A pastor ( /ˈpɑːstə/; /ˈpæstər/) is usually an ordained leader of a Christian congregation. When used as an ecclesiastical styling or title, the term may be abbreviated to "Pr" (singular) or "Ps" (plural). A pastor also gives advice and counsel to people from the community or congregation.
The word "pastor" derives from the Latin noun pastor which means "shepherd" and relates to the Latin verb pascere - "to lead to pasture, set to grazing, cause to eat". The term "pastor" also relates to the role of elder within the New Testament, but is not synonymous with the biblical understanding of minister. Many Protestant churches call their ministers "pastors".
Present-day usage of the word is rooted in the Biblical image of shepherding. The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) uses the Hebrew word רעה (roʿeh). It occurs 173 times and relates to the feeding of sheep, as in Genesis 29:7, or to the spiritual feeding of human beings, as in Jeremiah 3:15, "Then I will give you shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding" (NASB).
English-language translations of the New Testament usually render the Greek noun ποιμήν (poimēn) as "shepherd" and the Greek verb ποιμαίνω (poimaino) as "to shepherd". The two words occur a total of 29 times in the New Testament, most frequently referring to Jesus. For example, Jesus called himself the "Good Shepherd" in John 10:11. The same words in the familiar Christmas story (Luke 2) refer to literal shepherds.
In five New Testament passages though, the words relate to church workers:
- John 21:16 - Jesus told Peter: "Shepherd My sheep" (NASB)
- Acts 20:17 - the Apostle Paul summons the elders or presbyters of the church in Ephesus to give a last discourse to them; in the process, in Acts 20:28, he tells them that the Holy Spirit has made them bishops, and that their job is to shepherd the flock of God among them.
- 1 Corinthians 9:7 - Paul says, of himself and the apostles: "who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?" (NASB)
- Ephesians 4:11 - Paul wrote "And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers" (NASB)
- 1 Peter 5:1-2 - Peter tells the elders among his readers that they are to, "shepherd the flock of God among you" (NASB)
Bishops in Western Christianity often bear a formal crosier in the form of a stylised shepherd's crook as a symbol of their pastoral/shepherding functions.
Around 400 AD, Saint Augustine, a prominent Roman bishop, described a pastor's job:
Disturbers are to be rebuked, the low-spirited to be encouraged, the infirm to be supported, objectors confuted, the treacherous guarded against, the unskilled taught, the lazy aroused, the contentious restrained, the haughty repressed, litigants pacified, the poor relieved, the oppressed liberated, the good approved, the evil borne with, and all are to be loved.
In the United States, the term pastor is used by Catholics for what in other English-speaking countries is called a parish priest. The Latin term used in the Code of Canon Law is parochus.
The parish priest is the proper clergyman in charge of the congregation of the parish entrusted to him. He exercises the pastoral care of the community entrusted to him under the authority of the diocesan bishop, whose ministry of Christ he is called to share, so that for this community he may carry out the offices of teaching, sanctifying and ruling with the cooperation of other priests or deacons and with the assistance of lay members of Christ's faithful, in accordance with the law.
Many Protestants use the term pastor as a title (e.g., Pastor Smith) or as a job title (like Senior Pastor or Worship Pastor). Some Protestants contend that utilizing the appellation of pastor to refer to an ordained minister contradicts the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers by elevating a single individual above the rest of the congregation and facilitating a clergy/laity divide. United Methodists, for example, ordain to the office of deacon and elder; each of whom can use the title of pastor depending upon their job description. United Methodists also use the title of pastor for non-ordained clergy who are licensed and appointed to serve a congregation as their pastor or associate pastor, often referred to as "licensed local pastors". These pastors may be lay people, seminary students, or seminary graduates in the ordination process, and cannot exercise any functions of clergy outside the charge where they are appointed. The use of the term "pastor" can also be regional in some denominations, including some parts of the Methodist, Presbyterian, Seventh-day Adventist, American Churches of Christ, and Baptist traditions.
The use of the term pastor to refer to the common Protestant title of modern times dates to the days of John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli. Both men, and other Reformers, seem to have revived the term to replace the Catholic priest in the minds of their followers. The pastor was considered to have a role separate from the board of presbyters. Some Protestant groups today view the pastor, bishop, and elder as synonymous terms or offices; many who do are descended from the Restoration Movement in America during the 19th century, such as the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ.
The term pastor is sometimes used for missionaries in developed countries to avoid offending those people in industrialized countries who may think that missionaries go only to less developed countries. In some Lutheran churches, ordained clergy are called priests, while in others the term pastor is preferred. Ordained clergy are called priests in the Episcopal Church, as in all other branches of the Anglican Communion.