The People of God aren’t sheep

Words Matter I:  The mix messages inherent in using the term “pastor” for clergy

When I was a child, the only term I knew for the clergy in my church was “minister.”  Later on, the idea that “all God’s people are ministers” became increasingly popular.  So what, then, do we call our ordained clergy?

Over the years, I have noticed a shift in the title most commonly used for clergy, away from “minister” and toward “pastor.”   And I have wondered how much of this stems from a desire to maintain clerical distinctiveness, or even status, in an era when the concept of the ministry of all Christians has received renewed emphasis.

Most clergy persons I know thoroughly embrace the role of “pastor” as key to their theological identity.   And I don’t begrudge them this.  There is great appeal for both “pastor” and “flock” in the notion of the caring, nurturing presence of pastoral leadership.  But I would offer a few cautionary comments:

1) The people of God aren’t sheep.  Shepherding is a potent biblical image of God’s loving care for humankind.  But this divine metaphor becomes problematic when it is transferred to the realm of human interaction — particularly when it becomes the dominant image associated with the role and responsibility of the ordained.

If pastors are shepherds, then congregants are sheep – not exactly the most challenging or enlightened image of Christian personhood and discipleship.  And yet, this is the way we talk about church members – as a flock of helpless animals.  James O’Toole, a contemporary leadership expert, critiques shepherding, the dominant Christian metaphor for leadership, as paternalistic and anachronistic.  “How far,” he asks, “would a business get today acting on the assumption that employees are a flock to be herded by the organizational equivalent of the yank of a crook or the nipping of a sheepdog at their heels?” ( Leading Change:  The Argument for Values-Based Leadership, Ballantine Books,  New York,  1996, p. 6)

Certainly all Christians, in their sin and human frailty, stand in need of love and care.  But I believe the Gospel calls us to a more active notion of discipleship and a more egalitarian understanding of the leader/follower dynamic than is inherent in the construct of shepherd and sheep.

2) The shepherding function is only one of many aspects of Christian leadership.  Scripture names many other gifts and capabilities as essential to the function of the Body of Christ, such as prophetic leadership, evangelism, and so on.  When the title used for clergy prioritizes the shepherding function, we  risk underemphasizing other important aspects of Christian ministry.  We must remember that the primarily calling of ordained leaders is the ministry of Word, order, and sacrament.

3) Shepherding,  identified in Scripture as a gift of the Spirit, is not a role that should be restricted exclusively to clergy.  Lay persons can and should be engaged in “pastoral” ministry.  But using the word “pastor” to identify ordained clergy implies that only ordained clergy can attend to this function.

I  have no hope or expectation that the church will move away from talking and thinking about its clergy primarily as pastors.   I use the word.  I have no choice.  It is simply the way everyone refers to clergy.  And some will surely take umbrage with this critique of the beloved image of clergy as pastors.  But it is important to think about how our use of language limits ministry in this day when the Spirit of God is calling us to a broader understanding of ministry.

Words matter.

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