Preacher as Pastor: Shepherding the Community in the Word
When people find out I am a Pastor, invariably the next question is: ”Are you the Senior Pastor? The Lead?” My response: “Nope, just Pastor.” (In this case I am the only pastor, so there is no need for redundancy, and “senior” brings the chain-of-command notion front and centre more than I’d like. The word pastor implies leadership of a very particular kind already: No sense fogging that up with borrowed terms from the corporate world.) Sometimes you’ll hear a person in my situation referred to as “Preacher” or “Teaching Pastor.” However, while this might not be inaccurate, there remains a slightly misleading and/or redundant tenor to these titles which, in what follows, I’d like to try to explain.
In my experience, calling someone a Preacher seems to imply a base expectation that they will use the pulpit either to give the last word or to inspire the listener. There is a finality and a passivity about these notions that just doesn’t sit right: Being the Preacher or Teacher means I proclaim, the people hear; I inspire, the people are touched; I inform, the people are “fed”.
There’s truth in all of that, of course. But I do not think that gets to the heart of what a preaching/teaching Pastor should be trying to do with the sermon. Yes, there will be proclamation of the gospel, prophetic calls to action, teachable moments, and words of encouragement for heart and mind–but none of those gets to the essence of what we call the “homiletic event”.
To get that we need to back up a bit and talk about Scripture.
In my neck of the evangelical woods we look to the Bible as a reliable witness to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. (Some will put that differently, but this is how I think it ought to be put). On the writing end, we believe Scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit; on the receiving end, we believe it requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit. And neither of these things happen in a vacuum.
There were communities involved in the writing and passing on of the Scriptures–not to mention the discernment of what we now call the biblical canon. Similarly, there are also communities involved in the reception of those Scriptures. This is not “the nature of the beast” (as if community is an unfortunate obstacle to hearing God in pristine isolation); rather, this is divine providence.
When I read John 14-17 it always strikes me that Jesus–when telling the disciples he is soon to leave for heaven–does not seem to have been dismayed about what he’d be leaving behind. In fact he seemed pretty happy for them. I feel this in Matthew 16-17 as well. There Jesus–after he’s been transfigured before their eyes–gently informs his befuddled disciples that the point is not to build tabernacles for he and Moses and Elijah but to look for something else instead.
We see this something else in Acts 2, after Jesus has raised and ascended, when he sends the Holy Spirit. The disciples interpret as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel: The Word will abide in all peoples, and speak to them in a new kind of community.
Which brings me back to my preference for the word Pastor.
It came together for me the other day as I was preparing for Sunday with the person who would (for the first time in our church) be giving a response to the sermon. We were talking about the goal of the event, and I said the essence of it is really to shepherd the congregation’s hearing of the Word of God.
“Pastor,” she said, connecting to a prior conversation: Having spent a good deal of time living in Latin America, she had been telling me that the word for shepherd in Spanish is “Pastor”.
That’s when it clicked for me. To preach is to pastor the congregation’s hearing of the Word. What the preacher says is not the last word; nor is it just one word among others, simply to take or leave according to each person’s personal authority. There is an authority to the preaching event: We expect to hear from God there, and to be called to follow Christ. Thus the preaching office is an important calling to be entered into with care.
But part of that means being clear about what is going on: And if our goal as a church when we come together at the pulpit is to hear the Word of God in community, then the “ministry of the Word” is a shared event, shepherded by the Pastor. (Incidentally, this opens up a theological window for us to see the value of Todd Hiestand’s practical suggestions for Preaching in Community).
Names can tell us things. At the pulpit maybe the simple title “Pastor” says it all.
Where the Word is preached this way there will still be prophetic calls to action. There will be applications to go home and sort out with varying levels of accountability, and interpretations to be mulled over and sharpened. In this there will also be a considerable amount of studied teaching to be done–that is, if the church takes its accountability to the Church and responsibility to the world seriously. At the core of it, though, the preacher is pastoring the people in the communal apprehension and application of the living and active Word of God.
This flows right in to the rest of what a pastor is doing; namely, mobilizing the priesthood of believers as they follow the Great High Priest together–each one doing their part for Christ in the church, the neighbourhood, and the world.