In some countries the term is used in relation to Protestant churches. It can also be used in reference to priests and bishops within the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches. The word itself is derived from the Latin word pastor which means "shepherd". The term "pastor" is also related to the role of elder within the New Testament, but is not synonymous with the biblical understanding of minister.
Present-day usage of the word is rooted in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) uses the Hebrew word רעה (raʿah). It is mentioned 173 times and describes the feeding of sheep, as in Genesis 29:7, or 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).
In the New Testament, the Greek noun ποιμήν (poimēn) and verb ποιμαινω (poimaino) are usually translated shepherd or to shepherd. The two words are used 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 are used in familiar Christmas story (Luke 2) referring to literal shepherds.
In five New Testament passages though, the words are refer to church workers.
Arguably from the earliest centuries of Christian history, the church had three orders which were considered divinely ordained: bishops, priests and deacons. Each was only considered authoritative and able to administer the sacraments if one had valid apostolic succession (i.e., traceable lineage of ordinations back to the original bishops, the Apostles themselves). However, Protestant communities since the Reformation generally disregard this practice, or dispute the existence of apostolic succession.
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.
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. United Methodist, for example, ordain to the office of deacon and elder; each of whom can use the title of pastor depending upon their job description. The use of the term "pastor" can also be regional in some denominations, including some parts of the Methodist, Presbyterian, 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. Few Protestant groups today still view the pastor, bishop, and elder as synonymous terms or offices; many who do are descended from the Restoration Movement in America during the 1800s, 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.
Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches typically refer to their local church leaders as "parish priests". The term pastor may be used, in a more casual way, particularly in North America. However, Anglican churches do not formally use the term "pastor"; rather, they frequently use the terms "rector" or "vicar" as alternatives to "parish priest".
Each Catholic parish is normally entrusted to the care of a single pastor, who must be a priest according to the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The associate pastor is called a parochial vicar and also must be a priest. In U.S. Catholic parishes, a lay ecclesial minister who fulfills many of the non-sacramental functions of an associate pastor is often called a "pastoral associate", "parish minister", or "pastoral assistant".
A bishop is canonically given full-fledged pastoral responsibilities within his diocese, and a priest is held to pastoral obedience with regards to his bishop. The term universal pastor refers to the pope, per the declaration Pastor aeternus of the First Vatican Council.
Jesus Christ is commonly referred to as the "Good Shepherd" or "Good Pastor", the former a phrase found in the Gospels.
Observers such as clergy counselor Rowland Croucher suggest that the numbers of "ex-pastors" roughly equals that of serving clergy throughout the Western world. This would mean people who have left the ministry number in the six-figures. More pastors and priests may be leaving parish ministry than are lost to most other professions. Until the early 1990s, there were few cross-denominational ministries serving this group. Croucher collected data-based questionnaires of ministers of Protestant denominations.
The first writers to explore this research area used questionnaire surveys to look at factors such as age, education and family relationships as contributing factors to decisions to leave the ministry. Other writers have explored ex-pastors within particular denominations and/or focused on particular related issues such as burnout, stress, marital stress, sexual abuse, celibacy, loneliness, organisational factors, and conflict. One common cause of conflict occurs when differing approaches to ministry compete in the minds of clergy, congregation and community, as Norman Blaikie found in Australian clergy from six Protestant denominations.
For some of the estimated 10,000 ex-pastors from Australian Protestant churches, their transition was a normal mid-career move, voluntarily entered into like many of the role exits described in the classic study by sociologist (and ex-nun) Helen Ebaugh. Yet for many the transition out of parish ministry was premature. Clergy, churches and training bodies need a solid basis for understanding and action in order to reduce the attrition rate and enhance clergy, congregational and community health. Some denominations experience particularly high rates of attrition.
Key recommendations to help alleviate stress in clergy exit situations may revolve around the development of professional supervision and continuing education. Professional supervision for ministry is a method of reflecting critically on ministry as a way of growing in self-awareness, cultural and social awareness, ministry competence and theological reflection skills. Supervision that includes an element of peer-group work has the potential to facilitate collaborative learning, enhanced group dynamic skills and ongoing supportive networks. Some denominations are encouraging their clergy to engage in professional supervision, as part of their mandatory requirement of professional standards, but the requirements and standards of clergy supervision are often haphazard or absent.
Many times a pastor is forced out of his/her position for political or social reasons. Without counseling and support, pastors often struggle emotionally with such a situation.