Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)

The apostle penned those words to the Ephesian elders during his farewell visit with them. In context, the words offer a sober warning and encouragement. There will be wolves in the Ephesian church who will devour all the sheep they can. To combat them, the elders will need to watch over each other as well as watch over the precious blood-bought flock.

Wolves roam the sheepfolds of our day as well. They not only feed on sheep; they feed on pastors, too. Which raises an important question: Who watches over the soul of your pastor?

It’s typical for many senior pastors to regard another pastor in a different church or city as “their pastor.” At its best, this practice represents a good approach to honoring more experienced pastors who have meant a lot to us. It’s fine to have “spiritual fathers” or “fathers in the ministry.” We pay homage to their investment in our lives and we continue to enjoy their encouragement, counsel, and guidance. That’s a good thing. A fresh outside perspective from someone who knows us but isn’t bound by our context can help us see things we might otherwise miss. Praise God.

But the pastors who only receive spiritual care from pastors in other churches actually place themselves and their churches in a vulnerable position. Pastors in other churches have no meaningful authority in our lives and the lives of our local church other than the authority we voluntarily assign them. “Pastor Jones” in the next city can’t “pay careful attention to our lives” the way the Bible insists in Acts 20:28. In fact, the text assumes that all the other elders lovingly work together to watch over the lives of each individual elder.

The careful attention commended here requires at least four things: proximity, intimacy, vigilance and equality. Proximity gets defined as serving together on the same elder team in the same congregation. We can’t phone this in or do it online. It’s close care. Intimacy gets defined as regular, loving inquiry into each other’s life. Not only are we to watch our own life and doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16), but apparently so are our fellow elders. They are to inspect our manner of living and our doctrinal teaching. After all, the wolves that Paul prophesies will come will “come in among you [the elders]” (v. 29). Keeping watch requires vigilance. In other words, the watchfulness Paul commends is an ongoing watchfulness. It’s not a matter of checking a list once a year or even once a month. “Careful attention” is ongoing attention. The only persons who can give ongoing attention to a pastor’s life are other pastors who live, work, and serve by his side. But for any of this to happen, the pastor must labor beside equals — other elders who have as much authority and responsibility in the life of the church. Without equality, a pastor can “pull rank” or create distance between himself and the other leaders in ways that make this watch care impossible. And many do. But if all the elders have equal share in the ministry and in the responsibility for watching one another, it becomes more difficult for any individual pastor or elder to avoid the careful attention of the others.

So, pastor, who watches your soul? Who has proximity, intimacy, vigilance and equal standing in making sure you continue faithfully in the things of Christ and in making sure no wolves sneak into the church impersonating true pastors? A pastor needs pastors just like the rest of the sheep. Those shepherds who have been without shepherds have most often become as “harassed and helpless” as the shepherdless sheep our Lord saw in Matt. 9:36. Pray that the Chief Shepherd would send shepherds for the shepherds!

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Thabiti M Anyabwile

Thabiti M Anyabwile

Thabiti is one of the pastors of Anacostia River Church in Washington, DC and the president of The Crete Collective. He is the author of several books and as an introvert enjoys quiet things at home.


  • Avatar James says:

    I don’t know. Your argument seems to be asserting that the structure is flawed and a plurality of elders is either flawless or flawed less. There are just too many examples of the flip side of this coin. Plurality of elders face the same danger of being unsupervised and dictatorial. There are too many historical and contemporary references to mention but you yourself could mention a few I’m sure. I also find it hard to believe, brother, that each house church included a plurality of elders. For example, the Church in Rome seemed to have multiple congregations and not just small groups since Paul referred to them as “the church that meets in their house”. Pastor, I maybe wrong. I err many, many, many, many ways Pastor. So I don’t mean to sound combative but unless we’re speaking of Catholicism, for the most part the subject of polity never seems like a slam dunk to me, no matter where you stand. (By the way, I’m an elder led, congregationally ruled Baptist) It appears safer to focus on the 1st Tim 3 and Titus 1 character of Elder or Elders (although I am not assuming at all that you are ignoring these passages; I greatly appreciate your book Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons, it has been a gift to my local body where I serve). I’m also a proud member of The National Baptist Denomination. Pastor T, I love my denomination but a National Baptist Deacon board will keep you praying and grounded:) LOL!!!. I mention this because “pulling rank” is not as easy as it sounds. Particularly if the pastor is 45 and younger and the Deacon or sometimes Trustees are older. The names of the checks and balances are different but the function are still there.

    Like I said, I’m not advocating a slam dunk on either side. I’m praying for your Church Plant and would appreciate it if you could write a post or give suggestions on Church Planting. I appreciate the work you do Pastor! May the Lord establish your work in Him.

    Psalm 90:17
    17 Let the
    favor of the Lord our God be on us; establish for us
    the work of our hands— establish the work
    of our hands!

  • Avatar Todd says:

    I understand your position James but I’m more sympathetic to Pastor T’s argument. However, I think I’m more sympathetic to Pastor T’s argument based on more practical and experiential reasons than biblical. I don’t know if you have the book Perspectives On Church Government but it lays out some of the arguments. However, I do lean to your understanding as far as the Church in Rome is concerned. It seems completely unreasonable that their were a plurality of elders in each house church. Also, apparently Paul saw each house Church as a stand alone congregation. The only argument I would have is the house churches couldn’t have consisted of more than 20 to 25 members at least. So the single elder model might not have fit the context of today and with numerous churches having more than 25 members and one single elder. I think where I would disagree with Pastor T and you is that I do believe a Pastor can be held accountable to a congregation even if he leads the congregation. Either way, James thanks for responding. I know the comment sections are quickly becoming a thing of the past due to the antagonistic, hostile nature of some or the complete disinterest to engage. Whatever case I appreciate your thoughts on the subject matter, even if we differ.

    Grace and Peace Brother

  • Avatar James says:

    You made my point for me. If you can’t be dogmatic on the issue then its probably unwise to assume the pastor is un-watched when his polity structure doesn’t coincide with ours

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