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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  • While I’m sure it isn’t as commonly used, have you encountered churches with a Senior Pastor and a Lead Pastor as separate titles/people?

    We have a Senior Pastor and are adding a second in command pastor to be put in charge of carrying out the mission and vision within the church, essentially overseeing all ministries and taking the main lead in everything besides the services. I think the most common would be to use the Executive Pastor title, but when I hear that title, I think of it as more of an operational oversight position, handling the business and day to day of the church, whereas in this case there would be preaching involved.

    It just feels like Lead Pastor would be the most appropriate title, but the concern is that it would be too confusing as Lead Pastor is often synonymous with Senior Pastor and we do not want to have any misunderstanding with who is the senior most leader from the outside looking in.

    What do you think would be most appropriate in this situation?

  • Jim Farmer says on

    I have been a Bible reading, born again Christian now for 40 plus years and I don’t see the 20th century “pastorate” in the New Testament. That is to say I don’t see the concept of one man (or 2 or 3) in whom the Holy Spirit envests most of the the gifts in a local church and who is considered the “head” of a local assembly of Spirit filled believers. It is evident that an ecclesiastical position (or office that is commonly called “the pastorate”) filled by a professionally trained and educated profession cleric, is a social construct and and NOT a New Testament teaching. What I do see are numerous Holy Spirit endowed gifts spread out throughout the length and breadth of the Body of Christ, one of which is the gift of “pastor” (which, parenthetically, is only mentioned once in any of the letters of instruction to the churches.) A “pastor” is simply one who is gifted with the gift of “pastoring”, a very important and necessary ministry in the a local church. But what exactly one does who is gifted with the gift of pastor I can not fully explain but if you and your family have ever been in need of being pastored and then have been “pastored” by one of these gifted members of the church, you will have known it. But I can tell you what a pastor is NOT according to the teachings in the New Testament and one thing he is not is the CEO of the organization we call “the church”. Nor is a pastor one who is called to be the person who preaches a sermon every Sunday morning. Neither are there any written qualification for a pastor found in the New Testament except that it is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit given unto the Church. So to sum up my comment on the above article – all those different names describe many DIFFERENT people, gifts and offices found in the a mature (or maturing) New Testament church.

  • Rev. Muhima Blaam says on

    well done . we need partnership.

  • Darryn Maynard says on

    I have also heard the title Apostle.

    Not used of me but of other pastors

  • How does all this relate to Matt 23:8-10?

  • Rob, or while in chuch Pastor Rob. I like to make the distinction between while out of church and in church. Outside we are are friends, we need that fellowship for each other…while in the four walls or being more formal I give him the respect for his knowlge and title. But if were fishing ,hunting or just being buds…..Rob.

  • Interesting. No Bible references were given for this list, but isn’t that where we should go for any “name” we give to those who preach the word or lead the church?

    In the Bible elders (always plural in the church) were appointed in the churches. Other names are shepherds, overseers, bishops, pastors – but always plural – never for one person. These men were over the individual congregation, then also appointed deacons to help see to the needs of the people so that the elders could focus on the spiritual needs.

    As for the one who preaches the word to the church, there are three words that are used in scripture: preacher, minister and evangelist.Diakonos, meaning one who serves, a servant.

    A preacher is a minister or servant of Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 4:6). His work is to serve the Lord’s Word, the Gospel to all men (Acts 6:4; Rom. 15:16). A “good minister of Jesus Christ” must also “put the brethren in remembrance of these things…” (1 Tim. 4:6). A preacher is to “take heed to the ministry which (he) hast received in the Lord, that (he) fulfill(s) it” (Col. 4:17).

    Kerux which means a herald, a public proclaimer from the king who authoritatively declares the king’s law to the people which must be obeyed. The Lord authorized (1 Tim. 2:7) and sent out His preachers or “heralds” into all the world (Rom. 10:14-18). Their sole work is to proclaim His message, the gospel (2 Tim. 2:1-7; 4:1-5).

    The word “evangelist” is from the Greek word euangelistes and simply means a messenger of good. Christ gave evangelists (Eph. 4:11-12) to bear His good message, the “gospel” which means “good news.” Paul warned preachers to “do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry” (1 Tim. 4:5). Paul charged “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2).

  • David Oregon says on

    I have been called the following titles:
    His Grace
    The Rev.
    The Rev. Dr. (Oh, and I have not yet earned that doctorate)
    Deacon (When I was serving in an Associate Role)
    A few you would have to delte from your web site, and my all time favorite

  • James Forbis says on

    Reverend, Brother, and Pastor are the three I like the most. My “home” church in Longview, Texas pastor goes by Brother Wayne, even on his business cards and on the church sign outside. The DOM for my local association goes by Reverend Lomax just as our SBC President goes by Reverend Luter. Personally I also like to call pastors who have a doctorate using that title, like my current pastor in Fayetteville, Ar is Dr. Falknor, it shows respect for the time spent in attaining the higher level of education. I think though when I attain my MDiv ill want people to call me Master Bro. Forbis. 😉 Hahaha

  • Dayton Mix says on

    In Methodism, DEACON and ELDER are the two primary ‘clergy’ possibilities. Elder lines up with pastor. Deacon is more service oriented (usually) without the preaching and sacramental roles. One other term comes to mind, from a Christmas carol even: PARSON. I know of no one who still uses it, but we DO still talk about the home of the pastor being a PARSONAGE.

  • We often use the term lead elder in our network of churches called New Frontiers