Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What is a Pastor?

For two decades or so, American churches have been undergoing a dramatic shift. As a result, they are more effective than before, both in how they present their message and how they manage their corporations.  As one who remembers the haphazard manner in which churches were often managed in years past, I applaud those improvements.

This shift has cost us, however. What we have gained in efficiency we have lost in spiritual awareness.

It is the sort of loss one notices in a translation of a great piece of literature. The metaphors, jokes, play on words -- the sort of mysteriously inexplicable stuff that makes a language alive and delightful -- must be sacrificed in order to convey the story to people who speak another tongue. While a great translator may be able to find similar figures of speech, or depict a conversation between two people of different classes in a way that feels similar to the conversation recorded in the original language, a translated story is, in some sense, a new piece of literature. One might even say, the more successful the translation, the more that translation becomes a work of art in it's own right.  

The King James Bible is a good illustration.

One can fault the King James Version from a technical standpoint but the translators succeeded in creating an English Bible.  Their work allowed English speaking people to hear God speaking in their own language. That’s why the King James Version became "the Bible" for nearly four hundred years in most of the English-speaking world.

(Whether any translation has done this since is another subject!)

The recent shift in the church culture reminds me of our newer Bible translations. We have eliminated the old, mysterious mumbo jumbo of "propitiation," "forbearance" and “long-suffering" from our Bibles because the "language of Zion" had become a foreign language even to our children. In fact, many churches eliminated public Bible reading altogether once we discovered that post- moderns were "visual and nonlinear" learners. In doing so, we lost much of our ability to discuss theology with our parishioners.

But those issues are not the central focus of this reflection.  

What I want to know is how the shift of church culture has affected the role of the pastor.

Is it even worth asking: what is a pastor anyway?

The Biblical model for pastor is the shepherd. Indeed, in many languages, there is no separate word to distinguish the shepherd of a church from the shepherd of sheep.

 Along with the word “pastor” comes a biblical picture. “The Lord is my shepherd. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.  He prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” And so forth. If the Lord is my shepherd, and the leader of my church is my shepherd, then I will naturally expect that the leader of my church will try to lead my church as he would care for a flock.

 This was the way churches viewed their leaders in times past. A pastor's central concern was the spiritual development of the people in his flock. A pastor was responsible for teaching, in word and by example, the structures of thought, the way of living, and the management of attitude that molded people into disciples.

 Sometime before the Reformation, the model for “pastor” shifted toward the professor.

 Well before the Reformation, spiritual leaders emerged (like Thomas Aquinas) who were first class philosophers. These gifted thinkers taught Christian doctrine in ways that stretched the intellect of their students and helped launch the artists, writers and even secular thinkers who created the modern Western world.

 Although the Reformers often challenged the ideas of these spiritual philosophers, they developed ministries along similar lines. The Protestant pastor thus became primarily a teacher whose teaching was focused on helping people interpret the Bible.

 Wesley and the early Methodists broadened the Protestant model for pastoring by including emotional formation as part of the process of becoming a disciple. So the early Methodist pastor focused on awakening the parishioner's soul rather than merely forming his intellect.

 Still, the focus of Protestant pastoral ministry remained primarily the exposition of scripture until the twentieth century.

 By the end of the nineteen sixties however, the model of pastor as shepherd or teacher had been overshadowed by pastor as marketer, businessman, or even entertainer. For the first time since the reformation, many believed that a theological background was at best superfluous and, at worse, detrimental for pastoring a dynamic church. Theology was now ridiculed as, “much ado about nothing.” Even a superficial knowledge of scripture could be tolerated if the pastor's presentation was clever enough to keep his people's attention. Spiritual formation dropped off the list of pastoral responsibilities altogether.

 Protestants had become pragmatists.

 The bottom line became a pastor's ability to attract nickels and noses.  

 In such an environment, it is little wonder that a pastor would soon become primarily either a CEO of a religious corporation or a great entertainer hired by a corporate board. Pastoral work had become about expanding the campus, securing the corporation and managing the capital of the enterprise. Preaching became inspirational entertainment. “Shepherding” became a churchy name for corporate leadership.

 To be fair, pastors in every age and in every culture have needed gifts and interests beyond that of Bible exposition and spiritual formation. Good pastors of great churches have always needed to know how to manage resources and people, or to at least know how to appoint those with such gifts to responsible positions within the church. And, many of the greatest pastors of history have been very entertaining. The sermons of John Chrysostum, third century bishop of Constantinople, are still entertaining; he wasn't called "golden mouth" for nothing! But management skills, or the ability to entertain, have not been considered the primary gifts of a pastor until recently. These “marketable skills” have been viewed as helpful means by which a pastor might achieve his primary end: shepherding his flock by growing the spiritual life of his people.

We are often told that gifted shepherds can be hired by "pastors" who are actually CEOs, and, that in fact, this is a superior arrangement. This corporate model supposedly allows the senior pastor of a great church to maintain his inspiring vision rather than get bogged down by the petty business of tending a flock.

I think otherwise.

 After a couple of generations, the corporate church model has been weighed in the balances and found wanting. If the pastor is primarily a CEO, then doctrine, prayer, worship (by which I mean much more than music or dramatic performance), and the spiritual formation of the people of God become products and programs. Spirituality becomes a secondary interest (if it survives as even that.) Church attendees replace converts.  Eternity disappears. The presence of God grows dim. When the felt, experienced sense of God’s presence disappears altogether, it is hardly missed.  A CEO is not judged by such things. He does not evaluate his work by such things. Therefore, if the pastor is primarily a CEO, spiritual life will, not may, diminish or even disappear.

 My point is not that the pastors of the past were all saints or that the pastors of today are not real pastors. What I am saying is that the role model for pastoral work has been changing pastors into something other than shepherds. I am also claiming that the result will be churches that are something other than spiritual families.

 In the end, I'm not really sure what the purpose for either pastor or church will be.

 There is now much confusion within our churches about what a pastor is supposed to do. As a result, many pastors are struggling with an identity crisis. They once felt called to do things they believed were important but discovered that the churches they served did not value those things. Since many pastors are not interested (nor trained) to do the things congregations now seem to expect, they either leave the ministry or try to play the role they are paid to play. However, they have lost their heart for the work and no longer respect themselves nor the office they hold.

 This is probably not the place to explore another model for “pastor,” suggested to me recently by evangelist Luis Palau.

 Over breakfast one morning, Palau said he believes many pastors now believe they are called to be social engineers. (We were in France at the time and wondered if either liberal or conservative churches could ever engineer a culture more impressive than France, which apparently feels no need for pastors at all!)

 The irony about this model of pastoring is that effective pastors have often changed cities and nations. However, the ability to transform individuals has always grown from a pastor’s spiritual influence and is a by-product of simply caring for a flock.

 In short: Church as business and pastor as CEO, are unproven means to advance the gospel of Christ. These models can “grow churches” but in many cases will leave one wondering how much of a “church” the resulting corporation really is.

 I for one have decided that the corporate model is an unproven oxcart.  Corporate life was not constructed to carry the altar of God. I think it cannot do it. In the end, the means molds both the message and messenger into things the saints would have found unrecognizable.

 The bottom line is that the world needs the church and its leaders to be "other than" rather than "same as."  

If they are not, both the world and the church may soon ask "what is the point of either?"

1 comment:

Thomas McKenzie said...

Thanks Dan,

I have been challenged and encouraged by Eugene Peterson's new book "The Pastor." I assume you've seen it. It has been inspiring me to get back to the basics of my role: prayer, Bible study, spiritual direction, leading worship, and preaching.