What does it Mean to be ‘Pastoral’?

I shall fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and staff, they comfort me.
— Psalm 23v4

Language is a slippery thing. If you’re not careful, sloppy usage can cause words to change their commonly accepted meanings until they mean something completely different to what they are supposed to: just take ‘peruse’ and ‘nonplussed’ as two examples of words that are now often used to mean something different to their dictionary definition, indeed, sometimes the complete opposite (here’s one great example of Norm MacDonald correcting James Corden on his usage of the latter word). To non-pedants who understand that language evolves and dictionaries are not so much written to define words as to describe the ways in which words are used, this may not seem like anything to get worked up about. In theology, however, words are what we work with, and therefore knowing what they mean is a pretty big deal. The word in question today is ‘pastoral’.

One of the disadvantages of the English language’s vast hybrid vocabulary is that sometimes we lose sight of the conceptual connections between terms that are more obvious in other languages, losing sight of the fact that certain words are in fact metaphors. ‘Pastor’ is a prime example of such a term. While the term ‘pastoral’ might still be used as an adjective to describe that which is related to the care of sheep, or country life in general, the word ‘pastor’ is used only of the clergy. So it is that we use the Latin rooted word ‘pastor’ to refer to church leaders, and Anglo-Saxon rooted word ‘shepherd’ to describe people who look after sheep — and in so doing, we lose the metaphor and the fact that the biblical term is one and the same. This struck me forcefully in 2018, when I visited the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd of San Sebastián, or, in Spanish, the ‘Buen Pastor’. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the Good Pastor.

With that in place, we can start to look at what is means to be a shepherd in the Scriptures. Here, the life and writings of Moses and David become key to understanding the some fundamental aspects of ‘pastoral’ work. These two men followed a similar career path: shepherd to ruler of Israel. Psalms 77 and 78 pick up on these two, with the final verse of 77 describing Yahweh, the Shepherd of Israel, leading the flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron, and the final verses of 78 saying the same of David. How might we summarise the pastoral ministries and lives of Moses and David? Firstly, they fed the people the pure word of God, giving Torah and Psalms to guide Israel in worship and holy living. Secondly (though, in fact, first chronologically), they delivered Israel from their enemies: the Egyptians and the Philistines. Fortunately, the first aspect is still well-remembered — most books on pastoral leadership include a section on the role of the pastor as a teacher (it would be a catastrophic oversight if they didn’t: St Paul puts the roles together as one in Ephesians 4v11). The second aspect is more easily forgotten, and that is what I want to draw some attention to here.

When offering his credentials before fighting Goliath, David speaks of his pastoral experience: ‘But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him.’ (1 Sam. 17v34-35) When singing of the good shepherd, Yahweh, he says that Yah’s rod and staff comforts him. Why would a rod and staff comfort a sheep? Because when you are in the valley of the shadow of death, you want your shepherd to have something with which to hit wolves. In the New Testament, this imagery is often employed: the overseer/bishop/presbyter/priest is the pastor, that is, shepherd, the false teacher is the wolf, perhaps appearing in sheep’s clothing. How does Paul charge the overseers of the flock in Ephesus? ‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock’. What is the warning he gives? ‘I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock’ (Acts 20v28-29).
This brings us to the question at the head of this post: what does is mean to be pastoral? I asked this question of a few people at my church, and the general response was something along the lines of, being kind, compassionate, nurturing, ready to listen, a shoulder to cry on, the sort of person you could go to for a cup of tea and chat about your problems. Indeed, the way we talk about ‘pastoral care’ or ‘pastoral support’ is generally therapeutic. All of the above qualities are still good. But here’s the question: do they belong in the same conceptual field as the word ‘pastoral’?

Following the examples of Moses, David, Jesus, Peter, and Paul, and keeping Ephesians 4’s title of ‘shepherd-teacher’ firmly in mind, we can safely say that the primary role of the pastor is to teach. The aforementioned shepherds all teach their flocks. This is what is means to feed Christ’s sheep, as Peter was charged to do. The ability to teach is the only qualification of competency in the lists Paul gives in the pastoral epistles, which suggests that all the virtues of the pastor are to be put into the service of this task: teaching the flock. In this, however, we ought to note that teaching the Church is a double-edged pastoral task — through teaching, the pastor both feeds sheep and drives away wolves.

For those of us in the Church of England, we ought to be able to see now just how distorted the word ‘pastoral’ has become. The latest General Synod saw long debate concerning blessings offered for same-sex ‘marriages’ and civil unions, and the official statement published afterwards contained this line: ‘[The forthcoming report] will offer the fullest possible pastoral provision without changing the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony for same-sex couples through a range of draft prayers…’ As a child, I remember being nonplussed and scandalised upon my discovery that shepherd’s pie was made with lamb, and a similar feeling arose within me upon reading this. It appears that the phrase ‘pastoral provision’ has come to resemble something more like shepherd’s pie than lying in green pastures: the shepherds have handed the sheep over to the sins and heresies that would devour them, and called it ‘pastoral provision.’ Language is a funny thing. This sentence is only intelligible in a church in which ‘pastoral’ has taken on a therapeutic meaning, a church in which ‘pastoral’ means comforting and affirming, a church in which the Biblical imagination of pastoring has been lost.

A final reason why this matters is that a more biblical image of the pastoral responsibility will simultaneously lift burdens from pastors and release more of the laity to exercise their gifts in the body. What I mean is this: as long as ‘pastoral care’ is the name given to the provision of a sympathetic, listening ear, and some degree of counselling or direction, we will always look to the pastor to do it. But the reality is that most churches have several other people who could do that just as well as the ordained pastor. To speak personally and anecdotally, there are at least half a dozen people at my church that I could go to for that sort of comfort or counselling — as it happens, one of them is my pastor, but that means that the majority are not, nor are they even considering going into the ministry. It appears to me that our personal relationships have become thinner across the board, leading people to look to trained professionals to help them deal with emotional problems. Indeed, I have a hunch that we as a society would need far fewer therapists if everyone had one or two real friends. The form this takes in the church is that more emotional burdens are placed on the pastor’s shoulders. Over time, people think of the pastor as the one in the church who is there to help them with their emotional problems, and then come to regard ‘emotional support’ and ‘pastoral work’ as different names for the same thing. Recovering the distinction would free men and women who are so gifted to do this nurturing work as fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers in the faith, and it would free up the pastor space to exercise that chief duty of teaching the Word. As I said, there are least half a dozen people I could go to for emotional support, but if I really wanted to gain some clarity on a point of doctrine, list of people I would go to for illumination shrinks to three: all of them ordained clergymen, trained and charged to instruct the flock in the faith.Of course there are others in the church with a decent grasp of theology, but they don’t have the same education and charge as those ordained as pastors.

Of course more could be said. And I hope it goes without saying that no one wants a pastor with no emotional intelligence or ability to comfort, console, or support. The point is rather that these aspects of the pastor’s vocation must be subordinated to those tasks that are more properly implied in the pastoral metaphor: the feeding of sheep and driving away of wolves through the teaching of the Scriptures.

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