Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

What is a pastor, anyway?

Written by: on September 5, 2019

In recent years, I have had many conversations with American students who needed guidance as they navigated the minefield of vocation and calling. These conversations typically began with the student’s expression of a sense of call to “Kingdom work” or missional endeavor, but they inevitably as this question along the way: “What is a pastor, anyway?” These very well-meaning students have varying perspectives of pastoral identity that sound like anything from descriptions of entertainment superstars to mountain-dwelling sages. It is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate these conversations as the identity of the American pastor seems to splinter more and more every year. Students attempt to reconcile what they know to be pastoral duties (i.e. care, discipleship, sacramental administration, prayer, etc.) with what they see on Preachers and Sneakers when they scroll through Instagram.[1] The conversation can be painful as they grapple with issues of productivity and efficiency versus calling and formation. Last week, an international seminary student who is from a largely unchurched country, approached me with the statement, “I am searching for a way to translate what I see in ministry in America to what would be expected in my country, but I am having a difficult time even reconciling the two as the same calling.”

As a Christian higher education administrator in the areas of enrollment and student development, I am in frequent conversations regarding stakeholders’ desires to make our ministry degree programs accessible to international students, especially those who are already in a ministry context. I could not agree more. However, friction arises when we begin to discuss the necessary balance between increased enrollment numbers and the ability to contextualize ministry training. Genuine concern arises as we discuss the exportation of a Western understanding of ministry at a time when many seem to be asking the same question as our students: “What is a pastor, anyway?”

In his article, Prophets, Priests and Kings: The use of metaphors in training global leaders towards pastoral identity, Stephen Woodworth offers a challenge to those charged with ministry training.[2] He explains that even though Christianity has experienced explosive growth in the Majority World, there has not been a simultaneous increase in education or training for Christian leaders. In an effort to meet the demand for education in these areas, many degree programs have been shortened or reduced to a set of skills to be acquired rather than discussions of theological formation and calling.[3] He explains, “An exclusive emphasis on pragmatic courses of study runs the risk of producing pastors equipped to perform the tasks of the pastoral role without any foundational understanding of their pastoral identity.”[4]In other words, we are running the risk of treating the student as a customer rather than one who has come to learn about a sacred office.

Woodworth offers a solution to the issue through the use of metaphors. He suggests allowing Scriptural truths to translate from one culture to another in mindful ways. For instance, he used Calvin’s structure of Christ as Pastor, Prophet and King to teach students about the pastoral role of “ambassador”:

“Traditionally in the West, these pastoral metaphors are often associated with the pastor as preacher (prophet) and administrator (king). However, in the minds of these students in West Africa, these metaphors were a powerful symbol of their authority to confront systemic oppression at the hands of their government.”[5]

Woodworth challenges educators to empower national leaders to develop descriptive language that is informed by their local culture. He concludes that this will reinforce the role of the pastor rather than confuse it. This approach forces educators to ask questions regarding faithfulness rather than metrics of growth. It calls for a paradigm of pastoral identity that includes formation and care alongside practical skills and “how-to’s.” Paul House sums up the issue when he said:

“Moving forward, the questions we need to be asking are not, “How do we give our constituents what they want (or) sell degrees like any other commodity? But instead, “What sort of education fits the Bible’s vision of ministerial preparation, what sort of minister does the church need, and what is the right thing to do in complicated times?”[6]

The author’s challenge is timely as I find myself looking around at the ministry landscape, asking “What is a pastor, anyway?” Surely there is a way to resource ministry leaders to be both deep and wide in a world that so desperately needs them.



[1] Preachers and Sneakers is an Instagram account that chronicles popular evangelical pastors and their expensive fashion choices. https://www.instagram.com/preachersnsneakers/?hl=en

[2] Stephen Woodworth, “Prophets, Priests and Kings: The Use of Metaphors in Training Global Leaders towards Pastoral Identity,” Theology of Leadership Journal 1, no. 1 (2018): 79–87.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Quoted in Stephen Woodworth, “Prophets, Priests and Kings: The Use of Metaphors in Training Global Leaders towards Pastoral Identity,” Theology of Leadership Journal 1, no. 1 (2018): 79–87.


About the Author

Rhonda Davis

Rhonda is passionate about loving her Creator, her wonderful husband, and her three amazing sons. She serves as VP of Enrollment Management & Student Development at The King's University in Southlake, TX.

7 responses to “What is a pastor, anyway?”

  1. Mario Hood says:

    Wow, love this Rhonda. This is a question that keeps coming up for me as well as I look to formulate with Spirit-led leadership looks like. The more I dig the more questions aka deconstruction of what I have seen and learned to what I’m finding.

    As the world gets smaller through globalization this will continue to be an issue for us in the West because others still look to us for training. It would seem we need to start learning more about others instead of them learning from us.

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      I agree, Mario. I realize this is a loaded question, but it does seem that we’ve spent far too much time telling, and not enough time learning. In your research, are you finding practical solutions to our learning problem?

      • Mario Hood says:

        What I’m seeing is that we have to get back to providing theological frameworks for people but allowing the context determine the application. I think for too long in the West we start from practical and then justify it but the tables are being slowly turned upside down.

  2. Jenn Burnett says:

    I think there is a valuable opportunity here that you have signaled and Mario also named. If we are to find a broader understanding of the pastoral role, we in the west might be best to humble ourselves to learn from the pastors in the majority world. The role of the pastor is first found in our understanding of ourselves in Christ, but even this is culturally nuanced. (For example is it more who I am in Christ or who we are in Christ? This is informed by where our culture falls on an individual vs communal continuum.) Then the role of the pastor is shaped by the needs of the context. For example can we properly pastor a starving congregation if we do not also feed their bellies in whatever way we can? But how much of the role should be attending to the physical needs of the church? How do we prioritize the spiritual needs of people when they are under political oppression? Is the role of the pastor then political activist? When is my job to hold someone’s hand? When is it to feed them? When is it to be arrested as I protest? And are we sometimes majoring on the minors when we spend so much time on church growth? I love the work you are doing and the questions you are asking Rhonda. Keep it up!

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      Great stuff, Jenn! Your questions provide a similar challenge that my student did. It seems pastoral identity has such a varied interpretation depending on the cultural context. I am searching for a path forward as we work together to expand God’s mission in whatever ways He is inviting us to participate. Keep asking your questions, Jenn…they encourage us to take a wider consideration of how God is moving in the world.

  3. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    You are serving in a unique role to deliver robust ministry training to international aspiring ministry candidates. Thanks so much for your heartfelt questions. From Preachers and Sneakers (I would concur with your student’s conclusion) to the context of your subject international student, you have provided a bit more exposure and understanding of the dilemma for me. Your post, “What is a pastor, anyway?” has started all of us thinking, Thanks so much for compelling us forward!

  4. Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Thanks for sharing your post, Rhonda. You asked great questions: “What sort of education fits the Bible’s vision of ministerial preparation and what sort of minister does the church need?” These are powerful questions for any church to consider. But my fav question is: “What is the right thing to do in complicated times?” This question is important for any leader; whether church leader, corporate director, or politician. If Christ is our exemplar, then we already have our roadmap laid out before us. It just takes leaning in and surrendering to find our way. Thanks so much for sharing your enlightening post, Rhonda. Your light shines brightly in so many special ways. Thank you for being a gift to others.

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