As I’ve testified in my little book Jesus the Pastor, I was startled into a new appreciation for the pastoral vocation by bumping into Jesus, the Pastor, in John 10. Jesus chose to link his redemptive life and ministry to the term “shepherd” (pastor), a vocation scorned in Jesus’ day.* Jesus is the good shepherd, the ideal pastor. Just as it is often asked, “Have you surrendered to Jesus as Lord?”, I think it is legitimate to ask, “Are you following Jesus, your Pastor?” Any woman or man who responds to the pastoral calling need never feel threatened by Jesus Who is the Senior Pastor.
Against the backdrop of the failed shepherds of God’s people in Jesus’ day, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36), Jesus reveals himself as the good shepherd. Apparently the Ezekiel 34 indictment of Israel’s leaders still had traction in Jesus’ time. Jesus restores the significance to the title shepherd, a leader of God’s people. Neither Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, nor Peter, the Apostle to the Jews, disparaged the title pastor.
We live, however, in a time when disparaging views of the pastor and the pastoral vocation abound. And while there is a flurry of exegetical gymnastics to divest the term, idea, and vocation of “pastor” of any relevant meaning, I don’t think either the New Testament or church history will support the disappearance of the pastor. I don’t think exegesis is the real issue, anyway. Bad pastors are the driving reason why so many people in the contemporary church want the idea, yes, even vocation of pastor to go away.
Take, for example, the king pastor who through force of an overbearing personality “rules the roost” of his/her church. This is Pastor-My-Way-or-The-Highway. A lot of insecure people will flock to king pastor out of their sheer need to be told what to think and how to live. Life is scary, helter-skelter and having a big, confident Pastor-in-Charge brings a semblance of order to frenzied lives. A king pastor in our area told medical people who had to rotate occasionally to Sunday shifts to choose the church schedule, not their work schedule or they would be subject to church discipline. Some lame use of Hebrews 10: 25 was used as the hammer to enforce this view.
Have you met Pastor Friendly-In-the-Pulpit-Invisible-Out? This is the “I’m only here to to exegete the word and preach its principles” man or woman. There’s a strain of this that is actually endorsed…or use to be. This is the non-relationship pastor who cannot be available to the people less some think he is just a mouth-piece for a certain clique. Or, the antiseptic pastor who cannot be tainted by the wandering masses. “That’s not my gift” is usually brought to the table by this removed-from-the-people communicator. This person substitutes speech skills for social skills and convinces him/herself that they are a good pastor. A pastor in our area who was creating trouble in his church stopped greeting after each morning service. He told people he had to go to his office between services and pray. Hey, who can be against prayer? He also put more space between the sanctuary chairs to create the illusion that the church was not losing people.
Then there are the deplorable abusive pastors…emotionally, spiritually and sometimes, sadly, sexually abusive. Deeply twisted and, yes, broken, these types get into the church using the mask of spiritual authority to fulfill the ugliest of motivations. Spiritual leaders, using the cover of “God” and “Christ” to fulfill the basest of dark desires, would cause any number of folks to question the legitimacy of the pastoral calling. I know of a pastor who literally announced that he was the go-between for his people and God. And, get this, to challenge him was to challenge God. Can anyone spell E-G-O problem?
The list is almost endless in the way we sinful human beings pervert the pastoral calling. We’ll end with Pastor-One-Note-Johnny. It does not matter at all what text this pastor selects or topic she announces, it always ends up at “You’re all going to hell without Jesus” or “The end is near. Watch out for the anti-christ!” or “Infant baptism/the NIV/women in ministry/ is of the devil.” Whatever hobby horse this pastor has, he or she rides it…every Sunday. I know a pastor who in almost every Sunday evening service (which only the faithful believers attended) preached a salvation message. His face would get red, he’d shake his fist, snarling out, “God loves you. Get savvvved!” His face, voice and gestures were the opposite of his words.
Here’s the kicker. Culbertson and Shippee (see previous post) in their book, The Pastor: Readings from the Patristic Period emphasize that the abuses of pastoral ministry we report today were evident in the church from the beginning and were addressed by the early church leaders in the second, third and fourth centuries AD and on through church history. No golden era of pastoral ministry exists.
Pastors are still around. I’m one. Are pastors the problem? Well, yes and no. More deeply I think sin is the problem. Pastors are not immune to sin just as apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers are not immune to sin. Yet, thousands upon thousands of faithful, not sinless women and men are serving admirably as “shepherds of God’s flock.” They, by the grace of God, are not power hungry, not removed from and above their church members and attenders, not abusive, but gentle, studious, engaged and attempting to live and teach the Way of Christ revealed in the Word of God. These undershepherds of the Great Shepherd give thanks everyday that Jesus is the Good, Great, and Chief Shepherd of God’s household. Their aim is to keep their eyes fixed on Him.
* “It is striking that the contemporary negative view of shepherds was not taken over into the NT.” E. Beyreuther, NIDNTT, Vol. 3, 566.