Pastor as Overseer

If leadership is largely influence (Northouse, 2012), then pastors are leaders. Yet, this perspective on the pastorate is something that many evangelicals have shied away from. For example, one author and former pastor, Jared Wilson, questions the usefulness of the leadership approach to pastoral work. Wilson (2013) sardonically writes:

Enter the leadership cult. What we need is know-how, the publishing Powers-That-Be reason. We lack skills, practical helps, and insider tips, and they’ve got just the evangelical gurus to deliver the goods. Don’t you want to leverage your synergy and catalyze your visioneering? Don’t you want to know the seven highly effective and irrefutable laws of unlocking the mystery of who moved your cheese’s parachute? Are you a starfish or a spider? This is all key to revealing the quality ministry hidden inside of you and to taking your church to a whole ‘nother level. (p. 27)

He then goes on to cite the “417 Rules of Awesomely Bold Leadership.”

No doubt you hear echoes of Stanley, Maxwell, Covey, and others in Wilson’s remarks. Having read some of these folks, I can certainly chuckle along with his sarcasm here. The “leadership cult” which he describes can become quite silly. The discussion of leadership can be too simple, too traits and skills driven. The focus can shift away from trusting God to trusting techniques. But in writing so derisively of pastoral work and leadership, I am afraid authors like Wilson will drive pastors away from all discussions of leadership in ministry. This is not helpful.

Pastors are leaders. They have important leadership functions, and we would be wise to consider what these functions are, and yes, how they differ from the world’s definition of leadership. For this reason, I appreciate a recent article from D.A. Carson on the pastor as overseer.

In his article, Some Reflections on Pastoral Leadership, Carson notes the threefold titling of the New Testament for the pastor. This office is synonymously referred to as pastor/elder/overseer.  Carson then remarks that a great deal of discussion surrounds the concepts of pastor and elder, but there has been little discussion about the pastor as overseer. Carson (2015) writes:

Almost no attention, however, has been paid to the particular overtones cast up by the word “overseer.” Of course, something of oversight is taking place if one is actively attempting to find and train new elders, or if one is leading the other elders and the congregation itself in a difficult instance of church discipline, or if one is laying out a long-term preaching/teaching program. But it is worth pausing to reflect on why, when the chief ecclesiastical office is mentioned, “overseer” is one of the three terms used to describe it. (p. 196)

He then describes a particular church that suffered a major decline. What caused the decline? Carson (2015) answers, “[O]ne big factor, perhaps the biggest, that contributed to this decline, it was that the man, though an able preacher, was a poor leader—i.e., he almost entirely ignored his episcopal responsibilities” (p. 196).

Carson (2015) then concludes his article with this salient paragraph:

As important and central as is the ministry of the Word of God, the thoughtful pastor/elder/overseer will devote time and energy to casting a vision, figuring out the steps for getting there, building the teams and structures needed for discharging ministry and training others, building others up, thinking through the various ways in which the gospel can be taught at multiple levels to multiple groups within the church, how to extend faithful evangelism and church planting, how to engage the surrounding world as faithful believers, and much more. Just because a person is an able preacher does not necessarily make him an able pastor/elder/overseer. Indeed, if he shows no propensity for godly oversight, then no matter how good a teacher he may be, he is not qualified to be a pastor/teacher/overseer. It is not for nothing that Scripture applies all three labels to the one office. (p. 197)

If it was not the preeminent New Testament scholar D.A. Carson writing this, we might be scandalized by this strong assertion. But I hope Carson’s remarks here will spark a deeper discussion about what it means to view the pastor as an overseer (i.e., leader). Let’s not go overboard with the “leadership gurus,” but let us also not neglect this important aspect of pastoral work.


Carson, D. A. (2015). Some Reflections on Pastoral Leadership. Themelios, 40(2). Retrieved from TGC.

Northouse, P. G. (2012). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th edition). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Wilson, J. C. (2013). The Pastor’s justification: Applying the work of Christ in your life and ministry. Wheaton: Crossway Books.

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Derek Griz

I am a Christian, a husband, a father, and a pastor (Immanuel Church). I write from those perspectives. Connect with me on Twitter (@derekgriz).

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