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Throughout the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, American Protestants identified four primary functions for their pastors: preaching (homiletics), planning and leading the Sunday service (liturgics), teaching the basics of the Christian faith to the young in age and the new born in Christ (catechesis), and pastoral care.  

In the 1960’s, that consensus about the roles and functions of the pastor began to change.  American Protestants created the “Youth Pastor,” or some derivative of it, to handle catechesis. The pastor, who traditionally prioritized ministry to youth, would no longer be responsible for their spiritual formation or pastoral care. That responsibility would be given to a younger, hipper person who presumably connected better with youth than the pastor. Back in the mid-70s, I was one of those guys.

More recently, American Protestants created the “Worship Pastor,” or some derivative of it, to handle liturgics. Pastors, who traditionally prioritized planning and lead Sunday services, would now be assisted or, in some cases, guided in the development of their weekly liturgies. They would even share responsibility for leading services with non-ordained individuals, a hitherto unheard of practice. One may observe that, in many cases, American Protestant congregations have given this responsibility to individuals with more training and experience in music than in liturgics or theology. 

So what is now left for the typical pastor? What do American Protestants expect of their pastors? Two of the four traditional functions remain: preaching and pastoral care. If a person holds the title “Pastor” that person is expected to be able to preach and provide pastoral care when called upon to do so. Clearly, some preach more than others and some provide more pastoral care than others, but all pastors are expected to be able to fulfill those two roles.

To the traditional functions of preaching a pastoral care, a third has been added: leadership. The entrepreneurial pastor John Maxwell may not have been the first but he was one of the earlier voices encouraging pastors to develop their skills in the area of organizational leadership. His message has been heard by many. These days the words “pastor” and “leader” are used synonymously, a practice that few challenge.

Clearly, then, the role of the pastor has evolved over the past fifty to seventy-five years. Perhaps, evolved is not the right word since it conveys the idea of development and improvement. I am not sure I want to assert that the role of pastor today surpasses that of 100 years ago. Who am I to challenge the likes of Richard Baxter, James Hoppin, and Washington Gladden?

Perhaps a better word is “adapted”?  The pastoral ministry has adapted to the exigencies of the ministry context and to the influences of culture. If such is the case, shall we not expect more change in the future? And what might that change look like? 

One change I would love to see, especially in congregations served by one pastor, is the embrace of catechesis of high school students. Granted I write as one who enjoys hanging out with teens and I admit that I couldn’t have imagined hanging out with my pastor when I was in high school. Yet, all the talk by pastors about making disciples in a post-Christian context leads me to suggest that the most fertile field may be the teens in the congregation.    

I also hope we question the assumption that pastors are necessarily the leaders of their organizations (congregations). Granted, some congregations may require a pastor-leader, but might others be better served by a pastor with ancillary gifts other than organizational leadership? Plus, doesn’t Scripture allow us to conclude that the gift of leadership may be granted by the Holy Spirit to some in the congregation other than the pastor?

If past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior, then we may assume that during the twenty-first century we will witness further adaptation or evolution or development in the pastoral ministry. While hard to prognosticate about the details, we can pray that American Protestants will root modifications in biblical pastoral theologies.


Thank you for your article.  I miss one aspect of pastoral ministry or function in your article, and that is to pray. Prayer for the congregation and community.  Although much may be changing, I hope this aspect of pastoral function never changes.

several thoughts... agree with Frank on the prayer... it seems we have mostly missed the prayer side of Acts 6:4  and they devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.  One person shared how in a pastor search survey, 85 qualifications were listed and not one of them was a person of prayer...

and agree on focus on youth... somewhere is a statistic that 85% of believers made a commitment to Jesus by the age of 17...  they are the biggest mission field... let's not miss the opportunity that is right in front of us...

and then a generally unaddressed area that i question... the prophetic... it seems historically, we/crc have indirectly and quietly married the office of pastor and prophet through preaching... our forms for ordination indicate this when in the form for pastor ordination in an established congregation it mentions that "through the pastor God Himself speaks"... and that when we "receive this man as a prophet we will receive a prophet's reward"...  sometimes that's the case, but interestingly, this same language is NOT used for the missionary, evangelist, or elders and deacons... it seems historically we have been fairly exclusive and unbiblical in assigning the gift of prophecy essentially solely to the pastor (and i have heard comments from crc members/leaders to this effect)...  this gift is for ALL flesh per Acts 2/Joel 2 which includes the missionary, evangelist, elders, deacons AND everyone else...  not saying pastors don't have this gift, but it is NOT exclusive to them as it seems from the ordination forms... since this type of language is not mentioned anywhere else as far as I can tell, it seems there is a CRC perception that the pastor is the only one who can "hear" God and speak prophetically.  Not true, and I think this is limiting/quenching the Spirit in ways that we don't intend to.  So on the one hand, i hear the crc saying... prophet = ordained pastor + pulpit... a man made equation... being an ordained pastor does not give anyone a blanket covering for being a prophet too, scripture mentions them as 2 different ministries, just like teachers and evangelists - we don't do this with any of the other callings mentioned in Eph 4...

on the other hand, being a pastor does not exclude pastors from the prophetic gift either, but it definitely is NOT limited to ordained pastors only or even primarily.

The prophetic is something hardly recognized in the crc for various reasons, but when it seems it is almost exclusive to the office of ordained pastor, whether intentional or not, it is something that's needs to be addressed and understood further.



Bev, thanks for your thoughtful response.  I affirm your points. I have found each affirmed in my study of pastoral theologies, but each categorized differently.  Typically, those who write on these subjects like to distinguish between functions and qualifications - and a major qualification is that the pastor be a person of prayer!   Richard Baxter is one of many who give considerable attention to this.  

I like your emphasis on the prophetic. Right or wrong, I have found that many authors discuss this subject within the context of the function of preaching, calling for prophetic sermons.  And I think you are right in stating that these same authors fail to discuss the prophetic outside of the function of preaching.  As a result, many neglect the gifted prophet in their midst when that person is not an ordained pastor. 

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