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