“What is a pastor?”
Good question. Heck, I don’t even know…..and I’m a pastor. So I figured I’d recall some of the folks I come across in my daily life, those who know I’m a pastor, and see what they think:
My wrestlers: “Hey coach, am I supposed to call you Father Fuller?”
Um, I’m not a catholic priest, or an orthodox one for that matter. But it makes sense that people think pastors are priests – they perform certain religious acts. They provide certain religious services.
We put on and provide worship services. We baptize people; we give communion. We visit the sick and the shut-ins when requested. We do weddings and funerals. We teach bible study classes. And for my wrestlers, I’m sort of the “religious expert in residence” that answers all their questions about religion.
I don’t think that’s what a pastor is – it’s what a pastor does, sort of – but I’m ok with that.
What I’m not ok with…is the notion that as a pastor, I’m a congregation’s “shepherd.”
It’s the prevalent image used by CEO-minded pastors all over. Here’s just one example. This takes on all sorts of names: “Shepherd-leader,” “We want you to shepherd us,” “Tend to the flock…” and for me, it’s more than a bit nauseating. As a pastor, let me say that I am NOT your shepherd…and you DON’T WANT me, or any other pastor for that matter, to be your shepherd.
1. Sheep are one of the most helpless and stupidest creatures on the planet. While we didn’t raise sheep on our farm growing up, I remember a nearby neighbor having them. They seriously can’t do much at all – they have no awareness or sense of anything – they just follow along in the flock, eat what you give them, will simply freeze when scared. And let’s not forget the things are pretty much blind.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think you want me thinking of you that way. And I don’t want to think of you like that. If a sheep is what your image of what a life of faith is about – then you’re selling yourself short. You’re dumb, lazy, incapable of thinking anything on your own. Discipleship isn’t an active life of loving God and your neighbor, it’s doing what you’re told.
2. Shepherds aren’t exactly gentle with the sheep. You might think that the staff the shepherd’s carrying is sort of endearing, but think again. They don’t gently guide the sheep. The poke, prod, yank, and beat the sheep with it. Gotta keep em in line ya know. Gotta keep em within the flock. Gotta keep em going the direction the shepherd wants them to go.
And to think of a pastor that way is dangerous. It’s dangerous because then the church and ministry is about the pastor deciding everything. It’s dangerous because then the assumption is the pastor is the only one who is communicating truth – which usually means the pastor’s interpretation of the bible is passed off as truth. The pastor’s leadership then is all about influence – influencing people to accept their interpretation of the bible and God, to do ministry according to their vision, and to live according to their view of what it means to be a Christian.
The pastor as shepherd means you NEED the pastor – and you can’t live out Christian faith without their influence. It also means that as shepherd, it’s assumed the pastor needs no shepherding themselves – in other words, the pastor’s word is not to be challenged, and you can essentially justify overworking your pastor because he never needs tending to.
3. There’s only ONE Shepherd. And the Bible tells us that’s Jesus. A quick word search of the New Testament shows that the Shepherd of humanity, of the church, of the disciples…is Jesus and only Jesus. Humans are made overseers (Acts 20:28) by the Holy Spirit, but they are never themselves the Shepherd.
Jesus as the Shepherd keeps ALL accountable – pastors and communities of faith alike. It’s means that the pastor can NEVER be a shepherd….and their leadership should never use the shepherd model. In short, it’s crap.
So, what the heck is a pastor then?
Here’s my take: I offer this quote from author Jaco Hamman.
“As a congregational leader, you are called to mature into an authentic person secure enough to enter deep into your emotional, spiritual, and relational life. Achieving this ability allows you to create space for friends and strangers as you welcome them to the body of Christ and beckon them on a similar journey into themselves and towards a deepening understanding of God.”
In other words, you are inviting others to take part in a life of Christian discipleship that you yourself have taken part in…..but unique to their own personhood. As pastor, you are called to fulfill a unique role in walking alongside people in this life of discipleship.
Another example: going back to my wrestlers, I hope to invite them to take part in the sport I love so much. I walk alongside them in their own journey through the sport – the discipline of competition and training; the physical, mental, and emotional battles. I can’t do that for them; I can only hope to help them find their way in the sport, and be present and support them when they want to give in and give up on it.
Maybe that’s as clear as mud….but it sure as hell beats being someone’s shepherd. Besides, sheep are stinky…….