Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
—1 Peter 5:3
The day you start serving as a pastor is the day everyone starts watching you. Members of your church will search your face for cues, especially when something awkward happens. They’ll notice where you sit and who you sit with. They’ll comment when you get a haircut or new shoes. If part of your shirt comes untucked during a service, they might discover that before you do. To be a pastor is to be watched.
What are people looking for? That depends on the person and the occasion. What many of them are—and all of them should be—looking for is an example. The impulse to follow a pastor’s example can be unhealthy, as when a pastor exceeds his mandate and abuses his authority by turning his preferences into laws. The impulse to follow a pastor’s example can be gently amusing, as when members of his church, and especially young men who aspire to pastor, start to wear what he wears and talk like he talks. No pastor’s personal preferences should rule others’ lives. And a man’s quirks of dress and speech usually matter little. But a pastor’s moral example means everything.
One of the many ways modern Western culture tries to deny reality is by treating the idea of following another’s example as inherently limiting, stifling, and oppressive. But opposing imitation is both blind and foolish. Imitation is inescapable. Everyone imitates. We do what our friends do. We do what people we want to be like do. As Jason Hood observes, “Few of us try sushi, social media or facial hairstyles unless we are introduced to them by a flesh-and-blood model. Humans do not learn to speak, read, write, tie shoes or perform a vocation without steady doses of imitation.”
Imitation has its advantages. To learn how to fix a leaking sink, would you rather read a fifty-page manual or watch an experienced plumber? To paraphrase Seneca, the way of precept is long, but the way of example is short and helpful.
Whose example do you follow? Who should follow yours?
Imitating others is not just a matter of habit and common-sense wisdom; it is baked into Christianity. Christian discipleship works by both instruction and imitation. As Jesus said to his disciples on the night before his death, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14–15).
Jesus makes his own love not only the motive and means but also the measure of how we must love each other: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34; cf. 15:12). And Peter tells us that even Jesus’s death, with all its unrepeatable redemptive effect, is also our example: “But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:20–21; cf. Phil. 2:5–11; Eph. 5:2, 25, 28).
We should follow not just Jesus’s example but also other believers’. “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Phil. 3:17). Here Paul exhorts us to follow not just him but also others who follow him. Does this put mere mortals on too high a pedestal? Not at all: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Godly examples point beyond themselves to Christ. When you see a godly example, do not merely look at them—look through them.
Scripture charges pastors to lead by example, and members to follow their example. As Peter urges, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:1–3). And the author of Hebrews writes to the whole assembly, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
If you want to be a pastor, start setting an example. Live a life that others should imitate. Live a life that others may safely and profitably imitate. I hope you already pass your decisions and habits through the filter of what God says is good. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). It’s time to add a second filter: Does this set a good example? Could I commend this practice to others? “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9). Will the God of peace be with others if they practice what you practice? Would other members of your church grow in godliness if they did what you do?
If everyone in your church studied Scripture the way you do, would they know God better and obey him more? If everyone in your church prayed the way you do, would their prayer life be richer or poorer? And your example is not limited to obviously spiritual matters. Your example includes everything you click and watch. It includes how you give and spend your money. It includes what you do to relax and unwind. It includes every word you say. It includes how you treat every person you ever meet.
Certainly, Christians’ consciences are calibrated differently. Setting an example does not mean never doing anything that any Christian anywhere would disagree with. But it does mean taking extra care. It means caring more about someone else’s holiness than about your freedom. It means always being ready to answer the question, “Well, what do you do?” If you need to make a significant decision, and one option leaves you in a moral gray area, setting a godly example may well mean choosing the safer option.
To be a pastor is to live your life in public. Even when you’re off, you’re on. If you want to be a pastor, get ready to be watched, and start setting an example worth watching.
 Jason B. Hood, Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 190. Hood’s work is a rich and wise treatment of Scripture’s theology of imitation. See especially chapter 12 on the church as a community of imitation.
 See Seneca, Ad Lucilium 6.4, in Seneca IV: Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales I; Books I–LXV, trans. R. M. Gummere, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1917), 27, 29: “You must go to the scene of action, first, because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears, and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns. Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules.”
 See the exegetically insightful, pastorally useful work of Andrew David Naselli and J. D. Crowley, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).