What is a Pastor?

One of my teachers asked us to consider this question before the first day of class. Considering, I am forced to admit that: “I don’t know.” I have interviewed for the position of pastor, I have taken classes on giving pastoral care, I have read books, and I have read scripture — but I cannot see how everything ties together.

When I have interviewed for pastor, the congregation was looking for a preacher. Judging from the words I hear people say about preaching — they want someone to profess God’s Word so that by hearing people may believe (Romans 10:14). If I go deeper, they are looking for someone to bring them God’s grace. Preaching is to be sacramental but, any other sacraments which are administered (Eucharist, Baptism, et c.) are duties of the Pastor.

As a Quaker, I believe that God administers Grace generously, and not by the whims of a human dignitary. I have the same difficulty with “the message” being the means of distributing God’s grace as I do with the Eucharist as THE means of grace. While I (personally) recognize the value of a prophetic message — I do see it as the work of God’s grace, I do not believe that God limits grace to what an official can distribute (whether the sacrament is physical or audible). God’s grace is more than enough, and does not need to be rationed.

As a reader of scripture, I notice that pastors are listed beside ‘Apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers’ (Ephesians 4:11) If the preacher is professing God’s Word that is the work of a prophet. The language of Ephesians does not imply that the pastor is also an evangelist, or also a preacher — to me, it implies the work of a pastor is distinct from teaching, preaching, evangelizing, and missionary work.

From classes, books, and experience with pastors I have learned the real work professional Pastors do during the week is what we call Pastoral Care. There is no doubt that there have been caregivers as long as there has been a church. When I read scripture, I see both deacons and elders offering care — also, I see Jesus offering care.

Friends everywhere used to have a pastoral care committee called “Overseers”. After the pastoral system, most Yearly Meetings have dropped overseers as no longer necessary — unfortunately, this means that the job description of ‘pastor,’ when clearly given includes EVERY task the pastor as employee has absorbed (whether preaching, or pastoral care, or evangelism, or executive secretary, et c.) Fortunately some Yearly Meetings have found a reason to keep Overseers. Baltimore Yearly Meeting has a description of the duties of “Overseers” which fits my understanding of the current views on Pastoral Care.

4. Overseers
Care of the individual members of the Meeting is the responsibility of the Committee of Overseers. Overseers should encourage each member to participate fully in the Meeting community’s life and to perform faithfully his or her Meeting commitments. To this end, Overseers should:
*Be acquainted with all members and regular attenders, and be aware of needs for encouragement and support.
*Receive, consider and recommend Meeting action on requests for and withdrawals from membership.
*Help prospective members and new members to understand Friends’ principles and practices.
*Identify members’ special gifts and talents. Seek clearness on the special nature of the gift and the way it is to be recognized. When clearness is attained, forward any appropriate recommendations to the meeting for business and any appropriate Quarterly or Yearly Meeting Committee.
*Assist in setting up clearness and support committees for those who need or request them.
*Provide clearness committees to assist couples contemplating marriage under the care of the Meeting7.
*Assist with arrangements in time of death.8
*Encourage visiting and community life among the Meeting’s members, and see that ill, troubled or needy Friends are visited and helped.
*Get in touch with absent members and keep contact with non-resident members.
*Help to reconcile differences which may arise in the Meeting.
Many duties of Overseers are delicate and personal. In such areas, the committee’s proceedings are kept confidential and the dignity of the persons concerned is respected.

Again, I see this ministry as necessary however, I protest that the term “Pastor” (Shepherd) contains the very idea of herding. Pastoral Care seems to be a ministry to the individual and not the community at large.

When I look at scripture I see shepherd used in various ways. I see literal shepherds (children and the lowest quality of workers) who watch for danger and try to keep the flocks from being scattered, some poetic references comparing God to a Shepherd. I see in the New Testament, Jesus identifying with the Divine Shepherd, and a passing comment that God gives some to shepherd God’s Church. I am not sure how much Pastors are expected to be like the Good Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep. (John 10:6-18) Until I know this, I don’t know for certain what the work of pastor is, except of course to try to keep the flock together and to bring it back together if it is scattered.

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4 comments on “What is a Pastor?

  1. Joshua Brown says:

    I have always been drawn to two scriptures — John 21:15-19 (“Feed my sheep”) and I Thessalonians 5:12-23 (“admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them”, etc.)

    But there’s all kinds of other stuff besides giving sermons, making pastoral visits, and doing administrative stuff. In my work as a pastor, I have delivered babies, testified at a murder trial, carried a dead body out of a house, heard people confess to every kind of sin and human brokenness, fought against division in the local congregation and in the denomination, written 4 books and dozens of articles, unstopped toilets, set up thousands of chairs, raised money, prayed for missionaries, organized dances and social events, balanced on unsteady ladders to change light bulbs 30 feet in the air, organized relief efforts, taught classes, sung silly songs with a red foam rubber nose on my face, held the hands of people as they died, and hundreds of other things.

    The real job is often just “being there” with people as they try to find God in their lives. Listening is often more important than preaching, and saying “I don’t know” is often more helpful than repeating an empty platitude.

    • Unfortunately, the books don’t tell us about the ‘all kinds of stuff’. God help us as we encounter it… and God help me with “Be patient with all of them.” Patience is often difficult.

  2. On my site and in my church (http://pattersonavenuebaptist.com) we’ve been addressing topics like how to effectively communicate the gospel in a secular world; how we deal with a religiously pluralistic world (we are in a predminately jewish neighborhhood, have many Muslim business owners, and have a hindu place of worship just a few miles up the road – but the majority in our community have never been in any church – nor their parents before them); plus we are exploring how to help the incresing numbers of poor and homeless ion the Richmond city limits.

    • Good luck. Richmond Indiana is less diverse than Richmond VA sounds — but, the world is changing. In school we talk about “Contextual theology” — it sounds challenging, but it is fun to think that we are doing theology.

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