On Being "Pastoral"


It's a term that communicates warmth, caring, positive regard, and perhaps especially the love that a pastor, a trusted Christian counselor or friend seeks to extend toward others, especially toward those who find themselves in quandaries, conflict, pain or danger.

Indeed, when people find themselves under strain, these very feelings of warmth and care are often just what is most needed to provide enough safe space for persons to explore more deeply what is going on and what God might be inviting them to do next.

Pastoral can be a good word.

Jesus, and the prophets before him, longed for leaders who were pastoral, who were "good shepherds," (the word pastor is the Latin word for shepherd). Jesus and those prophets often modeled what good shepherds do. John's gospel records it perhaps most dramatically this way. "A good shepherd puts his life on the line for the sheep" (John 10:11). 

Hirelings and bad shepherds are out for themselves, Jesus says. They're only using the sheep, not truly loving them, and not, in the final analysis, serving them as shepherds but rather treating them as commodities. 

But a good shepherd, a genuine shepherd, always seeks the good of the sheep first. The shepherd gets the sheep to safe pasture and home again, inspects each one to make sure it is healthy, and protects them all from wolves and other predators who would harm them.

So the shepherd communicates warmth to the flock, and to each one individually, but also does whatever it takes to keep them safe, even if that means laying his or her life on the line to fight or fend off a predator. 

Much Christian art depicting "Jesus the Good Shepherd," like the example above from a 19th century Russian icon, has shown only one side of what Jesus himself said it meant to be truly pastoral. Here, as in many others, we see a fair-skinned Jesus with a tender look and a lamb slung over his shoulders. Other versions add a few or even many adoring sheep on the ground or emerging from the folds of his robe. It's obvious Jesus loves them and he loves them. These beautiful works of art nearly ooze with gentleness and compassion. 

But there's something missing.  Could such a Jesus as portrayed in so many of these paintings and statues fend off a wolf? Even more-- would such a Jesus even think to do so?   

That's what I appreciate about this portrayal from the Bowyer Bible, a lavishly illustrated late 18th century English bible in 45 volumes brought together by Robert Bowyer, the Royal Engraver. Here we see Jesus doing exactly what John says a good shepherd does-- putting his life on the line against a fierce wolf to protect the flock. This Jesus looks like he knows what to do with the rod in his hand, and like he's ready and willing to use it. 

Being pastoral then, in the sense Jesus describes a good shepherd, has to be about both pasturing and protection, both nurture and fighting for the sake of the flock.  It's about communicating warmth, but also demonstrating true love by taking a stand as needed.

The best pastors, the most pastoral ones I've known, have always demonstrated both care for people and care for the truth and the teaching of the church at the same time. For them, being pastoral has never meant choosing to make people happy at the cost of not speaking or acting the truth or the teaching entrusted to them. 

These pastors were truly pastoral with families who wanted their infants "done" (that is, baptized) while they themselves showed no real interest in living or teaching the Christian faith. They would not baptize the infants, but they offered to work with the parents until they, or others in the congregation, were ready to step up and take full and active responsibility to help lead the child to discipleship to Jesus over the coming years. 

These pastors were willing to say to unwilling confirmands (and their parents!) who had only begrudgingly participated in the process that though it seemed were not yet ready to take the vows of professing membership, the pastor and others in the church remained committed to working with them until they were. 

And these pastors would keep leading a public fight against race tracks and casinos locating in their communities, while also demonstrating faithfulness and love to persons in the congregations who were involved in businesses that would profit when the tracks and casinos came. Even when some of those folks made it clear they expected their pastors either to support the track or casino or be silent about it.  

In many cases, loving the people and defending them at the same time by upholding truth or justice proved personally costly to these pastors. Some members left their congregations, taking their money with them. Some started attack campaigns against the pastor, trying (sometimes successfully) to force the pastor out.  But in every case the pastors remained fully pastoral-- loving their flock even when some of them started acting more like enemies.

So pastors, and laity-- this example from Jesus is for all of us!-- be pastoral-- in the fullest sense Jesus and the prophets described.  Love one another well, even when it is personally costly to do so. Show and spread warmth and blessing always. And speak up for the truth and the teaching of the church where it remains truthful-- and against it where it propagates or protects lies or hate. 

For it is such truth and such faithful teaching that both nourishes and protects the flock-- all of us-- from the very real predators that continue to seek to devour us and the world.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Image Credits: Good Shepherd Icon, ca 1840. Public domain. Etching of Jesus as the Good Shepherd by Jan Luyken, from the Bowyer Bible (1791-1795). Public domain.