WHEN ARE WE GOING TO WAKE UP TO REALITY? The Nightmare of the Pastoral Institution







Mark Galli of Christianity Today has given us another article in a string of many that candidly lays out some serious problems resident in the traditional one-pastor system (August 8, 2011, It is titled, “The Most Risky Profession: Why you need to pray desperately for your pastor.”

Notice the near-fatal weaknesses Mark points out in the American pastoral institution:

** “The state of the modern American pastorate has been shaped so that these sins – especially pride and hypocrisy – are impossible to escape.

** “[Pastors] are in a profession that is about as morally risky as they come.”

** “American churches exalt and isolate their leaders almost by design.”

** “Churches . . . like to know that someone is in charge, that someone is attending to the details, that someone is getting things done. That’s why they’ve hired this dynamic, forward looking, administratively savvy leader.”

** “[There] is the expectation that he also be the cathartic head of the church . . . . someone to whom they can relate – at a distance. This is key, because the pastor has time to relate to very, very few members.”

** “Most pastors have become heads of personality cults. Churches become identified more with the pastor – this is Such-and-Such’s church – than anything larger. When the pastor leaves, or is forced to leave, it’s devastating. It feels like a divorce . . .”

** “No wonder pastors complain about how lonely and isolated they feel.”

** “And so we have a system in which pride and hypocrisy are inevitable.”

** “He’s stuck in a religious system from which few escape unscathed.”

When I read surveys of the pastoral landscape like Mark has given us, I feel burdened because there is something huge that is glaringly absent from the books and articles about “the pastor.” They all assume that the one-pastor system we function under is what we must work with, and we just need to put band-aids on it to make it all better.

This is a fatal assumption that we must jettison. Mark notes that “shepherd” is “the biblical word for this position.” But the truth is, the traditional notion of “the pastor” cannot be found in the narrative unfolded in the New Testament. There is nothing in the New Testament about the “position” of pastor created by church traditions.

Since this is true, then here are the questions we should really be dealing with:

** Why do we put unbearable burdens and expectations on “the pastor,” when this is an “office” unknown in the New Testament?

** When will we stop hurting those in the “clergy” by continuing a system that is out of touch with Christ’s revelation?

** When will we discontinue trying to fix a pastoral system that finds no merit in the New Testament?

** If a patient had gum cancer and a doctor advised him that the solution was to brush his teeth thirty-two times a day, we would call that insanity. Why, then, do we do the same thing by never examining the root problem of the one-pastor system, and assuming we just need a better spiritual tooth brush to get the nagging problems cleaned up?

The root issue is that our practice of putting all our churchy eggs in the pastoral basket – essentially trying to build church upon the presence and expression of one gift – is a mistake of mammoth proportions, and is without biblical warrant. We need to be “radical,” that is, go to the root, and cease the meaningless surface discussions that reinforce a hurtful system.

We need to eliminate the connection of service in the body of Christ with a “profession.” Something is very wrong when being a pastor is a career choice. We need to pray desperately that the giftedness of the whole ekklesia will blossom in communities where the life of Christ is flowing like living waters.

By Jon Zens

(I have labored to “go to the root” concerning the fundamental problems and questions surrounding “the pastor” in my book, The Pastor Has No Clothes: Moving from Clergy-Centered Church to Christ-Centered Ekklesia. It is available at and Amazon at ).


  1. Hey, Jon
    Excellent article, excellent and salient points. I do have a question for you; something I’ve been pondering. How do we then relate to our brothers and sisters (some of them “pastors”) in the institutional church system? Some would say that you’re trashing them and their leaders and that they smell elitism. I agree with you, but I’m at a loss here. There are a lot of true family members still highly ensconced in the IC system, and truly, a lot of genuine worship and love of Christ can still be found there. Is this a contradiction, or am I missing something?
    Love you and yours,
    Your Sis

    • Cindy, we must sincerely love everybody in Christ’s body. “Relating” obviously can be difficult on both sides. Those “in” the IC can look at those going in alternative directions as “rebellious,” “in spiritual danger,” “without a covering,” etc. Those “outside” the IC can look at those inside as “deceived,” “in Babylon,” “blinded by traditions,” etc. The goal of everything is Jesus Christ. He will take care of his sheep. We should live a life of love before everyone. The aroma of Jesus is what we should want to communicate. If we meet someone in a store that we knew in the IC, we should carry on with them as if there are no barriers. If they give us the cold shoulder, well, that is their problem. We should be guided in all things by the love of Christ. He will take care of the details. As the days roll on, Jesus has more light to shine upon them and us. Let him do it!

  2. it is amazing Jon, that the conclusions you’ve made doesn’t seem to register with those who wrote the article, those who have lived and “died” so to speak in the system. Obviously the need for spiritual sight. May the Lord open the eyes of His people in bondage to titles, positions, and systems and by faith step forward out of the institutionalism of the church into the life of Christ in the ekklesia.

  3. Amazing thoughts and a great article to read. I found out about the blog by way of Frank Viola and I can tell already I will be reading about subjects near and dear to my heart. I was at a church for several years where the Holy Spirit was moving and in my life particularly great things were happening, but then I began to see a subtle shift away from mutual brotherly attention and towards revering the senior pastor and other popular “pulpit” ministries out there and God began to reveal to me the downsides of the institutional church. As someone called to plant churches, I’ve struggled with this topic because at first I assumed that meant going to seminary and learning how to launch a 300-the-first-day mega service on Sunday.

    But I’ve come to realize that is completely unbiblical! I began to see the church as a living organism, the family of God and the body of Christ in all its fullness and diversity, and I began to realize the apostle is not over the church anymore than a pastor or anyone else is. Jesus is Head and we are all ministers. Some just ministry differently than others, that’s all. As we learn to submit to Christ’s authority in all things in the church and tear down the man-made traditions of the CEO-pastor and the “board of directors” style eldership, we will find a pure beauty of grace unlike the world can possibly imagine. I know because I’ve already seen a glimpse, and I’m hungry for more!

  4. Jon, Thanks for your thoughts. It is, in my view, either the root or result of the ‘one man band’ church that modern western Christianity is so obsessed with the concept of the ‘leader’. I see it popping up everywhere, and the notion of ‘ministry’ which occupied the church in my experience in the mid 80s seems to have been swallowed by a pop-managerialism that seems more at home in Harvard Business Review (although it is also challenged there in business context!) than in the family of God. Church has become ‘organisation’; it seems that organisations need ‘leaders’ (which they do not); and it pops up ubiquitously in my own church: we have ‘youth leaders’, children’s ‘leaders’, group ‘leaders’ and so on. Nowhere do we have ‘facilitators’, ‘convenors’, ‘moderators’, or simple ‘workers’, ‘teachers’, or ‘helpers’. Its partly pride, partly undigested aping of the world (and business; and we see where business has led us these days), and partly failure to think out from first principles from the word of God!

  5. Great post — thank you. While Heb. 12:12-13 is addressing the response of an individual believer to things which are out of whack and merit God’s discipline, I believe the same idea bears upon believers, corporately, as the body of Christ. Instead of limping along out-of-step with God’s will, churches need to fix the real problem, “so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (NASB).

  6. The rigid pastoral system is likened to a pyramid scheme that will fail again and again because it operates under the curse, that is, under man’s sinful nature to replace God with a “king”. And it essentially decapitates the Body from the Head and reverts to the role of priesthood when we are ALL called to be priests, each a temple of the indewelling Spirit. The curtain was torn for that very purpose. I whole heartedly agree with what you said here: “The root issue is that our practice of putting all our churchy eggs in the pastoral basket – essentially trying to build church upon the presence and expression of one gift – is a mistake”

  7. This may seem anathema to you Jon but I believe the reason for the whole pyramid church hierarchy thing is that most people in the church are just unregenerate and unregenerate people form these systems in everything they do naturally. There is no reforming the Babylonian system with Babylonian people still in the majority, it just won’t happen. Salvation has been made a work of men by coercion and intellect and has filled the “church” with friends and relatives in whom we love and God has not chosen. We can deceive ourselves thinking that the people in the church are just in a bad system, but the truth is the system is just a reflection of the heart of the people.

    • Mike — I think it is certainly true that there are varying percentages of people in churches who are not rooted in Christ. The “worst” of churches usually has a few people who love Christ in them; and the “best” of churches have people who love the Lord in them. The Lord is bigger than any bad system, The Lord’s people will be found everywhere, even in the strangest spots! Those who are Christ’s will have further revelations of Him as time goes on, so that where they find themselves today will not be where they are five years from now. The Lord provides pasture for each of His sheep. It is not our place to police what is going on in those places that call themselves church. The Lord knows those who are His.

  8. Gordon Battaliou says

    Much of our misunderstanding arises from our incorrect use of the word ‘church’. Luther correctly translated the Greek word ‘ekklesia’ into the German word ‘gemeinde’, meaning the congregation of believers in a particular location . Wycliffe’s translation also used the the term ‘congregation’ for the local gathering of the faithful and used the term ‘church’ for the totality of Christ’s body, universal, past, present and future. The term ‘ekklesia/church’ is a common noun and not a proper noun, and you can have a church of Satan as much as you can have a church of Christ. To speak of people being ‘churched or unchurched’ is theological and linguistic barbarism, yet one hears it frequently. King James gave his approval for the use the 1611 AV/KJV version on condition it used the word ‘church’, with all the organisational, establishment and political baggage that went with that word in the 16/17th Centuries. We value the gifts of each believer, but Christ is the only head of His church and anyone who is set up as a vicar or an agent in Christ’s place is a spiritual thief and robber.

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