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Are You a Pastor?

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. – 1 Peter 5:2-3
Much of my work recently at Occupy DC has been related to the ecumenical Christian presence at McPherson Square. As I have been engaged in this publicly Christian effort, folks have often asked me whether I am a pastor.
I struggle with how to answer this question. What do people mean when they say, “pastor”? Do they want to know if I am a “professional Christian”? A member of the “clergy”?(1) An authority figure in my congregation? A certified graduate of a divinity school? It feels hard to answer this question authentically without engaging in a long discussion, so I usually dodge the question with a response like, “I’m a church planter.” Yet, I remain unsatisfied with this answer. The mainstream Church has a very particular set of boxes that it puts ministry into, and it is a challenge to live into ministry that does not fall neatly within the predominant model.
Lately, I have been doing a lot of soul-searching about what God is calling me to in my work with Capitol Hill Friends. I need to learn to better explain the broader conception of ministry found among Quakers. If we do not embrace the mainstream Protestant model of pulpit ministry, then what alternative are we modeling?
Over the course of centuries, the word “pastor” has come to signify a very narrow vision of church leadership. “Pastor” has become synonymous with positional leadership, institutional authority, one-sided lecturing and monarchical control. At its worst, the pastoral system can usurp Christ’s role, getting between us and our true leader.
But this has not always been so. The word “pastor” is a translation of the Greek word poimen, which means “shepherd.” Throughout the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, God is referred to as a shepherd, caring for the flock. God is imaged as a strong, gentle caretaker; a loving herdsman who watches tenderly over his sheep.
Jesus declared that he is the good shepherd. He cares diligently for us, and we – his sheep – know his voice.(2) Jesus has taught us to model ourselves after him, becoming caretakers of one another. If we love Jesus, we will feed his sheep.(3) This is a responsibility for all of us, not just a small group of “clergy.”
I have never thought of myself as a pastor in the popular sense of the word. I have a tough time with the idea being the one man in the whole local congregation who is charged with preaching, teaching, visiting with people and providing leadership for the church. I believe this model to be damaging to the congregation, teaching them to look to a human leader rather than Christ’s immediate presence in our midst. I believe that the “head pastor” model can create a dynamic of dependency and spiritual sloth.
Not only can the pastoral system set up an unhealthy dynamic within the congregation, but it is also frequently unhealthy for the pastor herself. It is unfair to put the spiritual burdens of the entire congregation onto one person. Only Jesus can carry that load.
Despite my skepticism of the pastoral system, I am convinced that God is calling me to be a shepherd to this little flock. Just one shepherd of many, but a shepherd nonetheless. I feel inadequate to the task in many ways. I feel that I lack many of the gifts that are so important to good shepherds – especially patience. I know that I cannot be a shepherd alone, because the church needs far more gifts than God has gifted me with. Nevertheless, I will share the gifts that I have. With the Lord’s blessing and assistance, I will do my best to be a shepherd to God’s people.
I pray that God will continue to raise up shepherds for his people. If God can use me for this work, I am convinced that the Lord can use anyone he calls: Women and men, aware of our weakness and inadequacy, nonetheless called into the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Working side by side, we can become co-laborers with our head shepherd, Jesus.
1. Can someone provide a scriptural basis for the “clergy/laity” distinction?
2. John 10:11
3. John 21:15-17
  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this deeply reflective post.

    I think the traditional distinction between between “clergy” and “laity” is said to be supported by the following Scripture, where “appoint” and “give the priestly duty” are interpreted to mean “ordain”:

    “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.” (Acts 14:23)

    “He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:16)

    “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” (Titus 1:5)

    That said, I think many believe that we are all meant to be part of the priesthood–a sentiment which supports the Quaker process. Support for this is found in 1 Peter 2:5–9.

    I remember reading once that there is some issue with the translation of the word “priest” from the original Greek–a translation issue that explains some of the discord between Christian “sects.”

  • It’s always difficult when many people are thinking within a certain paradigm, and you have a quite different one. If you look at the Gospels, you’ll find that when Jesus was asked questions, most of the time he did not give a direct answer due to this paradigm problem.

    Where you need a fairly short answer, you might say something like, “I’m not employed for money by anyone as a pastor, but I try to allow God to use me in ministry.”

  • The New Testament mentions several sorts of semi-clerical rôles within the Church: the overseer (episkopos — “bishop” is a slurred mispronunciation of this word); the elder (presbyteros — “priest” is a slurred mispronunciation of this one); and the designated server (diakonos — “deacon” is a slurred mispronunciation of this one). These three do not seem to have been career positions in New Testament times, and the rôles often overlapped, as for example in Acts 20:17,28.

    The rôle of the presbyteros was originally purely pastoral; it didn’t develop into the rôle of a mediator between God and man until somewhere in the first half of the third century. That development was linked to the evolution of thinking about the so-called Eucharist, over which the presbyteros was appointed to officiate. As the Eucharist became a central sacrament of the Church in her apostasy, the presbyteros, who manipulated the bread and wine in the Eucharist, became a sacerdos, a doer or dispenser of the sacred — a priest.

    The clergy, or priesthood, were those who were ordained to be priests or bishops, so as to be qualified to manipulate the sacred. The term “clergy” reflects the fact that, as the centuries wore on, all the New Testament ideas about presbyters were displaced more and more by Old Testament ideas about the Hebrew priestly class, the tribe of Levi. The word “clergy”, plural of “cleric”, evolved out of the Greek kleros, a “lot” or “inheritance”, which referred to the special status of the tribe of Levi as described in Leviticus 18:2.

    I think it is interesting that Friends, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, created institutional positions which they explicitly called “elder” and “overseer”, which wereclearly based on the New Testament presbyteros and episkopos, and which were actually much more faithful to the New Testament conception of those rôles than the career rôles of priest and bishop which we see elsewhere in the professing world.

  • Marshall, the Eucharist was clearly central in the apostolic church, but there’s no indication that it was treated then as a sacrament dispensed by some elite class.

  • Bill, I agree. The Eucharist celebrated as a love feast seems to have been important in New Testament times, although it was not yet regarded as a sacrament in the mediaeval or modern sense. Ideas about “sacraments” — what they were and what they meant — evolved only very slowly, over centuries.

    The emergence of the bishops as a special class who were, initially, the only ones qualified to manipulate the bread and wine in the Eucharist, seems to have occurred some time in the second century — which is to say, either the subapostolic or the patristic era, depending on which end of the second century we are talking about. Which end of the second century it actually was is unclear.

    The emergence of the priests, the clergy, as a subordinate special class, who were also qualified to manipulate the sacred things, began, as I wrote, in the early third century. Originally they were only allowed to substitute for a bishop in the latter’s absence, but by the early fifth century the custom of having priests routinely administer the sacraments in outlying churches was accepted as standard even by the then-pope, Innocent I.

    I am drawing my information, incidentally, from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edn.

  • I think the idea of a lay minister is accepted in more denominations than just ours. I know an unordained (because he’s gay) Methodist minister. Perhaps you could just answer that you’re a lay minister or a voluntary minister.

  • @Mackenzie: That’s an interesting suggestion. I’d have trouble saying I was a “lay” minister, since I don’t recognize the validity of the clergy system.

    Someone yesterday asked me whether I was a priest. My response was: “I’m a Christian.”

  • Joe

    I think this just goes to show the limits to language. For me, I am disturbed by the idea that a person sees themselves as a shepherd to a flock. First, I think that role is for Jesus Christ alone. Second, it reinforces the idea that there is a first (clergy/pastor) and second (everyone else) class of Christian. I hold the (apparently deeply unpopular) view that nobody is in one or the other position. We are all to be ‘pastor’ to each other.

    I love Kierkegaard’s view that professional church leaders only create churches without Christians – the ‘laity’ think they can sit back and watch the ‘professionals’ at work, whilst the faith of the clergy slowly dies due to having to perform all the time rather than live. An exaggeration to be sure, but one with more than an ounce of truth, I feel.

    I am simply who I am. I don’t need no stinking badges.