What does it mean to call oneself a “pastor”?

I am about to be ordained and inducted (in the terms used by the United Reformed Church) to a “pastorate”, so I must be going to become a “pastor”. I accept this designation and role as a loyal servant of the Church but I have struggled to understand what in can mean to me, concretely and as the human being I am.

The word “pastor” derives directly from the word for shepherd in Latin. To be the pastor of a church stands, etymologically, directly in a line from the Biblical image of the King of Israel as the shepherd of the people. It is a royal metaphor indicating that this person stands above and apart, is indisputably in charge, but at the same time cares for and protects those above whom he (this is a King remember) is placed. It is an authoritarian and hierarchical image, in its Old Testament roots.

It is possible to argue that Jesus transforms this image through its conflation with that of the servant of the people (derived from Isaiah) but to me it is impossible to completely remove the hierarchical aspects of this way of understanding the ministerial role. All the various sheep/flock ways of representing Christian relationships have always been a difficult matter (after all shepherds sometimes eat sheep, do they not?)

This is made somewhat more palatable by our also adopting sacrificial images for Jesus, he is the lamb slaughtered as well as the shepherd. These paradoxical tensions in the structures of Christian thought, practice and experience give us space to develop, so long as we’re reasonably disciplined about them.

All this is background to some reactions to a very good book on pastoral ministry by Frank Wright, sent to me last week as an ordination gift by John Young, my tutor at the Scottish United Reformed and Congregational College.

This book was greatly helpful to me by placing the pastoral role neatly in the context of Christian discipleship, that of the pastor and that of those to whom he or she minsters. The key pastoral task, in Wright’s account, is to enable, in the everyday things of people’s lives, an encounter with Christ (or a vision of God, in Wright’s favoured phrase). This helps me because it shifts the emphasis from making people happier, more content, or healthier, to the God-relation, to incorporation in Christ.

He sees the pastor as working with those among whom he or she serves to assist them to see where God comes to meet them. Although Wright doesn’t stress the centrality of Word and Sacraments in his book I don’t see him as denying them, what he focusses on, because of the subject of his book, is the other places where the same task is undertaken.

He writes about “counselling” type encounters but also about “education”. He tries to bring out the ways in which all kinds of activities can be opportunities to develop in faith, if one has confidence that any real and honest striving with experience will bring us to Christ, in the end. All this is good for me, since it allows me to begin to make my peace with aspects of ministry from which I have been put off by a humanistic appropriation of them although I can see that they are essential to any really faithful approach to serving Jesus in the ministry.

Another aspect of Wright’s book that appealed to me was his emphasis on the mutuality of ministry. I know very well that I will depend on and learn from the two congregations among whom I have come at least as much as they will on me. I’m new to this role and anyway ministry cannot be separated (in my view of it) from the Church which alone can claim to be Christ’s body.

During my training I have often come to some insight or some glimpse of Christ’s presence through the agency of someone to whom I am, on the face of it, ministering. I hope and expect that the people of Potters Bar and Brookmans Park will be teachers and guides as I embark on the next phase of my disciple journey, as well as hoping and expecting that I will have things to bring to them.

I accept the designation pastor, with its connotation of kingship and power, but I know that I do not rule and I do not oversee the members of the congregations. Shepherding in the way of Christ is not shepherding in the way of David. Jesus took that Davidic role and, in his ministry and on the cross, he changed it. We who follow him cannot be him and shouldn’t imagine that we can, but we can and should learn from and seek to imitate him. To be a pastor in the image of Christ is to serve and all Christians have that responsibility.

1 comment
  1. I think as well that through prayer you will begin to discern how God wants you to pastor with your unique blend of gifts in a way that will be totally unique. Each shepherd will have had his or her own style and emphasis, and I will pray for you to discover and continue to develop your own. God bless Nick.

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