Essay

Reclaiming the Prophetic Call of the Pastor

By July 6, 2020 17 Comments
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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.

Lesslie Newbigin, 1909-1998

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.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

17 Comments

  • mstair says:

    “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 metaphor of shepherd is really about leadership,”

    And protection and keeping. Biblically, a shepherd usually did not own the sheep. They belonged to “the master.” It was the shepherds trust to bring all the sheep home after pasturing … not lose any of them …
    If that was successful, it was not accomplished by the shepherd standing in front of the sheep and addressing them. It was by daily, being with them, holding, touching, leading, communicating personally so they would recognize and remember only the shepherds voice …

    Sounds like this one elder is getting a little too close to the moving water and the shadowy valley. The Shepherd better go get him…

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I’ve struggled for some time with what it means to be political in the pulpit. I’ve worked hard not to be partisan but of course, those who hear things they don’t want to hear claim that I’m being partisan, even if my best efforts are to stick as close to the Bible as I can. I’ve been asked frequently not to talk about politics in any way, and it feels as if some have left because I’ve dared to broach the topics of the day at all.
    I’m not sure what to do. I know this, or at least I think I know this. The root of politics comes from the Greek word polis. It’s meaning is city. Politics has to do with the life of the city, the way we order our life together. I’ve come to believe that if the Bible, the gospel specifically, cannot speak to the life of the city, the life we live together as a people, then it’s really not worth much to me, to others, or to the world. I can’t believe that. It’s meant so much to my life, to the way I live together in and with the world. How could I not preach about it?
    I still struggle with it. It’s never easy, but I guess if the gospel was easy, it wouldn’t have that much to offer to a life that never seems to be easy.
    Thanks Brian, I really appreciated your words today. I think they were meant for me (not to be so self-centered about it).

  • Tom says:

    Not knowing what was in this specific sermon, my generalist take would be that had the elder said “Keep partisan politics out of the pulpit”, I would agree with him wholeheartedly, and that may be what he meant. The pulpit is no place to either promote or demonize left or right-leaning policies (with, of course, some exceptions) as there are people of good will with sincerely held positions on both sides of every issue. The pulpit IS the place to state clearly that Christians are called to work for peace and justice.

  • Dan Walcott says:

    The messenger came to Micaiah the prophet and urged him to only say what Ahab wanted to hear, 2 Chronicles 18, and Paul wrote, the time will come when they will gather teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 2 Timothy 4. We need prophetic voices.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thanks Brian. This is a really tough issue, especially for young pastors. One small assist, and one that requires patience, the long game, and the feeling that you might miss the moment, is a congregation that has gotten used to lectionary preaching, so that you address the issues when the objective text demands it, not when you feel like something needs to be said. That latter happens best, in my experience, in prayer.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    The African Bible note for John 10:10-18 says this, “For John the shepherd is not the one who caresses tenderly the wounded sheep, but the fierce protector who, at the cost of his own life, stands up to anybody who threatens his flock.” Pastors and Elders need to think about what is threatening people today, both in their church and in their community. The majority needs to stand up for the minority and all who are being threatened today.

  • James Schaap says:

    Hurtful story. Thoughtful piece. Tough issue. When, some years ago, I first read Kent Haruf’s Benediction, I thought his portrayal of the preacher a little strained. When he preached the Beatitudes, the church rebelled. But for the last five years or so, I’ve wondered whether Haruf’s preacher’s problems (it’s really the sub-plot of the novel) wasn’t more right than stretched: “I want to say to you here on this hot July morning in Holt,” that preacher says, “what if Jesus wasn’t kidding? What if he wasn’t talking about some never-never land? What if he really did mean what he said 2,000 years ago?” Thanks, Brian.

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    The elder’s comment is racist. Banning the discussion of racism is a racist move. There is no moral equivalence with racism, no “good” argument on both sides. The sooner we wake up and call out the elders and others (and ourselves) in our church on white supremacy the better. It won’t be easy–the church has to overcome about 600 years of history of wielding the Bible as a weapon to support racism. As Brian rightly says, this is “political” in the best sense of the word.

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    Thanks Brian. So many ways of approaching this topic. One way to speak truth is with love. In other words, relationship and trust are such important elements in prophetic preaching as well. As a chair or member of a students’ committee for most of my 39 years of ministry, I have seen students and young pastors become John the Baptist’s, not that there is anything wrong with that, but when you constantly are telling people you are wrong, they get turned off and dialogue is broken. We have got to listen to one another.

  • Kate Kooyman says:

    Thanks for this, Brian. I hope it’s widely read and discussed. In American Christianity right now, I feel like the trouble is that every possible event that can be manipulated by the President has been. So to try to “stick to the Bible” and remain “non-partisan” is impossible. If it’s related to race or oppression, inequality or poverty… really anything except abortion… it has been deemed leftist. Since much of Scripture is actually instructing us to stand up to, speak out against, or defend those who experience injustice… it’s hard to know how one might “stick to the Bible” and not be speaking about this stuff, almost all the time. Hard time to be a pastor, because really we get so little training or support or encouragement to even know how to step into into the prophetic role. Most people, I fear, don’t. This is why the church is not leading on justice issues, and is mostly just complicit (and actively participating) in the harm.

  • Linda Radach says:

    Thank you, Brian. As always, a thoughtful and deeply compassionate look at the challenge. In our current environment, it is nearly impossible to speak about topics of social justice without someone politicizing the comment or conversation. It seems to me that the young pastor’s comments caused the elder to feel defensive of his own viewa which, probably safe to say, had already been politicized.

    No shepherd worthy of the charge over a flock would be soft about the prophetic harm of wandering too close to the bramble thicket or cliff’s edge. Even Jesus called out the Pharisees as hypocrites and poor shepherds. Why, I wonder, did the Shepherd’s staff have a hook on it? Indeed, the psalmist says the rod and staff are a comfort to him. I doubt the same were reserved only for use on that which would prey on the flock.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks, Brian: Obviously there are partisan ways to misuse a pulpit. One of my hyper conservative online students recently submitted a sermon that was so violently partisan–basically damning to hell all Democrats–that I had to fail him. Short of this extreme, there are other things that ought not be asserted in the name of Scripture. But no doubt your friend’s sermon had none of that. When people tell the preacher not to be political, 9 times out of 10 what they mean is “Keep YOUR politics out of the pulpit–you may gladly preach MY politics back to me anytime.” But as Kate noted above, the real difficult for us preachers today is that now EVERYTHING is politicized. I have said this many times but will say it again here: there was a major shift after 9/11 and the Iraq War. Things I could say in public prayers and in my sermons in the 1990s that sounded like no more than a whisper suddenly became shrill partisan screams after 2001. And they were THE SAME WORDS and/or sentiments. I left the pulpit ministry in 2005 but things have gotten so much more fragile since. The Gospel is political. It has ramifications for things that have been turned partisan but that ought not BE partisan. And this is the preacher’s dilemma today.

  • Kenneth Baker says:

    As a now retired pastor who doesn’t preach very often, it is easy for me to say Thank You for tearing the lid off of this can of worms. I remember preaching an Advent series from Isaiah many years ago and having a parishioner say the same thing to me as this elder said. It led to an important conversation with her about the Gospel of the Kingdom. I have nothing to add to the valuable affirmations and comments others have registered except this: in the closing chapter of my parish life I found myself emboldened to tackle the tough issues and at the same time challenged to carefully frame them as part of gospel proclamation. In other words, “these appear to me to be challenging implications of the good news and what we have discovered anew about our God and his coming kingdom.” In my case it helped that I was preaching in the context of a long pastorate where we (pastor & congregation) knew one another well and the trust level was fairly high.

  • Ann Conklin says:

    Thank you for this, Brian. It’s certainly a tough time to be a pastor and to preach prophetically. So many in our country are uninformed about the tragic history of racism in our country. As pastors, I think we have a responsiblilty to preach into the current cultural moment; yet we also need to demonstrate the grace and patience that will enable people to learn and then, by God’s grace, begin to examine their own lives and actions. Thanks again and may God’s grace and peace be with you!

  • jared ayers says:

    Brian, I love all of this, and love too Newbigin’s “Good Shepherd” lectures/sermons. Thanks.

  • George Hunsberger says:

    Part of the problem stems from the large gap between “preaching the Bible” and “caring for the flock.” What is pregnantly missing in the elder’s imagination is the pastor as one who disciples us, who “learns the community to Jesus, to the Kingdom of God.” Without that, preaching the Bible and hearing the Bible preached is not expected to have any particular direction or intent. With it, the social and public elements are as natural as comfort and care. Pastor and people grow together in a “performance of the gospel,” as you, Brian, have elsewhere expressed so forcefully! Thanks for your courage to lead us in this.

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