What do we mean by ‘pastorally gifted’?

When considering ministry, or looking at people for ministry, I’ve heard lots of people comment – words to the effect – ‘he’s pastorally gifted’ or ‘they’ve definitely got pastoral skills’. I have always been fascinated by exactly what people mean when they say this.

I suppose I find it most interesting because it’s just not a term the Bible uses. It’s, interestingly enough, not a qualification the Bible lists for eldership and pastoral ministry. If we are talking ‘pastoral skills’, the only one the Bible demands is the ability to teach the Bible. But very rarely, when people mention ‘pastoral ability’ do they seem to mean anything like an ability to teach the truths of scripture to others.

When we look at the character criteria – which are pointedly not skills and abilities – I’m not sure we find anything approximating what seems to be meant by ‘pastoral gifting’ either. The list of eldership criteria from 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 are as follows:

  • Above reproach
  • Faithful husband to his wife (a ‘one woman man’)
  • Temperate, self-controlled, vigilant
  • Sober-minded, prudent
  • Of good behaviour, orderly, respectable
  • Given to hospitality
  • Able to teach
  • Not given to drunkenness
  • Not violent but gentle
  • Not quarrelsome
  • Patient, moderate, forbearing, gentle
  • Uncontentious, not soon angry or quick-tempered
  • Not covetous, not a lover of money
  • Not pursuing dishonest gain
  • Rules his own house well, his children are faithful, not accused of rebellion
  • Not a novice or new convert
  • Has a good rapport or reputation with outsiders
  • Not self-willed
  • A lover of what is good
  • Just, fair
  • Holy, devout
  • Self-controlled
  • Hold firmly to the faithful message as it has been taught/be of sound doctrine

The closest of these things that we might get to what is meant by ‘pastorally gifted’ might be given to hospitality, patient and gentle and has a good reputation with outsiders. But even these things don’t really seem to get to the heart of what people tend to mean. Interestingly, those often labelled as ‘pastorally gifted’ might not meet various of these criteria.

One of the problems with the term is that it is used loosely and happens to be one of those phrases that means whatever the person using it wants it to mean. So, when one person says ‘he’s pastorally gifted’ the hearer may or may not agree but might understand that term to mean something altogether different. The first may be speaking about the ability to apply the Bible patiently and accurately to young believers whilst the second might be talking about the way they are so friendly and glad to welcome people into their homes. A third person listening in hears ‘pastorally gifted’ to mean something closer to ‘they’re just really nice’.

Whilst the first two folks are at least understanding something of the biblical criteria, the third person is using pastorally gifted to mean something that the bible doesn’t demand at all. I suspect, more often than not, it is this third meaning (or something like it) that people tend to mean. And, of course, who could object to a person becoming a pastor because they’re nice? Surely we don’t want horrible pastors, so being nice is good, isn’t it?

Well, being nice can be good, so long as it is coupled to all things that the bible does demand of pastor/elders. It’s not so good when ‘being nice’ is equated entirely with ‘pastoral giftedness’ to the detriment of other key biblical criteria, such as being committed to truth and soundness in doctrine (cf. the contrast to eldership criteria in Titus 1:10-16). Being nice all too easily descends into not shepherding the flock, but comforting them in their sin and shying away from necessary challenge. It can all too easily lead us to overlook serious doctrinal error because easy-going relationship is deemed nicer than doctrinal faithfulness. Being nice is fine, so long as it stands alongside the other necessary biblical criteria and doesn’t ride roughshod over them.

But this seems to be the problem with landing hard on ‘pastoral gifting’. For some, pastoral gifting is an ability to preach well. After all, we shepherd through our preaching and teaching, do we not? So, the one deemed ‘pastorally gifted’ is the one who handles the Bible well and preaches helpfully. Again, that is biblically warranted but if we highlight that one issue and consider somebody ‘pastorally gifted’ without paying attention to the fact that this person is in no meaningful way hospitable and is prone to violent outbursts, suddenly ‘pastorally gifted’ looks shaky.

The same is true for the over-emphasis on niceness. Somebody might be nice – they might have a good rapport with outsiders because of their niceness and they might be particularly nice in the way they are always inviting you into their home – but if we emphasise that to the detriment of other necessary biblical criteria, we are potentially heading for trouble. Pastoral giftedness isn’t being nice to the detriment of the ability to teach the Bible or offer important correctives to people. How nice are we really being if we’re happy to let people continue in sins that keep them outside the kingdom and comfort them in those behaviours all the way to Hell? That doesn’t seem all that pastoral in the end.

Those we label ‘pastorally gifted’ must surely be those who meet the biblical criteria for eldership. That is not just some of them, but all of them. What is more, we must reckon with the fact that the eldership criteria in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are a bottom line. This is the minimum we should be looking for in an elder. But – as Mark Dever noted in response to a question put to him at the FIEC conference – there are clearly criteria that it is reasonable to demand that scripture doesn’t.

For example, in an overwhelmingly English-speaking neighbourhood, it is reasonable to expect your elders to speak English (that might be considered a credible outworking of ‘able to teach’). Similarly, if somebody is unable to handle even the mildest criticism, they aren’t going to be able to do the job. It’s not unreasonable to expect a measure of robustness (we might consider that a reasonable outworking of ‘patient’ and ‘self-controlled’ i.e. doesn’t fly off the handle or spin out of control when criticised) even though it is not spelled out exactly. There are specific things the Bible doesn’t ask, that we might reasonably expect from our elders, as legitimate outworkings and applications of the things it does explicitly demand.

I wonder whether we would do well then to save ‘pastoral gifting’ or ‘pastoral skills’ as a term that comes closer to covering what the Bible actually demands of pastor-elders. Otherwise, I’m not entirely sure what the phrase is meant to mean at all.