Friday, April 08, 2016

The Pastor as Image-Bearer

I'm a pastor. Most professions nowadays are governed by contracts, but pastorates, though they often include contracts, are largely governed by expectations. The expectations of a local congregation are important (how much time should the pastor be giving to visitation? how should he dress? how long should his sermons be?), but just as important are the larger cultural expectations of pastoring that grow up within national and denominational Christian movements. In much of modern American evangelicalism, the expectation is that pastors will act like business CEOs. Pastors should be planning growth strategies, making outreaches more effective, overseeing ministry teams, developing leadership in the local church, designing lists of "core values," crafting "mission statements" and "purpose statements," and using sermons to "cast vision" (whatever that might mean).

Despite my use of disparaging quote marks and parenthetical snark, all of these things are really good when undertaken in the right way, and a lot of pastors do them quite well. CEO-style pastors are bearing fruit for the Kingdom all over the country. But if that's the current model, then I'm a Model T. Not only is the CEO model not to my personal taste, I'm also going to suggest that it's just not enough. The pastorate encompasses far, far more than statistics and strategy sessions, more than building growing congregations and thriving organizations. Pastoring is about standing in the place of Christ himself towards one's congregation and one's community, being an under-shepherd of the Shepherd and a true Christian among Christians.

The first post-biblical description of pastoral ministry comes from the letters of Ignatius, the bishop (in modern evangelicalese, "head pastor") of the church of Antioch at the end of the first century AD. Sometime in the opening decade of the second century, he was arrested and brought to Rome in chains, where he suffered martyrdom. Along the way from Antioch to Rome, he penned letters to the nearby churches, urging them to respect their bishops, because they were symbolic of Christ's own presence toward the church. Ignatius himself came to be associated with the nickname "the God-Bearer." This idea of pastors-as-Christ is usually seen (positively by Catholics, negatively by Protestants) as an affirmation of a hierarchical division of power between clergy and laity. But I think Ignatius was getting at something more than mere organizational structure. When we think of Christ and what he represents, the raw power of his status over his followers is probably not the first thing that jumps to mind. So if pastors are symbolic of the presence of Christ, it must mean more than mere leadership.

First and foremost, the task of a pastor is to love. This was Christ's great command to his followers: "Love one another as I have loved you." And pastors, as exemplary Christians ("exemplary" in the sense of intentionally living as an example of a true Christian life to the watching eyes of the flock), must follow that command above all others. All the gifts of preaching, teaching, leadership, counseling, and organizational ability, so prized in pastors, pale in comparison to the measure of a pastor's love for the congregation under their care. And when we speak of love, we don't simply mean the warm feelings of emotional fondness--that sort of love will very soon give out when one is faced with the rigors and trials of pastoral ministry--but rather of a consistent resolution to act lovingly towards the flock because of God's great love for them.

Flowing out from that first imperative of love, we come to the instruction given by Christ to Peter, the prototypical pastor of early Christianity: "Feed my sheep." To love the flock of Christ is to feed them, and that feeding requires deep and diligent study of the Bible and careful exposition of its message, as well as the regular provision of the ordinances that Christ instituted for the building up of his people. But it also means that a pastor is giving time to become the sort of person who knows where to lead the sheep when they need food, how to navigate the dangerous territory of varying theologies and disputed interpretations and flat-out misinformation that so floods the pasture-fields of our Christian world. To do that, a pastor must be a student, a learner, a careful disciple who is willing to sit at the feet of the great theologians, teachers, and mystics of the church throughout the ages. Only as a diligent student will a pastor know the depth and richness of the message that he bears; only then will he be able to lead Christ's sheep down the old, timeworn trails that lead to the best grazing-grounds and purest waters. 

Let's take it one step further, though. A pastor needs not only to know the truths and practices that will feed the sheep; he needs to know how those truths apply to the world in which we live today. We are not purely spiritual beings, floating in the ether of the heavenly spheres, to whom mere knowledge of timeless truths is enough for sustenance. We need to put them into action in our day-to-day lives. To extend the metaphor of shepherding: it's as if the landscape of our pasturage changes with every passing season, and so the shape of the land on which St. Peter grazed his sheep is wildly different than the land on which my sheep graze, and there are new wolves lurking in the bushes, scattered amidst the age-old dangers that have always been there. To be prepared for these things, a pastor needs to be a student not just of sacred Scripture and tradition, but of the world. Pastors would do well to be reading broadly in science, history, philosophy, and literature, to be students of the human condition across all ages and in the present moment. Only then will they have the sharpness of eye and clearness of discretion to see the dangers even before they materialize, and to prepare the way for the flock to safely pass them by.

It should become clear, then, that one of the great callings of the pastor is toward personal depth. This is an element that can often be left behind by the organization-oriented, success-driven business models of contemporary church life. No matter how well-organized a church might be, no matter how inspiring its "vision" might be, that will do the flock of Christ little good if, when they come to drink, they find only the brackish shallows of a narrow soul.

There was a day when pastors were expected to be among the most broadly-informed members of a local community, men of letters, who could speak to any situation with the clarity of wisdom when called upon to do so. There was a day when pastors were poets and historians and amateur scientists, cultivating a love for all of human experience and all of God's world simply for the sake of loving it, and for teaching the flock of Jesus Christ how to love it too. Let's bring back that kind of pastor.