Thirteen Terms for “Pastor”

I guess “pastor” is the more common name used in congregations. You can say, “pastor,” and most people know what or whom you are referencing.

But the times are changing. And so is the name.

To be clear, there are some denominations and religious traditions that have never used “pastor” to describe the spiritual leader of the church. I know of more than one denomination and Christian fellowship where “minister” is the only term used.

But as local congregations across America continue to experience significant changes, we are seeing the more common term of “pastor” declining in favor of more expanded, or even totally different, terms. And I am not even speaking of all the others who serve on a church staff. The multiple terms for those different roles seem unlimited.

If you spent your entire life in one denomination or fellowship, you may think the names used for church staff are uniform. The evidence, though, points to much variety.

But let’s take a moment and look at the different names for the leader of a congregation. I found these examples in just a few minutes of searching:

  • Pastor – still the most common term, at least for now.
  • Senior pastor – typically is used when the church has more than one minister or pastor on staff. The senior pastor oversees the other staff members.
  • Lead pastor – most of the time this phrase is used synonymously with senior pastor.
  • Teaching pastor – in some churches, the name refers to someone who preaches or teaches in a primary worship service, but who is not the senior pastor. In other cases it is synonymous with senior pastor.
  • Preaching pastor – same as teaching pastor
  • Teaching elder – same as teaching pastor in the context of a plurality of leadership.
  • Preaching elder – pretty much the same as teaching elder.
  • Vision pastor – already located this term in several churches; in all cases it is synonymous with senior pastor.
  • Campus pastor – typically used in churches that have more than one location. This person has leadership over one of those locations.
  • Minister – see pastor.
  • Teaching minister – see teaching pastor.
  • Preaching minister – see preaching pastor.
  • Bishop – in some cases it is synonymous with senior pastor; in other cases it is used to describe a leader over pastors in multiple congregations.

I have no doubt I’ve missed several other names for pastor. What names can you add to this list? What do you think about the multiple terms that are being used?

Posted on January 30, 2013

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • I have a senior adult in our church that calls me “Parson.” He does it to be funny, but I think I’ll change my business cards to say this and maybe buy a horse to ride to church. Maybe even have Sunday lunch at Charles Ingall’s home.

  • Thom, here is a label you have worn on occasion: “Interim Pastor.” One who is there until the church calls their new pastor.

  • Let’s not forget “Visionary Architect.” Oh brother, I mean, Oh Pastor….just go ahead and insert your own favorite term.

  • The comments here are very interesting – entertaining (in a good way). A lot of folks have difficulty with having a special title attached to their name, they just want to serve as a Christian and happen to deliver messages/sermons/preach/teach/etc. So they use a word to describe the function. and not office. Great conversation – thanks for starting it.

  • David Tuten says on

    With a nod to our Campbellite cousins, you could throw Evangelist in there.

  • … just don’t call me late for dinner 🙂

  • Greg Drummond says on

    Maybe I’ve been watching too much BBC, but the Anglican title Vicar also comes to mind.

  • My preacher/pastor husband has been called a few other words too in his 34 yrs of ministry but I can’t print them. Fortunately these were few.

  • Shepherd.
    I miss when pastors were shepherds. Now pastors are CEO of businesses, authors & their musicians record worship albums. Pastors are celebrities. Visionaries….but rarely shepherds. I may be in the miniority but I think if pastors returned to shepherding, people would stop leaving church daily by the thousands.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks Liz. I have not heard the term “shepherd” used to replace “pastor.” I certainly know that the pastor functions as a shepherd. though. Though we can all point to examples of pastors who have used the office for personal gain, I truly believe that the vast majority of pastors act as shepherds who truly love and care for the sheep.

      • Thanks Liz, I prefer ‘shepherd’ also.
        When someone from another church or fellowship calls me pastor I almost kinda cringe. It seems too out of place for someone I don’t regularly have contact with to call me that.
        But for where I am and with whom I serve; I am their shepherd. In the trenches with them, struggling just like they are against the elements.

      • I tell folks I’m not the shepherd, I’m the head sheep. He’s the shepherd. But I’ve heard the phrase “undershepherd” used, and I’ve used it myself.

      • In Spanish and Portuguese, the word Pastor literally means Shepherd. The guy who takes care of sheep is called Pastor as is the leader of the church. That’s pretty cool.

  • Preacher. In typical smaller church I find this title is used to describe one the person will be taught by but doesn’t quite trust them enough to call Pastor. The term Leader has been used greatly in the last year. I am personally not a fan because it tends to allow ones holding a ministry position to remove the things they don’t they don’t like from their job description.

  • Keith Jones says on

    Just plain “Elder” was synonymous with ‘pastor’ in the early days of Baptists in America, and still is in some areas and denominations, e.g. primitive Baptists, some National Baptists, and in pockets of Appalachia. In some other churches, ‘elder’ has become a synonym for ‘deacon’ or similar office (sometimes for ‘overseer’)

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Great input! I should have included “preacher” since it is used synonymously with “pastor” as a colloquial expression in many rural churches. I see “brother” and “reverend” more as titles than replacements for “pastor,” such as “our pastor, Brother Smith.” I admit, though, I’ve heard on a few occasions “reverend” used as a synonym for “pastor”: “He is our reverend.” That usage is rare. I do like fried chicken though Scott : )

    • I really dislike being called “preacher.” A preacher is a thing, a characature, a cartoon. Movies like Pale Rider and novels like The Ox Bow Incident reflect this perception. And who can forget Hank Jr.’s opening line: “The preacher-man says it’s the end of time/The Mississippi River she’s a goin’ dry”? And I can’t begin to count the number of “preacher” jokes I’ve overheard in the coffee shop. I try to get people to call me by my first name, but only a handful will do it (most others call me “Brother”. So they become my favorites, the preacher’s pets.

      • Leslie Fogleman says on

        I have only pastored small churches. They call you preacher until you are accepted by them as their pastor. For some, especially older men, they never accept you as their pastor and will always call you preacher.

    • I know this was posted a while ago, but I’ve heard the term Padre used for pastors as well. I know it’s more of a catholic thing but I’ve heard it used many times for protestant pastors too.