What is a pastor? It is commonplace to define the words minister, pastor, evangelist, and preacher as labels for anyone who wishes to speak in the name of God. Unfortunately, doing this gives too vague a definition and makes the work done as a pastor as somehow marginal. I want to define the term in this column because many preachers and teachers wish to take that title on themselves without being responsible for the work the title implies.
Evangelists often call themselves “pastor” as in, “I am Pastor John Wesley.” In fact, an evangelist is not a pastor. If a title is given then one should say, “I am Evangelist John Wesley or Reverend John Wesley.” The denomination in which I was raised often referred to the preacher as a “minister.” Usually, the term is given for the person who serves in a ritualistic capacity. The person who officiates at a wedding or funeral is often called a minister.
The word “pastor” is another word for “shepherd.” A pastor has been given charge of the material and spiritual health of a church. The mainline Protestant churches as well as the Catholic and Orthodox churches refer to their clergy given this kind of responsibility as “pastor.” Being a pastor is a task, a job if you will. The United Methodist Book of Discipline gives a very long job description for a pastor. An ordained person may be a pastor whereas a licensed person must serve as an appointed pastor to do the job. I am aware everything is more nuanced than I am saying here. That is the basic gist of the matter.
Only the Christian Churches use this term for their leaders. The only exception that comes to mind is the President of the Republic of Ireland. I am told the Gaelic term translates as “chief sheep herder.” And heaven knows being a pastor is often like herding sheep. Why? Because the sheep tend to wander into areas that are not good for them. Years ago, another clergy person that was not serving a church said that all the lay members of a congregation want is for the pastor to confirm their prejudices. He was correct for many people. Recently, those people have found confirmation for their prejudices in various media. The church does not become a priority for such people. And they like sheep wander off.
Both Jesus and St. Peter use the word shepherd to describe the work of Jesus in the church. Jesus claimed that he was the true shepherd who would call the flock to him and lay down his life for the sheep (John 10:1-18). St. Peter asks the elders who have charge of the “flock of God” to care for those in their charge. Pastors are not to serve for the paycheck. They are not to serve for human glory. Pastors carry out the ministry to the lay people to train them in ministry to others (Ephesians 4:11-12).
Something appears to have gone wrong. The flock of God cannot listen to the voice of the Chief Shepherd. There are too many voices, often competing voices, that so many people want to be true. Why? Many of these voices flatter and stroke the egos of people who then refuse to listen to another voice. Pastors are concerned that the platform from which they speak and lead simply isn’t big enough or shiny enough. Most Christians have listened to serpents and hid from the voice of God.
Pastors often feel isolated. The congregations they serve are confused. Aging congregations are primarily made up of people who live in fear. The outside world scares them. It is not because they wish to see an improved world either. It is because they wish for a world that they thought they saw as children. Younger members of the congregation are expected to either buy into the nostalgia or go elsewhere. And many younger people go elsewhere. Why?
The dying church is both in the world and of it. Those people who are seeking an authentic spiritual life see in the church the same materialism and consumer mentality that governs the rest of the world. The dying church makes the pastor feel isolated. When the pastor surrenders to the world, then the congregation is definitely lost and ineffective.
I know many Pastors who are frustrated and teetering on the edge. They are ready to reject the churches. They are ready to join “the dones” who have already walked away. It is a dire situation. And few clergy are equipped to handle it. What kind of exhausted surgeon, covered in blood and lacking the tools necessary to operate and give care, would be expected to continue? The answer is all of them are expected to do so. The same holds true for Pastors. Morally injured Pastors fill meetings, conferences, and continuing education programs only to walk away with nothing helpful to them. They have done this for centuries.
The film Calvary comes to mind. It is about a good priest who pastors a parish that is very normal. The difference is that he is under a death sentence. A member of his parish intends to kill him and told him so. The movie shows the priest go through a very difficult week. He tells his bishop what is happening. The bishop can do nothing. The priest starts to run away towards the end of the movie. His murder is not very dramatic. He doesn’t die at the altar during mass. He dies while asking his killer not to do what he intends.
I see a very good question being asked in the film. What would happen if he quit or never took up the task to begin with. What would these people be like? They would be the same. They would do the awful things they always do. But, in those times when they were nearing despair, where would they go for help? Whether they recognize it or not, they need the pastor.
Being a pastor is a calling to serve, to suffer with, to love, to be merciful, and to give the message of liberation to people called Christians. Pastors have a charge, a task, a job that requires the spiritual strength and faith to fail and be victorious.