Being 'pastoral'

April 27th, 2016

When I was in seminary, people often used the world "pastoral" when they meant "comforting." People would say "I'm not doing systematic theology right now, I am doing pastoral theology" which roughly translated as: "What I'm saying may not fit with our church's theology, or correspond with what the Bible actually says, but it is comforting to those who hear."

When I was preparing to transition to my second appointment  to pastor my first conventional church (my first appointment was as a college campus pastor)  I read St. Gregory the Great's Book of Pastoral Rule. I wanted to learn more how to be a pastor from the Early Church Fathers, and Gregory is known as "the Great" for a reason  he was a potent leader and pastor in the ancient church.

One of the things that most resonated with me about this book is Gregory's basic approach: the role of the pastor is to be a shepherd of souls. Our job is to help people grow closer to Christ, to help them turn away from sin, to help them walk on the Way, embrace the Truth, and cling to that "Life which really is life."

Another thing that Gregory did well was to emphasize moderation: that a pastor should neither be too severe nor too indulgent in addressing the spiritual needs or spiritual brokenness of the church members (this section reminded me of the "Golden Mean" of Aristotle in his Ethics). A pastor should remember his own failings in dealing with others (and so, live according to the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12).

What people sometimes need from a pastor is a word of comfort. But sometimes what is truly needed for the health of the soul is a word of challenge, a word of confrontation with the truth. As most of us pastors by nature like people and want to "get on well" with others, I suspect our temptation will often be to offer soft comfort and cheap grace when piercing truth and transforming grace is needed (though I've heard some pastors who seem to delight in shocking and upsetting others, and they may need to learn from Gregory to moderate in the other direction, or simply to love their flock).

I was thinking of this tendency to reduce "being pastoral" to "tickling men's ears" when I read these words from 19th-Century Scottish pastor (and author) George MacDonald:

"To make a man happy as a lark might be to do him grievous wrong; to make a man wake, rise, look up, and turn, is worth the life and death of the Son of the Eternal." - From Consuming Fire, April 9.

This post first appeared at Gloria Deo.

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