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 metaphor of shepherding. The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) uses the Hebrew word רעה (raʿah), which is used as a noun as in "shepherd," and as a verb as in "to tend a flock." It occurs 173 times in 144 Old Testament verses and relates to the literal feeding of sheep, as in Genesis 29:7. In Jeremiah 23:4, both meanings are used (ra'ah is used for "shepherds" and "shall feed"), "And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, saith the LORD." (KJV).
English-language translations of the New Testament usually render the Greek noun ποιμήν (poimēn) as "shepherd" and the Greek verb ποιμαίνω (poimainō) as "feed". 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 members of the church:
- John 21:16 - Jesus told Peter: "Feed My sheep"
- Acts 20:17 - the Apostle Paul summons the elders of the church in Ephesus to give a last discourse to them; in Acts 20:28, he tells them that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers, and they are to feed the church of God.
- 1 Corinthians 9:7 - Paul says, of himself and the apostles: "who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock?"
- Ephesians 4:11 - Paul wrote "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;"
- 1st Peter 5:1-2 - Peter tells the elders among his readers that they are to, "Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof"
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.
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.
- Harper, Douglas. "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2013-11-15.
- "Strong's H7462". Blue Letter Bible. Retrieved 2017-11-22.
- Sermon CCIX, cited in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Practical Theology, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, John Wiley & Sons, Dec 27, 2011, p.271
- Code of Canon Law, canon 519
- United Methodist Church, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. "Ministry of Local Pastors" (PDF). Higher Education and Ministry. General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the United Methodist Church. Retrieved 3 January 2016.