Multiple Scriptures instruct churches as to how to go about finding a pastor. 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9 list out requirements for the pastor—a pastor must desire his role, be able to teach and administrate, have an exemplary character, and be confirmed by the church that these things are so. Acts 6:1–7 gives a play-by-play example for how to “appoint” deacons to the church, instructive for how to “appoint” pastors as well (Acts 6:3; Titus 1:5)—leaders lead, and congregations decide in the process.
In several ways, Acts 11:19–26 is an encouraging passage for churches without a pastor as well. To clarify, as it speaks of Barnabas and Saul (Paul), I realize these men are unique in the history of the church with respect to their caliber and calling. Paul was the foremost apostle to the Gentiles, and Barnabas was shoulder-to-shoulder with him in this ministry (cf. Acts 13:1–3). At the same time, though their role was something beyond a local church, they more or less functioned as Antioch’s first pastors, and thus their example is instructive and encouraging for churches without a pastor today.
The Role of Acts 11:19–26 Within Acts as a Whole
The church was birthed by the Spirit, grew and spread in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria (Acts 1–6; cf. 1:8). Persecution drove its followers out of these areas, and Saul was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 7–9). Peter, the foremost apostle to the Jews (cf. Gal 2:7–8), saw the Spirit poured out on the Gentile Cornelius and his household and told Jerusalem about the matter (Acts 10:1–11:18). When we arrive at Acts 11:19–26, we have been left to anticipate how God would use Paul to take the gospel to the uttermost end of the earth. Acts 11:19–26 begins to tell us how this happens, and the rest of the book of Acts could be broadly summarized as recording how Paul took the gospel to the world (Acts 13–28).
A Summary of Acts 11:19–26
Though driven from Jerusalem by persecution, Gentiles continued to give the gospel, and many more Gentiles were saved (Acts 11:19–21). The church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to lead the believers in Antioch, and the church flourished under his ministry (Acts 11:22–24). It is here in particular that we have one of our examples of a church without a pastor receiving someone who more or less functioned as a pastor.
As the passage goes on, Barnabas realized that the church could use another good man as well, and perhaps he saw Antioch as a Gentile church that could become the base of operations for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. So, he left to “look for Saul,” “found him,” “brought him to Antioch,” and the two taught in Antioch for a year (Acts 19:25–26). Here again we find an example of a church adding a man who functioned as a pastor.
God’s work through these two and the church was so effective that the surrounding community coined the term “Christians” to apply to the believers in Antioch (Acts 11:26). They lived like Christ, spoke of Christ, and were marked off as a group of people that were united around Him.
How Acts 11:19–26 Can Encourage a Church Without a Pastor
With this understanding of Acts 11:19–26 in mind, let’s consider the passage with an eye on how it can encourage a church searching for a pastor.
First, be encouraged that the Lord can grow a church without a pastor.
As believers scattered to Antioch, they gave the gospel to Gentiles, “preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20). Because “the hand of the Lord was with them… a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). All of this took place without any mention to the leadership of these believers.
While every church should ideally have a pastor and even multiple pastors as necessary, a healthy group of believers will continue to make disciples and function as they ought in the absence of a pastor.
Second, God can use the greater body of Christ to help a local church find a pastor.
Upon hearing of the Lord’s work in Antioch, “the church in Jerusalem… sent Barnabas to Antioch” (Acts 11:22). When Barnabas saw this marvelous outpouring of “the grace of God, he was glad” and powerfully preached to them, being the “good man” that he was (Acts 11:23–24). As a result, again, “a great many people were added to the Lord” (Acts 11:24). The hand of the Lord can work mightily through a thriving church that has been blessed with a gifted leader.
Just as Jerusalem was a help to Antioch then, churches can enlist the help of others in seeking out pastors today.
Third, pastors can help find pastors.
In Acts 11:19–26, we have not only one but two examples for finding a pastor for a church. As the church grew, Barnabas saw the need for more leadership. The fact that he had to “look for Saul” in Tarsus implies that he did not know where he was except for general location of the city, and it was a city of 500,000 people. Finally, he “found him” and “brought him” back (Acts 11:25–26).
Churches sometimes struggle to find a pastor, but, as helped by the leadership of its church or other leaders in the body of Christ, the church’s hard work pays off, and the Lord can bless a church with a needed pastor, just as He did for Antioch.
Fourth, a church continues in God’s grace with its new pastor.
Notice that, all along the way, Antioch flourished in the grace of God. Whether without Barnabas, with Barnabas, and then with Barnabas and Saul—the hand of the Lord was upon the life of this church every stage of the way.
That a church continues in God’s grace means that God can bless a church while temporarily without leadership. Adding a pastor obviously helps to organize the church to take the Great Commission even further. Either way, God’s grace is evident before and after a church has found its pastor.
Fifth, a pastor should lead the church towards finding his successor.
This point comes after Acts 11:19–26. As Barnabas and Saul ministered in Antioch, the church eventually added three more men to its leadership—Simeon, Lucius, and Manaen (Acts 13:1). Because of their unique calling, Barnabas and Paul passed the baton to these men to carry on the pastoral work of the church while they went to give the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 13–14). We can guess that Barnabas and Paul likely played a key role in growing these leaders, and the church was able to continue with an established leadership, even as Barnabas and Paul went away.
Ideally, a pastor today may find it helpful to train a pastor before he leaves, or he may find it helpful to simply lead the church in finding its next pastor and then stepping down when the new pastor comes. Or maybe he can outline the process, step aside, and let the church take it from there. Every church is different, and no two transitions in leadership are quite the same. One way or the other, though, a church should have a plan to find its next pastor, and, as God is gracious, the church will have an idea of who that person is as well.
In all the above, what is evident for Antioch, if nothing else, is this—God sees when a church is without a pastor, can bless it in a pastor’s absence, can bless it by providing a pastor, and will continue to bless it when a pastor arrives. If possible, a church and its pastors should raise up pastors from within the congregation. At the least, pastors should lead the church in finding who will lead the church in the future or leave the church with a plan to do so. If your church is without a pastor, may you be encouraged that God can bless you as He did with Antioch long ago.