I retired this past year after almost forty years of vocational ministry. Most of it was spent as a pastor but some of it was in a para-church organization. My joke has been that I have been a professional Christian for almost forty years, that I have been paid to be good, but on my retirement, I had to learn to be good for nothing. Very clever, Len. But that raises an interesting question – what is a pastor and what should he be doing, what does it look like to be good. During my years as a pastor, I served in five different congregations. With each I was given a job description of what the congregation’s expectations were. There were also other unspoken expectations that we both knew and accepted.
One expectation is that the pastor would be the leader. While it is true that pastors must have some skills in leading people, I’m not convinced that it is the most important dimension of his ministry. The pastor must also be an administrator. Again, I’m not sure if it is the most important task of pastoral ministry, but certainly important and necessary. The pastor is also expected to be the officiant at rites of passages like infant dedications or baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Again, important but still not the most important. Another of course is the ministry of preaching. I believe the same could be said of this pastoral responsibility. So, what is the Biblical job description?
I think the best word to be applied to being a pastor is the word shepherd. Before being a leader, an administrator and teacher, the pastor is a shepherd. Eugene Peterson, in his trilogy on pastoral ministry said that the primary responsibility of a pastor is the “cure of souls”. He used the words in its older meaning of care for rather than healing of a disease. In a previous generation pastors, on visiting their people, would ask a question like “How is it with your soul?” Peterson wrote that often “running the church” got in the way of soul care.
There is an important distinction to be made – we are under-shepherds, working under the authority of the chief shepherd, Jesus. I think Peter described it well. 1 Peter 5:1-4 (NIV) “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”
I saw this best illustrated a number of years ago when Iona and I took a short vacation to Medicine Hat, Alberta. We went to a demonstration of sheep dogs showing off their skills. They had to herd a flock of sheep from one end of the pasture to an enclosure at the other end. The dogs were sent off, the sheep were released from their pens and the handler then instructed the sheepdog in what to do using only a whistle. Each whistle had a specific meaning – move them to the left or right or bring in a stray. We had someone approach us to ask us if we had dogs in the competition and when we told her that we had come as observers, she sat with us and explained what was going in. As I watched, my eyes began to open. As a pastor I was like one of those herding dogs. I listened intently to signals from the Chief Shepherd and tried to follow the directions Jesus was giving me.
Now what does this mean when it comes to “rubber on the ground” ministry? It means that I will be praying for my people. I have said that we are each in one of three places – we are in a time of trouble, we have just been through a time of trouble or there is a time of trouble ahead of us. I won’t know where my people are on this continuum, but I will be praying for them.
It also means that I will be a symbol of Christ’s incarnation as I visit with people in their homes or in places like hospitals. I have sat beside hospital beds as people prepared to take their final breaths and with their families as they tried to prepare for that event.
As I prepared to preach, I have spent time in prayer asking God what my people needed to hear from His Word. I also listened to what questions people were asking. Should I be vaccinated? What is a proper Christian position on war, especially in the context of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine? Does the Bible have anything to say about homosexuality? Sermon preparation is more than simply writing out the words I want to speak on Sunday, it is preparing my soul for the responsibility of standing before a group of people to speak on the Lord’s behalf.
I also have had the responsibility of guiding people on their journeys to Christian maturity. Also, very important is caring for my own soul and recognizing that I have to model what I say I believe.
Pastors are a gift to the church. Every Christian needs a pastor, a shepherd who will, one way or another, ask “How is it with your soul?” I don’t often quote people like Joe Cocker, but I think his song got it right – “I get by with a little help from my friends.” Find some spiritual friends who can help you traverse your journey across life, find others that you can guide on their journeys, and remember to Keep the Son in Your Eyes.