What’s the difference between a pastor and elders?

I was chatting with someone yesterday and explaining how co-equal, plural eldership works in our context. One of the questions was, how is the pastor distinguished from the other elders? On our understanding, there were a couple of points worth making.

On one level, the pastor is not distinguished from the other elders. In terms of authority, decision-making and power, there is no difference. It was notable that, when two elders are around but the third one away, decisions are still made. If the pastor is the one who is missing, for whatever reason, decisions still get made. The pastor does not drive the decision-making process nor does his voice overrule anybody else’s.

Indeed, even when everyone is there, the pastor may get voted down. If two elders out of three agree, it doesn’t matter whether one is the pastor or not, that is what carries. Any elder might make their case, they may argue for their position, but ultimately, the collective will of the eldership prevails. The pastor has no greater authority or influence than anyone else.

Whilst that is how matters work out in the elders’ meeting, it also has practical ramifications for the life of the church. Whenever somebody comes with an idea or thought, even if to the pastor, the usual response is that a discussion is needed with the elders. The pastor is not in a position to unilaterally decide anything. Decisions are taken by the elders, not by the pastor or any single elder.

Similarly, in terms of oversight and involvement in the lives of church members, there is no distinction between the pastor and the elders either. All are involved in the work of pastoral ministry. Different elders will have better relationships with different people. This is natural and to be expected. So, whilst the pastor may be the one to speak to a particular individual because they have the best relationship with that person, one of the other elders may have a better relationship with someone else and be the best person for conversations with them. Nevertheless, whatever needs to happen is determined collectively as an eldership and then whoever has the best relationships with the individual is liable to have follow up conversations.

The key difference between the pastor and the elders is time. The pastor is simply a full-time elder. More to the point, the pastor has been freed up from work so that he can devote himself to teaching the Word. For this reason, the main distinction is that the pastor takes on the bulk of teaching ministry. That does not necessarily mean he does it all, but he has been freed from secular work so that he can give himself to regular teaching ministry. This is an additional responsibility he takes on that other elders – though they are equally responsible for the overall teaching in the church – have delegated to the pastor. That doesn’t mean he does all the teaching and they never teach, it is simply that the pastor takes on the lion’s share.

It is also true that in many pastoral situations, the pastor has the luxury of time that other elders may not have. It is therefore not surprising that the pastor may handle more of the pastoral issues directly. This is purely pragmatic based on time available. Other elders may well take on such issues, not least if there is a better relationship, but it is also the case the pastor may have more time depending on his teaching responsibilities.

Nevertheless, in essence, there is no real distinction between the pastor and the elders except time. That time is usually there so the pastor can devote himself to the teaching ministry of the church. However, the elders collectively remain responsible for the teaching ministry of the church. The elders remain co-equal in authority and decision-making, having parity of esteem, and delegate the bulk of teaching to the pastor.