Listen To Article
The elder pulled him aside after the worship service. “Can I give you some advice, Pastor?” he asked. “Keep politics out of the pulpit. You’re called to be our shepherd, to care for the flock. Just preach the Bible, be our shepherd, and you’ll do fine here.”
This happened after the young pastor preached a really courageous sermon on racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the swell of protests that swept the nation. I read his sermon. It was profoundly biblical, much more so than what I suspect gets preached in many North American pulpits on any given Sunday. The young pastor, feeling dejected, called and shared the elder’s comment with me after it all happened.
There’s a great deal that I find troubling about this elder’s comment. For starters, what does it mean to “keep politics out of the pulpit” and “just preach the Bible?” As if the Bible, and the gospel itself, isn’t political? Getting entangled in the dysfunctional spectacle of U.S. partisan politics is one thing. But bearing witness to the kingdom of God, which calls for a new social order where peace and justice prevail under the lordship of King Jesus, is at the heart of the Church’s identity and vocation. I could say more, but that’s another post. What I really want to reflect on here is this elder’s underlying assumptions about what it means for the pastor to be “a shepherd.”
The metaphor of shepherd has a long history of describing the role of pastor. In my own denomination’s liturgy for the ordination and installation of a Minister of Word and sacrament, the metaphor is implied in these opening words of the charge to the minister: “Beloved servant in Christ, be attentive to yourself and to all the flock given to your care by the Holy Spirit. Love Christ: feed his lambs, tend his sheep.”
But here’s the problem: We’ve domesticated this image of shepherd and tragically dulled its prophetic edge. To “shepherd the flock” gets spiritualized and reduced to “the care of souls,” which tends to focus exclusively on “spiritual matters” and thus neglects the church’s missional calling to bring social change. For some it can even carry the expectation that the pastor’s job is to avoid conflict and controversy at all costs. Just keep church members happy. Keep things safe and comfortable. Don’t rock the boat.
But this is not the biblical understanding of shepherd, and it’s certainly not what Jesus had in mind when he refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. The 20th century missionary Lesslie Newbigin is helpful here. In a sermon he preached to a group of pastors in the city of Madras (India), Newbigin took Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd in John 10:1-5 and challenged the way this beloved image has been sanitized over the course of church history.
One thinks of stain-glassed windows with a meek and mild Jesus cuddling a pet lamb, Newbigin pointed out. But where we really should be looking is the prophet Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 34 for example). In Ezekiel, the figure of the shepherd is more like a warrior. The ideal shepherd is the warrior king David, doing justice, calling the wicked to account, caring for the poor and the most vulnerable, leading God’s people with courage and compassion. The metaphor of shepherd is really about leadership, insists Newbigin. Leadership that challenges the status quo and brings change. We might even call it prophetic leadership—daring to speak not just words of comfort but also the disruptive Word of God that confronts the most urgent social problems of our day. Newbigin writes:
“There is no true pastoral work that merely comforts and consoles people, which is merely concerned with their happiness in this world and the next. The Good Shepherd expects his sheep to follow him. That means infinitely costly action. It means taking the road that Jesus took, the road that is marked by the Cross….Merely to comfort people and make them happy is not true pastoral work—even if it puts up church attendance and boosts the monthly subscriptions.”*
The Good Shepherd expects his sheep to follow him. That means infinitely costly action.
So if we pastors are going to truly live into this metaphor of shepherd, it will require us to reclaim the prophetic dynamic of our pastoral calling and leadership. It will require us to be political, in the best sense of the word. It will require that we increase our tolerance for discomfort, as well as our tolerance for the discomfort of our parishioners (I know, this is a tough one for those of us who want to please and be liked). And it will require us to stay connected to our people, to be patient and persistent, and to love them through change.
Most of all, it will require that we follow close behind the Good Shepherd, that we recognize his voice and constantly abide in him. In the words of Newbigin, “A true Christian pastor will be one who can dare to say to his [or her] people: ‘Follow me, as I am following Jesus.’”
*Taken from Newbigin’s sermon “The Good Shepherd”, found in The Good Shepherd: Meditations on Christian Ministry in Today’s World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), p.16.