Acts 20:17-38 is a very important passage in discussing the role of elders/overseers/pastors within the church. I encourage you to read it prior to the rest of this post. Thanks.
The broader context of this passage is Paul's 3rd missionary journey. He is trying to get back to Jerusalem quickly in order to be there for Pentecost. For time's sake Paul decides to bypass Ephesus and stop in Miletus. Paul calls for the elders of the church in Ephesus to come to him. In saying a final farewell to them, the apostle reminds them of his example and instructs them in caring for the church.
What can we learn about elders/overseers/pastors from this passage?
1. The terms "elders," "overseers," and "pastors" refer to the same role in the church.
Acts 20:17-38 is a passage that uses all three of these terms. In 20:17 we read of Paul calling for the "elders." In 20:28, we see that the Holy Spirit has made them "overseers." Later in that same verse, we read that these men are to shepherd (pastor) the church. In the N.T. all three terms seem to be used almost interchangeably.
2. Elders are important to the life of the church.
Paul specifically calls for the elders of the church in Ephesus. This indicates that they play an important role. This is consistent with what we see in other sections of the N.T.
3. Elders should follow Paul's example in attitude and action.
In 20:18, Paul says, "You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia." I may be reading a bit into his statement, but I think Paul is telling them to emulate him. We know that in other places he tells Christians to copy his behavior.
In light of this, elders should serve with humility and long-suffering, declare and teach what is profitable to the church, proclaim the good news of Christ to all peoples, and care little for their own lives.
Of course, we should remember that all Christians are called to all of the above things as well. We should all follow Paul's example.
4. The Holy Spirit makes overseers.
In 20:28 we see that it is God who appoints overseers. It is His decision, not man's.
5. Elders are to be on guard for themselves and the church.
Paul warns in 20:28-31 of the coming of false teachers from both outside and inside the church. A primary duty of elders is to protect the church against false teachings. This obviously implies, then, that elders will be knowledgeable of the scriptures and what constitutes sound teaching.
6. Elders should work hard.
Paul's example to them was that of a tentmaker. He was able to provide for himself and those who were with him. He did not rely on the church in Ephesus to support him with a salary.
7. Elders are to help the weak because it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Paul makes it clear to the elders that they should help the weak, poor, and needy. Paul was able to give to those in need because he made money working with his hands. He reminds the elders of the importance of this because Christ Himself said that giving was better than receiving.
So what are the implications of this passage for us today?
The bible makes it clear to us that elders/overseers/pastors are important to the life of the church. I can't think of a N.T. church that lacked elders; therefore, all churches today should have them.
Elders, like all followers of Christ, should emulate Paul's attitudes and actions as he looked to Jesus. Obviously Christ is our ultimate example, but we can learn from Paul as well. We should be humble people who are willing to suffer for the sake of the proclamation of the gospel.
We must all recognize that it is the Holy Spirit who selects overseers. God makes the choice. In churches, we should look for God's decision about this and simply recognize who He has appointed.
Elders must know sound doctrine and be ready to protect the church from false teaching both outside and inside the body. Ideally we will all do this, but the elders in particular must be alert to this task.
If Paul's example is to be followed, then elders should work hard with their hands (not salaried by the church) in order to give to the poor and needy. The reason for this is based on what Christ has said: it is more blessed to give than receive.