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jesus the radical pastor | exploring the life and mission of the 1st century Jesus for our 21st century

I have been fortunate to serve as “teaching pastor” of a large church and now to be serving as the sole (no pun intended) pastor of a small church. Caveat: this is my story and I do not offer it as a template for anyone else. I believe that there are energetic kingdom affinities attached to Jesus’ description of his Shepherd role: “I know my sheep ‘by name’”, i.e., I know their stories, their characters, etc. and “my sheep know me.”

I believe these affinities are deeply and relationally transformative when the person who preaches/teaches the Word of God to a congregation is the one who visits them in their homes, in the hospitals, in the nursing home facilities; when the person who faithfully broadcasts the King Jesus Gospel Story also holds the baby in baptism, who prays and weeps at the grave side, who pronounces the husband and wife union; who walks in the shadow of death with the weary and confused. I wouldn’t trade being a pastor for being the mega-church communicator who by all measurements doesn’t know but a small percentage of the stories and characters of the attendees of a massive crowd. When pastoring is reduced to primarily preaching which is what happens to “lead” pastors by necessity in mega-churches, in my opinion something very significant is lost. I could be wrong, but I think there are subterranean relational trade-offs in the mega-church pastor model.

In their fine book The Pastor: Readings from the Patristic Period (Fortress: 1990), Philip L. Culbertson and Arthur Bradford Shippee (eds) make this observation, “In the course of our research into the early church we found not a single system of pastoral thought and action but instead an odd jumble of duties and ideologies variously interrelated, with different emphases in different times and places. It looks quite modern in its undisciplined plurality” (p 2 emphasis mine).

In view of the above finding, I get a little irritated when someone pontificates about what pastoral ministry is supposed to look like today. There has never been a time when pastoral ministry was gotten “right.” We just cannot excavate and put on display the historical pure template of pastoral ministry. I think pastoral ministry is so fiercely context specific that we would be fools to think there is the one and only right way. You can talk about giftedness versus official position until Jesus comes back, but you are only talking about what they talked and debated from the beginnings of the church.

This is not a rejection of God’s amazing, grace-filled presence and power working through mega-churches. Who am I to limit where and through whom God’s Spirit will work? There are some very excellent mega-church pastors and there are pastoral frauds in many smaller churches. I have become convinced, however, that churches are relationship driven, not systems driven or up-front personality driven.

The blogosphere is a caldron of swirling opinions about the title “pastor” with some seeing the pastor as a mutant Protestant Pope to others saying “we don’t have pastors…we’re all pastors.”  Others ask, How is it that “the pastor” is singled out to be the paid professional? To many, that is just not right.

A cursory word search of the NIV will reveal the term “shepherd” used of God and God’s leaders, both royal and priestly, in the Pentateuch, the historical, poetic and prophetic books. God is a powerful, faithful and compassionate shepherd and humans can be good or very bad shepherds. Continuing into the New Testament, we hear these Old Testament overtones reiterated and brought to focus in Jesus, the Good, Great, and Chief Shepherd, into the service of early church leaders… “and he gave some to be pastors and teachers…”  “Be shepherds of God’s flock…” Yes, the New Testament has a semantic range of terms for church leaders–elders, overseers, apostles, prophets, deacons, leaders, pastors, etc. This is undeniable.

Yet, and many choose to ignore this, early on in church history, the church and its leaders, for who knows exactly what reason, compressed a lot of these titles and/or giftings into the term shepherd (from which through Latin we receive our word “pastor”). My own opinion is that while God in the Old Testament had many titles and Jesus had several, too, the term shepherd/pastor captured the imagination of how God deals with his sometimes faithful, sometimes fickle people. When human leadership (shepherds) failed (see Ezekiel 34) God promised a competent, compassionate Shepherd like David would come. Behind John 10 and Jesus’ self-designation as shepherd/pastor is the miserable failure of Israel’s leaders as good shepherds.

Jesus carries all the titles well and in their purest form–Shepherd (Pastor), King, Priest, etc. Why do we so cavalierly dismiss the fact that Jesus refers to himself as Pastor who knows his sheep by name and they know him, too? Why would not any aspiring pastor who wants “to be like Jesus,” Who is the Good Pastor, also want to know all his/her sheep by name? Is reluctance to do that an admission that we might be doing church in less than pastorally effective ways? I’m just asking. I’m not trying to assess value to big versus little, traditional versus contemporary (relevant and rad), or mainline versus free.

As I mentioned earlier, I get a little restless when we so easily dismiss the shepherd/pastor imagery for local church leaders. Some spout, “Hey, we don’t live in an Ancient Near Eastern  agrarian/shepherding world. The idea of shepherd is antiquated.” Well, let’s think about that argument. We also don’t execute rebels on Roman crosses in public, either, but I don’t hear too many calls for dismissing the cross of Jesus Christ from the church because it is culturally irrelevant.

Men and women who are gifted to be pastors (a multifaceted gifting in my opinion) and who exercise that gifting vocationally (I mean “for money” for those of you who choke on that idea) do not need be ashamed or feel belittled or disobedient or antiquated because a bunch of noisy folks in the church-at-large run around acting as if the term and function of a pastor is somehow driven only by power, prestige and money. It’s not. Volatile means to evaporate quickly, mercurial, fluctuating. I do not believe “pastor” is a volatile word.

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