From the Shepherd’s Nook: “Pastor” is a Banged-up, Beautiful Word

This weekly column is from John Frye.

I desire to motivate gifted leaders to consider vocational pastoral ministry, yet I do so with some seasoned hesitation. The word “pastor” is being buffeted and the vocational pastor is being urged to step into the shadows. The era of “the pastor” is over in the minds of some. To encourage young leaders to wade into these already turbulent waters requires of them backbone and vision. A lot of smart people over the years have attempted to infuse the word, the idea of pastor with relevant, yet alien meanings. Nothing can be more perplexing than the contemporary idea of “the pastor.”

In my journey as a pastor, I have been coaxed to become many things I am not. I have been exhorted to be “a coach.” Sports, that’s it! I am a coach; the church is a team. Oh, wow, how did I miss it? That will revive pastoral ministry. I have been urged to be a ecclesial CEO. Hey, Jesus was one! Business, that’s it! Now we’re chasing those BHAGS! I was advised to be a teacher and teach the whole counsel of God which meant expository preaching through the entire Bible. J. Vernon McGee, where are you? So, education! That is the answer. We just can’t tolerate biblical illiteracy. “Matthew, Mark, Luther, and John.” We’ve got to fix this with education. At another pastors’ conference, the magic bullet was counseling. The pastor is to be a non-directive, empathetic, boundary-keeping counselor. The therapeutic world will save the day and perhaps the church! Dump Richard Baxter for Carl Jung. The Bible is a veritable pharmacy for the sicknesses of mankind. There’s more. The best pastors tell funny, funny stories. Entertainment, we adore you. To pastor is to be a religious stand-up comic. “Did you hear the one about the priest, rabbi, and…?”

Not content to fix our eyes on Jesus, the Good (John 10), Great (Hebrews 13) and Chief Pastor (1 Peter 5), some have sought hard to hijack terminology from the prevailing institutions of the culture. The lingo is recruited into vocational pastoral work. Coach, CEO, Instructor, Counselor, Comic. Entrepreneur is in vogue these days. Did you know that the “apostles” were entrepreneurs? Are we ashamed of or embarrassed by biblical, pastoral terminology?

All this wordsmithery reveals the sad loss of awareness of the staggering uniqueness of the pastoral vocational. Drinking from the splashing wells of culture has poisoned the quiet waters that Jesus the Pastor offers to those who want to be like him as pastor. Some in the contemporary church need to think hard and long about this: Jesus did not say in John 10, “I am the Good King/Lord/ Priest/Apostle/ Evangelist/Teacher.” The writer of Hebrews did not title Jesus the Great Apostle/King/ Evangelist/Teacher. Peter, very familiar with Jesus, did not describe Jesus as the Chief Apostle/King/Evangelist/Prophet. With all the divine titles available to Jesus (John), Priscilla (did she write Hebrews?), and Peter, why did each select the title “shepherd”? Why were the multiply-gifted elders/overseers of Ephesus (we assumed they received the gifts of the Spirit) urged by Paul “to be shepherds of God’s flock” (Acts 20:27)? For some today that is so not right. Paul should have said, “Be prophets, apostles, evangelists, teachers of God’s flock.” Why does Peter exhort the elders “to be shepherds of God’s flock” (1 Peter 5:2)? That cannot be legitimate, either. Be pastors of God’s flock? I am so tired of hearing the shrill question: Why is this one gift so elevated?

Let’s pause a moment before the word pastor. Is shepherd just metaphorical, cute language covered in dust and cobwebs? Think. Is it possible that the numerous pastor-centered New Testament texts took deep root in the imagination of the early church leaders? Could the Church Fathers (and Mothers) have discerned that the word poimen (shepherd) wasn’t just a title elevated to some alleged position of power and control, but a word that revealed a way, a life-calling? Could the worn-out old word intentionally reflect the very heart of God-in-Jesus Christ for people, both lost and found?  In the context of leading and serving God’s people, could it be that the word and idea of shepherd carries a nuance that even Jesus himself preferred?

Here’s my hunch. I could be wrong. When we pick through the rubble of evangelical wrangling about the local church, we find a pearl of great price. Though the word “shepherd” is archaic in this digital age and the imagery very Ancient Near Eastern, not post-modern, still the word reveals energetic dimensions of the heart and actions of God for people that no other word carries. When I read the Gospels and I encounter Jesus the Pastor and when I study the Gospels as pastoral manuals (not just as preserved written strata from which to mine systematic Christology), God help me, I want to be a pastor. Pastor is such a beautiful word.

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  • John, your weekly meanderings have become a highlight for me. I thank you for the witness you are giving to the pastoral vocation. In many ways your outlook and writing reminds me of Peterson.

    I am 36 years old. I’ve been a pastor since I was in my mid twenties. For the past six years I have been fighting to simply define myself as a pastor. To undertake this vocation on its terms and not those dictated to me by culture or ministry trends. It can be lonely and soul destroying. Fellow sojouners are few an far between but luckily when they appear they are easily recognised. But, for the most part, it is hard work that most never understand. In many ways one feels like an outcast among other ministers.

    I think you’re correct, shepherd is probably the best word to use to describe what we do and how we should go about our vocation. It reminds of what Peterson says, “The job of the pastor is to get to know God very well and people very well and then to introduce the two of them.” Sounds like a shepherd to me.

    I’ve just finished my Masters thesis on Eugene Peterson’s definition of the pastoral vocation. Trolling his writings have been very encouraging and it has been good to reflect on what it means to be a pastor.


  • John, this is very, very good. Very good. My only caution would be not to separate Jesus as shepherd from Jesus as king. Rulers in the ancient world, both inside and outside of Israel, were called shepherds. When Jesus says that he is the good shepherd, he is saying, in part, that he is unlike most of the rulers of this world. He is a shepherd or king that lays down his life for the sheep. So I find myself feeling a bit uneasy with the phrase “Jesus the Pastor.” What I want to say is that the person I encounter in the Gospels is “Jesus the Shepherd King,” which I sense is a bit more closely attuned to its Middle Eastern context. Inevitably “leading” and “shepherding” need to be joined together in how we understand the pastor’s role today. We don’t both lead AND shepherd, but we are shepherd leaders, just as, hopefully, we are servant leaders. But again, excellent stuff, very much appreciated by this 59 year pastor of a small urban congregation.

  • I agree, John, and appreciate Mark’s comment here.

    I fancy myself more than anything a pastor at heart, but it never worked out for me in this life like I had dreamed and hoped. Though I do it on a small scale, still.

    I so much appreciate it when I see pastors really being pastoral.

  • ….and Rich, good point. Will be interested to see John’s response.

  • John! thanks for the passion around the word “Pastor”

    I think you bring up some excellent points and I love that we have passionate pastors out there that are trying to focus on being what Jesus has called them to be and making sure that looks like a Biblical picture of Jesus.

    A few thoughts though

    – Jesus didn’t call his main followers and sent out one’s “pastor”. What do you say about that?
    – Jesus gave us five vocations and gifts in Ephesians 5 (pastor is one of them). What do you say about the others?
    – what would you say to many people that don’t relate to or feel called as pastor but very much feel called to vocational ministry? What would you say to someone who relates more to the apostolic or evangelistic?

    I am one who thinks we have propped up pastor too much. I love pastors and think we desperately need pastors. They are part of God’s church. But pastors are not the only vocation and surely not the only thing Jesus models. Obviously, Jesus is called the good shepherd, but its a difficult argument to then make the jump that ALL people in ministry should be called pastor or lean into that office. Could it be that Jesus as a Good Shepherd has many more layers than the general American view and model of pastor?

    I appreciate the dialogue though.

    A few of us are starting a new blog calling for the release of apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic leaders. We hope, not to push pastor away, but to empower the others more fully!

    God Bless!

  • my bad…I meant Ephesians 4:9-13

  • This is a great post, and some great comments too.

    I’ve been chewing on Rich’s point about Jesus as ‘Shepherd King’, with all the sense of leading it contains. It’s probably worth mentioning explicitly that the common of garden shepherds in Judaea and Galilee 2000 years ago were not sheep herders like modern, Western sheep farmers.

    Sheep need water and green vegetation, both are plentiful in Galilee but very sparse in much of Judaea. The shepherd would have known how to identify the little gullies and dried up stream beds where greenery survives in the summer heat. He would go to those places and the sheep would follow him. He would draw water for them from the well dotted around the land near every village.

    At night shepherds would lead their sheep into low, stone-built sheep folds where the flocks would mix and huddle together for warmth. In the morning the shepherds would head off calling as they went, and their own sheep would follow them, recognising their own shepherd’s voice. Jesus said he is the Good Shepherd (he is not a hireling) and he also said he is the Gate of the sheepfold.

    He is the King (in the line of David), he is our High Priest, he is the Foundation Stone and the Capstone, and he is the Great Shepherd of the sheep.

    We, therefore, are a royal priesthood, a living temple, and a flock of following sheep!


  • MatthewS

    I like this word, shepherd. I’ve long said that a shepherd should “smell like sheep”, in contrast to those who encourage the pastor to keep a safe, sanitary distance and not get personally involved with people.

    It seems do-able to reinforce to ourselves and to our people the image of shepherd so that when folks think “pastor” they think shepherd. A shepherd is there to guide and minister to the flock.

    I do not believe this entirely precludes all those other metaphors. I think it is great when a pastor can also be a coach to his people in the sense of bringing the best out of them and cheering them on. I think it is needed for more pastors to have scholarly sensibilities. There are a lot of issues and questions discussed on social media and believers may feel that their faith has been strongly assailed. Now more than ever we need to see pastors modeling good practices in reading, research, and irenic discussion.

    As to counseling, I long for more pastoral counselors who minister effectively from the center of the local church. I see people looking for help in the church and realizing they need to go outside the church for real help. The fish rots from the head and if a pastor has no sensibility about abusive relationships it’s likely the church will sooner sweep problems under the rug than deal with them, which is not “pastoral” in the long run.

    Too many people think of The Pastor as a professional. While he/she needs to live up to reasonable expectations of professionalism, it’s not about being treated with professional respect. It’s about taking a personal interest in the individual members and the flock as a whole, with their good in mind.

  • Eric Rafferty

    I really appreciate these posts! I agree that the modern job description of a pastor has gone pretty far from what Jesus seemed to do and teach. The challenge to model our pastoral work after the good/great/chief shepherd is crucial. Thanks!

    I also want to push back a bit. I think it’s pretty hard to make a case from scripture that pastoral ministry is somehow preferred or elevated. You referred to the only two verses in the New Testament that actually give a command for pastoral work. In both Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5 the authors challenge a group of elders to shepherd God’s people. These are teams of leaders (not one individual leader) who are concerned with leading a community of Christ followers. When Paul writes to Timothy, the leader of the Ephesian church, he doesn’t command him to shepherd the church at Ephesus as he did to the elders in Acts 20. He commands him to do the work of an evangelist and a teacher (2 Tim 4:2-5).

    Shepherds like the elder team in Ephesus are totally necessary for caring for God’s people there. But aren’t evangelists also needed to reach those outside of God’s flock? And aren’t apostles necessary to plant churches beyond Ephesus? I don’t think that the 5-fold ministy of APEST in Ephesians 4 is a threat to pastoral ministry at all. It commends it! It just gives a fuller picture than one single vocation.

    I’m eager to hear your thoughts.


  • John, thanks for this post. I suspect that all of us serving as pastors could use this kind of “re-clarification”. The role, the title, the description are all things we need not run from.

  • great word eric!

  • My favorite sentence—“Drinking from the splashing wells of culture has poisoned the quiet waters that Jesus the Pastor offers to those who want to be like him as pastor.”

    I love this article. Thank you for reminding the coming generation of the high calling of pastor. The term “Pastor” has lost its luster in the contemporary Church. When I was younger I wanted to be known as a great leader or communicator…not as a great pastor. In fact, not as a pastor at all. Next year I qualify for the discount at Denny’s and now I love being known simply as Pastor Joe.

    I like what author Bill Johnson says, “We are not relevant when we mirror the world around us, we are relevant when we model what they long to become.”

    The Church and our culture need pastors now more than ever. Thank you for saying so.

  • Rich (#2),
    Yes I am aware of the royal semantic range in the ANE use of shepherd. The king aspects of shepherd uniquely apply to Jesus I think. Both being pastors and leaders dove-tail in vocational local church ministry as presented in the NT.

    Eric #9– I wrote about APEPT in previous post.

  • Jon Hietbrink


    Really grateful for this post, and appreciate the ways you are seeking to recast the oft misunderstood role of the pastor into a more biblical paradigm of shepherding–good stuff! Anytime we can “retune” ourselves to the ways Jesus (and the early apostles) spoke and thought about leadership and the church, it’s helpful, thank you! I’ve been stewing on this post all morning, and wanted to contribute a few thoughts to the conversation.

    (1) In light of the discussion about how much has been lumped together under the title of “pastor”, I’m struck by the distinctly evangelistic tone of Jesus’ words about the shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the one in Luke 15 (and echoed again in Luke 19:10 where Jesus says he came to “seek and save that which was lost”). As Beau mentioned, this would seem to suggest that “Jesus as a Good Shepherd has many more layers than the general American view and model of pastor”.

    (2) Part of what’s interesting about this line of posts is that it’s difficult to discern when we’re talking about “pastor” as a particular title in a church, and when we’re talking about the more general vocation of Ephesians 4. Perhaps it’s a comment on our over-emphasis of the role of “pastor” that we’ve taken one of the vocations of Ephesians 4 and made it the dominant word used to describe church leadership. JR Woodward (author of Creating a Missional Culture) has coined the phrase “equippers” as an umbrella term for the 5-fold gifts of Ephesians 4–this seems a helpful change to my eye to avoid “pastor” taking on more significance than it ought.

    (3) I do think a fuller manifestation of the 5-fold gifting would help ease this sense of pastorally-gifted folks being asked to operate beyond their giftings? If our churches more fully recognized/empowered apostolic, prophetic, and evangelistic gifts (in particular), would not pastorally gifted folks be more able to function in their core giftings?

    In addition, I do want to push back on your phrase the “staggering uniqueness of the pastoral vocation”, as this seems to go too far in light of the following:
    * While Jesus’ self-designation of himself as the Good Shepherd of John 10 is significant (so too Jesus’ exhortation to Peter in John 21), when examining the whole of John’s Gospel, is it not the “sentness” (i.e., apostleship) of Jesus that comes through most clearly in his self-perception? More than 40 times in 21 chapters (!), Jesus either refers to himself as “the one you have sent” or refers to God as “Him who sent me”.
    * This sense of “apostolic consciousness” seems to match that of Paul/Peter, whom seem to distinctly prefer the title apostle in their self-referential statements (though I’m no NT scholar!). In nine of the eleven letters where Paul introduces himself using a title, he chooses “apostle” and Peter follows suit in both of his letters. “Shepherd” or “Pastor” is not used.

    Again, thanks for your stimulating post, would love to hear your thinking on some of the questions being raised in the comments!


  • In Ezek. 34 God is the shepherd who will rescue the sheep that have been scattered, due to the neglect and greed of their (human) shepherds (leaders). Ezek. 34:23-24 also point to God setting up over the sheep (Israel) one shepherd, God’s servant David; this one (king) will be prince among them.

    The life of David involved two different roles of shepherd: in his early years, he was the lowly shepherd boy, doing what his older brothers would rather not do: caring for his father’s sheep. In his later years, he became the great shepherd king, caring for Israel. I think there is a similar difference in roles in the N.T.: Jesus is the great shepherd king; others who then care for the flock are his lowly servants (who are also his sheep).

    The challenge for “pastors” is that they can confuse the differences between shepherds, and see their own title as one of “leadership” (meaning authority and privilege). Certainly many of the sheep in congregations see their pastors as more like a king (speaking authoritatively from an elevated pulpit as a well-paid professional) than a servant, more like an exalted leader than a humble helper.

    Thus 1 Pet. 5:2-5 exhorts elders to tend the flock of God, not for shameful gain or in a domineering way, but by being examples (of servanthood) to the flock. Then when the chief Shepherd comes his faithful servants will be glorified (but not before). For now, show humility toward one another. In other words, the flock belongs to God and the chief Shepherd; those tending it are mere humble servants who show by example what the good shepherd wants from his sheep (and for his sheep); the sheep belong to him, the great Shepherd, not to the lowly servant shepherds.

  • Jon (#14),
    Thanks for your comments. I agree that Jesus’ use of shepherd has powerful missional overtones and this aspect of pastor needs unpacking. I don’t agree that because some pastors misuse the leadership dimensions of pastor (being elevated and authoritarian) that we have to empty the missional and leadership dimensions out of the term/metaphor “pastor.” Plus every Jesus-like pastor will operate in and with a team.

  • Dawne Piotrowski

    John, thanks for another thought-provoking post on the role of pastors. I particularly resonate with your suggestion that “shepherd” is not simply a title but a way of life. That is how I have felt over the past 10+ years since recognizing this call but being denied the opportunity (until recently) to pursue it vocationally. I may have been denied the “title” pastor, but I could no more avoid shepherding people than Jeremiah could avoid prophesying – Jeremiah 20:9!

  • Dan

    Hey John! I have been thinking about this very thing often – and in the new Outreach Magazine wrote an article on this very topic. I love the word “pastor” in terms of what it means and the way people are impacted by pastors. But I had an incident happen a couple of years ago, when two college age that I saw on the street in our town – said to me “You’re our pastor”. But I had no idea who they were, as our group was 1,000 people and I was the teacher on Sundays so they knew me that way. But they then had the impression I was their “pastor”. I know that pastoring happens when you teach, and pastoring happens when you make decisions to guide a “flock” etc. But to me, pastoring means relationship, knowing how someone is doing, guidance personally, praying for specific things in someone’s life, and noticing if they aren’t around.

    What bothered me the most was thinking these college students believe they are “pastored” when they really weren’t as I was a teacher for them (and again, I know that through teaching pastoring does happen), but not relational with them. And the ones in our church who were truly “pastoring” them, their small group leader and the ones who interact and care for them personally weren’t seen as their “pastor” – but their “small group leader”. But they were really their “pastor”…… so I stopped using the title “pastor” for myself a couple years ago. I want those in the church who truly are pastoring, to not feel they aren’t because of only the paid staff person having the title. I still use it when it is needed to explain my role, but now I just say “I am on staff… and my role is leading the mission and teaching of the church” .

    So as you say, it is a precious “beautiful word” – but in our church we want people who truly are pastoring not to feel that because they aren’t called “pastor” that they aren’t. And I don’t want someone who isn’t connected or relationally involved with a someone mentoring or guiding them personally or in a smaller group to feel like they are “pastored” by simply coming to the bigger meetings and having someone with a title “pastor” teach.

    Any thoughts on this? Again, I am not against the title, but wonder if we do a disservice by using the title and thus defining it to people so they think they have a “pastor” when they really don’t, but have more of a teacher (and again, I know there is pastoring involved in teaching). The person who is then personally noticing and shepherding how they are doing individually aren’t known as “pastors” but “small group leaders”. So this ended up causing me not to use the title for myself too much anymore and teach our church the need for pastoring in their lives but that means getting in sized-groups where that can happen more to what I believe the word “pastor” means in relationship with individuals and caring for them – not just teaching them.

  • John,
    I was directed here by another of my favorite blogs – The Internet Monk – and am so glad I followed the lead. Thanks for bringing out the duct tape and the dust rag. I am sure many pastors (and those who love them) who read this will be encouraged. I am in a ministry of hope and restoration to pastors and they need to know that they are not only following in the footsteps of great men in this noble calling, but following the Chief Shepherd Himself.