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.