or himself doing evangelism.

Working Policy of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, L 40. Although the statements in this section of the Working Policy point to a local ministry for pastors, the section title points in another direction: “Ordained to World Church.”

Seventh-day Adventist Elder’s Handbook (Silver Spring, MD: Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1994), 9.

8 Ibid., 51.

9 Ibid., 34.

10 Minister’s Handbook, 51.

11 The world church has 12,736 ordained ministers serving as “Evangelistic and Pastoral Employees,” 5,615 licensed ministers (unordained but on the path to ordination), and 8,368 categorized as “Other” meaning they work as pastors or evangelists but with a commissioned minister, missionary, or some other type of credential or license. That means there are 13,983 unordained pastors serving as “Evangelistic and Pastoral Employees.” Data from 148th Annual Statistical Report—2010 (Silver Spring, MD: Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2010), 6. The same chart lists several other types of “General Employees” in addition to “Evangelistic and Pastoral Employees.” These are “Administrative, Promotional, Office, and Miscellaneous Employees,” “Primary School Teachers,” “Bible Instructors,” and “Literature Evangelists.”

12 Minister’s Handbook, 40.

13 The Church Manual states, “The authority and work of elders are confined to the church in which their election has been made. It is not permissible for a conference committee by vote to confer on an elder the status that is granted to an ordained pastor to serve other churches as elder” (73).

14 Ibid., 73.

15 Ibid., 72, 77.

16 Ibid., 37–40.

17 James White, Review and Herald 14, (June 9, 1859) no. 3: 21, cited by Russell C. Burrill, Recovering an Adventist Approach to the Life and Mission of the Local Church (Fallbrook, CA: Hart Books, 1998), 157.

18 The cause and effect relationship of settled pastors and slower growth can be argued either way. Either settled pastors caused growth to slow or slow growth freed up personnel and money so pastors could settle over churches. Russell Burrill presents several graphs comparing growth rates to the number of pastors in North America to show that as the number of pastors increased growth slowed significantly. See Burrill, 174-177.

19 John W. Fowler, Adventist Pastoral Ministry (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 1990), 11.

20 The Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Ministerial and Theological Education (Silver Spring, MD: International Board of Ministerial and Theological Education, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2001), 41, lists four major categories of Adventist ministry specialization: Church Pastors, Specialized Ministries (comprising Congregational Specialist, Public Evangelist, Youth Minister/Leader, Departmental Leader, and Denominational Administrator), Teaching Ministries, and Chaplaincy Ministries.

21 Fowler, 35.

22 Fowler, 62.

23 Burrill208.

24 Burrill, 209.

25 The pastor’s “function is to coordinate the efforts of all the members in both the nurture and outreach ministries of the congregation,” see Fowler, 58, 59.

26 A couple of representative statements will suffice to showcase Burrill’s view. “Pastors need to revise their church role and return to their biblical job description—as a trainer of the laity.” Russel C. Burrill, Revolution in the Church (Fallbrook, CA: Hart Books1993), 13. “Churches need to rise up and inform their conferences, ‘We can care for ourselves. Take the money formerly used to give us a pastor and send our pastor out to raise up a new church, whose believers can likewise be taught to care for themselves.’ ” Ibid., 38.

27 “The churches that have not life in themselves, that have lost their spiritual discernment, call for ministers to come to their help, to bring them the breath of life. But the ministers have other work to do. They must carry the message of truth to those who know it not.” Ellen G. White, Pastoral Ministry (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association1995), 121.

28 “The flock of God have a right to expect to be visited by their pastor, to be instructed, advised, counseled, in their own homes. And if a man fails to do this part of the work, he can not be a minister after God’s order.” Ibid., 223.

29 “When he [the pastor] entertains the idea that his work is comprehended in sermonizing, he overlooks, and is sure to neglect, the work devolving upon a shepherd of the flock. It is his work to have care, to oversee the flock, to so arrange the elements of the church the each may have something to do.” Ibid., 40.

30 Burrill, Revolution in the Church, 47.

31 Benjamin D. Schoun, “The Pastor and the Local Church,” A Guide to Effective Pastoral Ministry (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2009), 49.

32 Seventh-day Adventist Buddhist Study Center, “Sri Lanka: Major Step of Faith,” Prayers Among Buddhists Newsletter, December 12, 2011.

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David J. Cook is associate pastor of the McDonald Road Seventh-day Adventist Church, Apison, Tennessee;

Ryan L. Ashlock, at the time of this writing, was an instructor in the Faculty of Religious Studies, Asia-Pacific International University, Muak Lek, Thailand.

February 2013

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