How To Distinguish Between Good And Bad Pastors

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16 and John 10:11-16

In the name of Jesus: Amen.

How do you distinguish between a good pastor and a bad pastor?
In other words, what qualities and characteristics should a church look for in a good pastor and what things should be avoided?

In a 2017 article from the HuffPost, Kelly Battles, answers these questions by saying that good pastors are characterized by the following attributes and features:
  • A good pastor has an open mind.
  • A good pastor is more spiritual than traditionally religious.
  • A good pastor writes sermons that are relatable, current, practical, and that help you walk out of church with the tools and motivation to lead a better life.
  • A good pastor integrates a heavy dose of humor and the arts, as well as prayer and the Bible, into the lesson.
  • A good pastor makes everyone they meet feel like family.
  • A good pastor finally, has a healthy appreciation for pet participation, children squirming in the pews, and people in bike shorts and sports uniforms, all regular occurrences in the church life of her local church.[1]
Ms. Battles goes on to say that in selecting a good pastor that the most important thing is to identify the traits, characteristics, and experiences that best fit with the church’s plans, vision, and priorities.

Now, is Kelly Battles right? Has she described what makes a good pastor in our modern day and age? 

Unfortunately, she has not described what makes a good pastor in our modern day and age, but instead, she has described merely what many churches ‘want’ in a pastor in our modern day and age. And what churches ‘want’ in a pastor is often different than what churches actually ‘need.’ That is to say; what churches often want in a pastor is at odds with what the Lord calls pastors to be and do.

Dear friends, to identify a good pastor, we must not consult and survey the wishes and opinions of mankind. Yes, to distinguish between good and bad shepherds, we must not appeal to the feelings and wishes of mankind, but we must hear what the Lord says about this subject.

In our readings from Ezekiel and the Gospel of John, we hear about the differences between good shepherds and bad shepherds – good pastors and bad pastors. We can also look throughout the rest of the Bible as well, to hear about the criteria of what makes a good pastor.[2] And what we hear is that we can distinguish a good pastor from a bad pastor not by how much humor he has in a sermon or how much he makes a person feel like family, but upon the pastor’s doctrine and life. Yes, the criteria that the Bible lays forth in identifying the differences between a good shepherd and a bad shepherd is what the pastor teaches and how the pastor lives.

Now, regarding doctrine, a good pastor preaches and teaches the Bible to the flock, not his own opinions. In fact, the majority of the time of the pastor is to be preaching and teaching the Holy Scriptures to his flock. He is to be applying Law and Gospel. Law to confront the sins of his flock and Gospel to absolve those sins. From the pulpit, the bedside, behind the desk, and on the streets, the pastor is called to proclaim God’s Law unto repentance and God’s Gospel unto faith. The pastor is not captive to the desires and wants and rules of the congregation but is captive to the Word of God and the Word alone.

Bad shepherds, on the other hand, may well preach and teach with a friendly smile, but will consistently remove the sting of the Law that reveals sin and then condition the Gospel that reveals Jesus. Yes, they will tickle the ears of the congregation by downplaying the seriousness of God’s Law and will undercut the singlehanded sufficiency of the Gospel. By doing this, nobody will feel bad because sin will not be confronted by a stern Law and everyone will be able to have a place in accomplishing their own salvation because the Gospel will no longer be dependent upon Jesus alone, but upon the will-power of the parishioner. As a result, sin is allowed to run rampant in the church, Jesus is pushed off to the side, and a one-way ticket to hell is handed out.

Furthermore, bad shepherds will slobber a bunch of manmade doctrines all over God’s Word, covering God’s Word with meaningless babble. Yes, bad shepherds will say a lot, but when closely examined, their chatter is empty. Their mouths are full of a bunch of empty sounds that have the appearance of knowledge but in reality contradict the Bible.[3]

Dear friends, doctrine is one of the things that distinguishes good and bad pastors. A good shepherd is faithful to the Word of God in season and out of season, telling the church what they ‘need’ to hear, not what they ‘want’ to hear. Bad shepherds, however, will tickle the ears of the congregation, telling them not what they ‘need’ to hear, but what they ‘want’ to hear.[4]  

Good and bad shepherds are also distinguished by their life. A good shepherd lives according to God’s Word and demonstrates his doctrine with good examples in his life. This is not a life of perfection, for no man is perfect, except Jesus alone. But instead, this is a life of upholding what is good, right, and true according to God’s Word. It is a life aspiring to want to do better and confessing sin when failure arises. A good pastor neither conceals sin nor celebrates it, but is quick to apologize to his flock and others when he errors and depends solely on Jesus for his identity, forgiveness, and life.

Bad shepherds, though, live contrary to God’s Word in their life when they conceal sin or celebrate sin. Bad shepherds also make many rules for their church that are not in the Bible and keep few of the rules themselves. To make things worse, bad shepherds run at the first sign of danger from wolves. Furthermore, they do not strengthen the weak, they do not heal the sick, and do not bind up the injured by the Word and Sacraments because they have not only forsaken the Word and Sacraments but are also too fat and lazy in their spiritual apathy – only serving their agendas and appetites.

Indeed, doctrine and life are that which help us distinguish between good and bad pastors. But why are the doctrine and life of pastors so important? Why this criterion? You see, it is quite simple.

If the church were a social club and Jesus was its group leader, then good and bad pastors would be judged upon their personalities, popularity, and relatability, not doctrine and life.

If the church were a business and Jesus was its CEO, then good and bad pastors would be judged upon business principles and financial ratios, not doctrine and life.

If the church were a social justice organization and Jesus was its social justice leader, then good and bad pastors would be judged upon their community campaigning abilities.

But the church is none of these things. And Jesus is none of these things as well. Instead, the church is often referred to in the Bible as a flock – a flock of sheep. And pastors are called to be shepherds of the flock. In fact, the word ‘pastor’ is from the Latin word that means, ‘shepherd.’

So, if the church is like a flock and pastors are like shepherds, what does this mean about Jesus? It means that Jesus is the chief Shepherd. Jesus is the good – the ultimate good – Shepherd. He is the good Shepherd that laid down His life for the sheep. Jesus is the chief Shepherd of our souls, by whose blood we are purchased and redeemed. And as our chief Shepherd, Jesus places pastors into churches to feed and preach the Gospel to ‘His’ sheep according to ‘His’ example and according to ‘His’ Word. Simply stated, good pastors are those who live by faith in Jesus and teach according to Jesus. Bad pastors disregard Jesus’ example and Jesus’ doctrine. That is why a pastor is judged upon doctrine and life. Is the pastor speaking the doctrines of Jesus? Is the pastor living by faith in Jesus? Or is the pastor peddling something else?

Dear Baptized Saints, if your pastor ever strays from the chief Shepherd or if your ears are ever tickled away to a bad pastor, beware! Whoever strays from the chief Shepherd – Jesus – does not have peace and safety but will have to contend with the wolves, that devour souls. 

You, though, are sheep. You hear and follow the shepherd’s voice. Together you and I know that we cannot help ourselves but depend on Jesus’ protection and help and His Word and Sacraments.  

So, dear Baptized Saints, when I step into this pulpit, wear this clergy alb, and place the stole around my neck, may I be faithful in doctrine and life to proclaim and give you Jesus’ Word. May I be faithful to proclaim to you Jesus and Him dying for your sins.

And when you have marital struggles, a new job, a failed pregnancy, a death of a spouse, and whatever this life brings, may you always have an open ear to hear about Jesus and Him dying for your sins.

No matter the circumstance, pastor and congregation must speak, hear, and trust in the message of Jesus dying for them. No matter the situation, the message of Jesus – His Word and Sacraments – must never be compromised because Jesus is the guardian of our souls, our rescuer in death, the hope of everlasting life, and our good and chief Shepherd, now and forevermore.

In the name of Jesus Christ: Amen.

[1] Kelly Battles, “What Makes a Good Pastor in 2017?,” HuffPost, (accessed April 12, 2018).
[2] Take special note of the Pastoral Epistles that outline the criteria of Pastors.  
[3] See 1 Timothy 6:20.
[4] See 2 Timothy 4:1-5.

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