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How do you define pastor?

Here is a brief reflection on the word “pastor.” Merriam Webster defines pastor in this “less than helpful” way:

“…a spiritual overseer; especially : a clergyman serving a local church or parish”

Yes, we know a pastor has something to do with a church. However, looking at this definition, we may also be left with these questions. What is a clergyman? What is a parish?

Most people when they think of church will think of that nice building in town, likely with a steeple. Even here we can further “argue” what really is a church. However, let us go on with this common understanding that the church is the building. This church will then have people that regularly meet there. How many people will vary from from church to church.

So you have the church and the people. If you grew up in church, you are likely thinking of the little rhyme that has a few hand motions…

Well, consider you do go to a church on a Sunday morning. Up front, there will likely be someone, at some point and time, who is likely the pastor of the church.  This brings me back to the original question. How do you define pastor?

There is a lot of pressure to define pastor as the person in charge of the church and yes, the people. The pastor is ultimately the one responsible for helping the church go from “A” to “B”. “A” and “B” can vary. It can be from having a lot of debt to having no debt. It can be from having few people in church to having a lot of people in church. It can be worshipping one way to worshipping another way.

Because we all are accustomed to seeing companies and organizations run with a CEO in charge, this way of defining a pastor tends to think of the pastor as the “CEO” of the church.

Another common way to define pastor is to think of how the pastor is most available to the people. The pastor is available 24/7 to the people. The pastor will come and visit around a time of crisis. The pastor will come and visit those who cannot get to church any more do to their health. The pastor will come and visit those in nursing homes or rehabilitation centers. The pastor will come and visit people during a hospital stay. There are likely more times where I pastor could visit someone. Focusing on these roles, a pastor can come to be seen more as a chaplain.

For me, in many ways this creates the “bookends” for defining a pastor. On one end you have the “CEO pastor” while on the other end you have “pastor chaplain”. The extreme end of the “CEO pastor” is that they are so focused on getting somewhere they forget to take anyone with them. The extreme end of the “pastor chaplain” is that they focus so much on caring for the people that they never go anywhere.

Another model that people refer to regularly is the idea of the pastor as a shepherd. You have time where the pastor then has to lead the “sheep” from one place to another. You have times where you have to care for the “sheep” as well. Yes, you even have times where the shepherd must correct the “sheep” to keep them safe.

There is biblical precedent for this view as well.  Here is one reference:

2 Like shepherds, tend the flock of God among you. Watch over it. Don’t shepherd because you must, but do it voluntarily for God. Don’t shepherd greedily, but do it eagerly. 3 Don’t shepherd by ruling over those entrusted to your care, but become examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive an unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5)

Let us go back to Merriam Webster and consider the origin given:

“Middle English pastour, from Anglo-French, from Latin pastor herdsman”

Pastor as shepherd seems to be a good way to define the role of a pastor. However, when was the last time you saw a shepherd? So I will leave you with a question. What would be a good modern day term to use to describe the role of a pastor?  Seriously, I am asking.


Pastor Matt

(All scripture cited above from Common English Bible Copyright © 2011)

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