Role vs. Function: Which do you most focus on?

Role vs. Function: Which do you most focus on?

By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education.

September 11, 2017—A friend recently shifted from an associate pastor position (“second chair”) to senior pastor (“first chair”) in his congregation. This is not a common transition, but also not infrequent. He has been a participant in the Leadership in Ministry workshops for several years, so was equipped to enter this transition with insight and reflective intent to emotional process (anxiety, resistance, reactivity, homeostasis, etc.) in the church, and within himself, once the honeymoon was over.

In due time he ran into some (anticipated) stuckness. The issue surrounded a new ministry staff associate recently hired to take his old job. The anxiety floating around some in the congregation seemed to center on her job performance. My friend, the new senior pastor and now supervisor, was puzzled. As far as he was concerned his new associate was doing a fine job, albeit naturally doing it differently than he had. As the complaints continued he reached out for a coaching session.

He called with two issues: (1) he wanted to gain insight on what may be going on with the anxiety around the new associate, and (2) insight about his own functioning in a context where he previously occupied a different position. His questions were about the concepts of role vs. function. Was the anxiety surrounding the new associate about her functioning, or about the role? He understood he was in a new role in the church, but was unclear about the difference between his new role and what it meant to give attention to a different function.


Every pastor has the same role. In fact, every leader in a comparable system has the same role: a dean at a university, a college president, a pastoral associate, have the same role as any other in a comparable position in another system. Compare job descriptions among clergy (or any other staff members) and you’ll discover they’re pretty much the same. In fact, it’s not uncommon for churches to borrow and crib job descriptions from other churches when creating a new position. There are even books and resources that offer that service.

The Pastor plays the “pastoral role,” or, the “role of the pastor.” Everyone knows (or assumes they know) what that looks like. This is such a truism that your congregational members likely have more of a relationship with the role you play as pastor than they do with you personally.


Function is a product of the system (the emotional field of a particular system–including its culture, tradition, polity, etc.). Consider the factors of context and field. Consider the different functions needed of a pastoral leader in a church at its adolescent stage vs. its mature stage. Likewise contrast a congregation in its prime vs. a congregation that is dying. You’ll play the same role (you’re the pastor), but the function you need to provide, and HOW you function will be very different. From this perspective, leadership is a function of the system–not primarily of an individual in that system.

Similarly, the function of the pastor in a family-size chapel church is different than a pastor in a corporate-sized church. In one the function is chaplain, in the other, it is closer to that of a CEO.

My friend concluded that perhaps the new associate was functioning well, but was not playing the role the congregation expects of someone in that position. She herself was competent and was following through with her vision of the ministry–she was fulfilling the function of her position in the system. What seemed to be happening is that some in the congregation had certain role expectations related to the position, based on their experience of the way it was personalized by the person previously occupying the position (who was now the senior pastor). My friend got clear about his new role, but is still working on what his function will be in the congregation. That’s natural, it takes longer to gain that insight.

To Ponder:

Can you articulate your role in your current ministry setting?
Can you articulate your function in your current ministry setting?
How might clarity about the differentiation between role and function help you do your job better?
Which do you most focus on, role or function?

The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in four locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, and West Virginia. Click HERE for Leadership in Ministry workshops.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.

His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H), and Theories of Learning for Christian Educators and Theological Faculty.

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.

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