Dear Young Seminarian,
Have you thought about your future? Of course you have, you think. You are in seminary, or headed to seminary, or just finished seminary. You are hoping for a pastoral position, or looking for one, or maybe even in one.
But what do you want to be?
Do you want to be a pastor? Or do you want to pastor?
At first, glance that may seem like a strange question. But it actually flows from an old, perhaps cheesy, thing that was making its way around college back in the day. It was a little statement about relationships and dating, and people who were “in love” with being “in love” rather than being “in love” with a person.
Now, dear seminarian who has learned to exegete Greek and Hebrew (at least you better have learned to if you have a seminary degree), don’t over exegete the words “in love.” I am not really sure what they mean myself, and I am pretty sure that these words are the cause of a lot of broken marriages and broken hearts.
But the point of the little saying was about people who wanted to be in a relationship. They were less concerned about who the relationship was with. They were looking for a feeling, not a person. They were “in love” with the idea of being married; they were not in love with the person themselves.
So I fear it is with many young pastors. They are wanting to be a pastor; they are not necessarily wanting to pastor. They have constructed a little house of pastoral ministry in their minds, and having graduated, they want to live in that house. In fact, they feel entitled to live in that house. They long for the days when the books are neatly arranged on the shelves, the boxes with class notes are finally in file cabinets, color-coded and alphabetized. They love the idea of preparing messages, and reading things over which there will be no quiz.
But they are dreadfully fearful of actually pastoring, that is to say, shepherding people. Sheep are sometimes dirty, no offense to our woolly friends who eat grass in the meadows. They make a lot of noise, again, no offense to our woolly friends who can surely drown out conversations in the evening coolness with their incessant braying. They have certain odors about them. And quite frankly, sometimes they bite causing significant pain, and often lasting damage.
But what shall we do? Shall we inhabit the office of pastor with the hopes of tending the sheep from afar, and only at set times? Shall we love the trappings of chief undershepherd while attempting to avoid the traps that surely await those who have been called more to a work than an office?
On the other hand, sheep can be tremendously delightful. Encouraging. Joy-inducing and thanks-producing. Those who volunteer to to work alongside can bring untold encouragement. They make the work easier and the burden lighter. But you will never know until you shepherd them.
My dear friend, if all you want to do is be a pastor, please think carefully before taking a position at a church. You will surely have the accolades of some, along with a certain amount of respect both in the church and in the community. People will admire you for your position, and they will often treat you well. But God has not called you to simply be a pastor. He has called you to pastor.
It’s a fine distinction, to be sure. Perhaps too fine for you at this point. But while seminary is still out for the summer, and perhaps for good, do a quick study on the word for “pastor” in the New Testament. It’s the Greek word poimaino (though if you need the transliteration, you’re not done with seminary yet). In the New Testament, it is used in reference to the church just a few times.
In Ephesians 4:8, it is noun referring to a gift of Christ to the church.
In the other occurrences (Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2), it is a verb. It is something you do.
And that, my friend, is why I say, God has called you to pastor—to do something for church of God which he has purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28), for the flock of God among you (1 Peter 5:2).
Yes, you are a gift to God’s people. That’s the point of Ephesians 4:8. But it is not a gift that is wrapped neatly waiting breathless young tots to open you up. It is a work in which you open yourself up, for the glory of God and the good of others.
There is one other, unexpected, use of the word shepherd. It usually doesn’t show up in most discussions of pastoral theology, though it probably should show up. It is found in the book of Jude, who is well-known for his excoriating language addressed to false teachers. It is a brutal assessment and condemnation of pastor-wannabes, those impostors who “shepherd themselves” (Jude 12). Yes, it’s actually there in the text. These are men who pretend to be leaders in the church, but rather than pastoring people, they pastor themselves. They tend to their own needs at the expense of those for whom Christ died.
The images that surround this statement in Jude 12 make it quite clear that Jude is not referring to pastors who, in the words of Spurgeon, take seriously “The Minister’s Self-Watch” (chapter 1 in Lectures to My Students, something that should be required reading for every pastor each year, more often if necessary).
No, these are strong words of condemnation for those who turned the work of ministry inward, and used the flock of God for their own gain, rather than giving of themselves for the flock of God.
Contrast this with the heart of Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 who, with the heart of a mother imparted not just the gospel but his own self for the good of the people. And with the heart of a father, he was exhorting and encouraging and imploring them to walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.
With the heart of Paul we must charge into the battle for souls. We dare not sit idly by, preparing homiletical masterpieces, while the sheep wander aimlessly for lack of a shepherd.
Rather with the tenderness of a mother and the firmness of a father, we pastor people because that is what we have been called to do.
If that’s not what you want to do, then find a job, be faithful in church, and love people. But don’t be a pastor unless you want to pastor.