THE TYRANNY OF PASTORAL VISITATION! (May 3, 2016)

Jim McClureDr Jim McClure, noted theologian, challenges a modern pastoral attitude…

Before you read further, I hasten to say that I wrote the title of this article with ‘tongue in cheek.’ It does, however, reflect what now appears to be the attitude of many pastors today regarding the pastoral work of ministry.

There was a time when pastoral visitation was a central pillar of the ministry of many pastors. But, sadly, not any longer.  Many reasons can be given to justify the trend among pastors for not visiting their ‘flock.’ But, frankly, such reasons are usually nothing more than excuses – especially for the lazy pastor!

The position taken by some is this – pastoral visitation is not necessary if a person attends church every Sunday; and, if they don’t attend church, they clearly are no longer interested in belonging!

Obviously some pastors have a greater enthusiasm for visiting their people but that preference should not be used as an excuse for not engaging in pastoral visitation of their church family – especially those hospitalised, housebound and in care.

Some claim that making a phone call or sending an email to a church member are adequate (and 21st century!) alternatives to visitation. But neither a phone call nor an email can accomplish the dynamics of a relationship that is established with a caring personal interaction.

Others offer an ‘appointment system’ to their people as their preferred method of pastoral care. While there is some merit in the possibility for church members to make an appointment to see the pastor – and at times this may be appropriate – if this is the principal (or only) way in which church members can meet with their pastor, it falls far short from the biblical principles of pastoral care.

Such desk-bound, internet-surfing, program-making ‘pastors’ (male or female), who tell themselves they are exercising a pastoral ministry according to biblical principles, are self- deluded! Pastors sometimes have an inflated opinion of their own importance – an opinion that places personal engagement and involvement with their ‘flock’ well down the list of priorities.

Pastoral ministry had two aspects – feeding God’s people with the word of God and caring for them through personal interaction.

Let’s see what the Bible has to say about the ministry of a pastor…

1. Biblical perspective
The Greek word for shepherd (or, pastor) is ‘poimen.’ The eastern shepherd had a role of great responsibility for the care and security of his sheep, and because of the relatively small size of the flocks, he was able to be personally involved with each one. The sheep themselves were valued possessions which required exceptional care, attention and protection.

Poimen, therefore, was such a relevant and evocative word in use in the first century that it was used to describe the role of the church leader.  The imagery had already been fixed over hundreds of years in the hearts and minds of the people. 

Apart from the fact that Israel’s social and economic development in Old Testament days was largely dependent on sheep, the imagery of the relationship between God and his people was also depicted as a shepherd and his sheep.

  • Thus we have the powerful affirmation of comfort and encouragement in the words of David, the one-time shepherd: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want’ (Psalm 23:1).
  • Referring to David, the psalmist wrote, ‘He (ie God) chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart’ (Psalm 78:70 – 72).
  • In referring to God, Isaiah wrote, ‘He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young’ (Isaiah 40:11).
  • Psalm 80:1 says God called himself the ‘Shepherd of Israel.’
  • And in many other passages throughout the Old Testament, the image of the indispensable importance of the work of the shepherd (pastor) is reinforced.

Thus, when we turn to the New Testament, it’s no surprise to discover the analogy is used again and again, particularly in the teaching of Jesus. He…

  • Spoke of the shepherd (poimen) leaving the ninety nine sheep that were secure to search ’for the one that wandered off’ (Matthew 18:12).
  • Described his followers as his ‘little flock’ (Luke 12:32).
  • Graphically used the metaphor to describe himself as the ‘Good Shepherd’ (John 10:1-18).
  • Told Peter, ‘Feed my lambs … take care of my sheep’ (John 21:15 -16).

Dr Jim 0516a

It is not surprising, therefore, that Peter should also have instructed church leaders, ‘I urge you then to see that your “flock of God” is properly fed and cared for. Accept the responsibility of looking after them willingly and not because you feel you can’t get out of it, doing your work not for what you can make, but because you are really concerned for their well-being. You should aim not at being “little tin gods” but as examples of Christian living in the eyes of the flock committed to your charge’ (1 Peter 5:2-3 JBP).

Clearly there is strong biblical justification for the employment of the word pastor (or shepherd) for those who are called to a leadership role.

The question, of course, is that, while poimen was such a relevant and meaningful word for an agrarian lifestyle, how relevant is it for non-agrarian, industrialised, technically advanced and electronic 21st century cultures?

2. Contemporary Problem
The importance of the figure of the shepherd/pastor who cared of his flock was so understood by the people in biblical times that it did not require much explanation. However, although we have such strong biblical precedence in the use of the term ‘poimen/pastor,’ is it appropriate to continue to use it today?

What does 21st century urban man really understand about shepherds, shepherding and sheep? Even in Australia, about which it used to be said its economy ‘rode on the back of the sheep’ and in which sheep farming is still a major industry, the majority of Australians live in and around the major cities and consequently know little about the practicalities of sheep farming.

Furthermore there are few similarities between the first century eastern shepherd who looked after his small flock, and the 21st century Australian sheep farmer with tens of thousands of sheep!

Nevertheless I would argue that the simple, yet incredibly powerful biblical image of the shepherd is not beyond the ability of contemporary people, including the urbanised, to understand!

Jesus clearly used such a metaphor of the shepherd and his sheep because it was culturally, immediately and powerfully comprehended by the people whom he addressed. If the word ‘pastor’ is today considered lacking in some way, what is the alternative? There is considerable difficulty in finding a vital, comprehensible and acceptable alternative terminology to describe the biblical challenge given to those whom God calls to lead to feed and care for Jesus’ ‘sheep’  (John 21:15,16).

3. Learning from the shepherd/sheep example
The image of the shepherd and his sheep is rich in significance, especially when considered in the view of the example set by Jesus.  He described himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:14), is described as the Great Shepherd (Hebrews 13:20) and as the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4).

Jesus is the definitive example of the meaning of poimen and in him we clearly see the outworking of that word.  During the three and a half years in which he trained his disciples, he taught them the fundamental lessons of what it means to be a pastor. Certainly he taught by word, but he also powerfully taught by example. Jesus is the archetype of the true pastor.

I would suggest that from the example of Jesus as Pastor we may learn the following lessons:

a) Identifying
That is, being one with the people for whom one is caring, and showing by example what one is encouraging others to do.

Twelve times in the gospels the word ‘compassion’ is used about Jesus’ identifying with human need or in parables in which he commended compassionate identification with such need. The Greek word means more than simply feeling sorry for someone; it is significantly more than a feeling. It is a feeling that results in action! It is an outworking of love in a very practical way.

b) Relating
This requires the pastor developing such bonds of relationship with his people that he is able to recognise and to share the different experiences through which they are going, and relate with them in such a way that they get to know him and trust him.

Pastoring cannot take place at a distance! It requires personal, one-to-one engagement. Jesus said, ‘They will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice’ (John 10:5).

c) Leading
Just as the Eastern shepherd walked in front of the sheep, the pastor needs to be pro-active and take the initiative in leading the people.

His pastoral care is not limited to ‘helping the wounded’ (important though that is) but must also include providing clear direction for the ‘healthy.’ He needs to be aware of opportunities and alert to dangers.  ‘When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice’ (John 10:4).

d) Self-sacrificing
The pastor must be willing to put the well-being of his people before his own; he must operate on the principle of self-sacrifice rather than that of self-serving. The well-being of his people should be paramount in both his thinking and ministry.  ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11).

e) Committing
In the midst of many distractions and demands on his time, the pastor needs to realise that he has a primary commitment to those whom God has given him to lead. The pastor who is committed to his people will spontaneously encourage their commitment to him!

Jesus contrasted the committed shepherd with the hired hand who abandoned the sheep: ‘The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep’ (John 10:13). The hired hand is only doing the job for monetary rewards! (In parenthesis, one cannot help but wonder if some noted ‘pastors’ who earn exorbitant salaries are more like ‘hired hands’ rather than pastors!).

f) Unifying
The unity of the church is vital to the effectiveness of its work. The pastor therefore must seek, insofar as he is able, to encourage and maintain the spirit of oneness and cooperation among those he leads and address areas of disunity for the sake of the whole body. He also needs to be on guard against the ‘wolf’ that attacks and scatters the flock (John 10:12).

g) Feeding
The good pastor ensures that his people are well fed on the word of God so that they will be spiritually healthy, will grow in Christian maturity and will be committed to their own responsibilities as disciples of Christ. When Jesus reinstated Peter to the pastoral ministry, he said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’ (John 21:17).

It is vital that the pastor preaches the whole word of God and not just selected parts of the Bible that appeal to him! Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus, ‘I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable … I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:20, 27 RSV).

h) Caring
Dr Jim 0416bAs a shepherd carefully keeps his eye on his sheep, he notices those which are in trouble or lame, or injured or in distress for any reason; so too the pastor’s role is particularly to care for those who are suffering from adverse life experiences.

Jesus, our example, began his ministry with the declaration, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed’ (Luke 4:18).  Ministry in his name must include similar dimensions.

Feeding God’s people with the word of God and genuinely caring for them does not define the extent of a pastor’s ministry, but they are certainly two important and irreplaceable characteristics of it. All of the above areas (a to h) are vitally relevant to the role of pastor in every age, and need to be unpacked in ways that are pertinent to the age in which one lives.

4. Shepherding as a limiting model?
While some may argue that the ‘shepherd/pastor’ places limitations on leadership ministry today – for example, how does one reconcile the shepherd-model with megachurch pastoral leadership?  That is a question that cannot be adequately addressed here; nevertheless I would maintain that the essential principles of leadership ministry in the church, as taught and modelled by Jesus, cannot be set aside as redundant in any generation.

While there may be some advantages for a church, especially one that has an extremely large membership, to be administrated by a person with CEO-type gifting, this does not support the argument that in some circumstances the ministry of the shepherd/leader is redundant. The disadvantages of departing from the biblical model in all churches need to be recognised and addressed.

Unfortunately the term ‘pastor’ is frequently used today in a broad sense to designate ministries which are not necessarily pastoral in nature.

5. The pastoral role of the church
Pastoral responsibility is not the pastor’s exclusive province
– it belongs to the whole church and is the responsibility of all its members. The church must be a caring community, and pastoral care must be viewed as the shared task of all, especially those who have a particular talent in this area of ministry. The pastor cannot do it alone.

  • Neither should the pastor appoint others to do it for him!
  • Nor is a phone call an adequate alternative to face-to-face personal encounter.
  • Pastoral visitation is not beneath the dignity of the pastor!
  • Person-to person engagement with one’s people is not to be considered an unpleasant task that is best avoided – or left to someone else!

I am wholly convinced that the lost (or avoided) ministry of the authentic pastor desperately needs to be rediscovered and embraced today – for the good of God’s church and the glory of God.

Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from concerned Christians. 

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In his well-researched Grace Revisited he reveals grace as having a strong active meaning and is like a many faceted diamond out of which shines a greater understanding of the great God we worship. Normally $35 but obtainable from the author for $25 (plus postage). Link/orders/enquiries: jbmcclure@hotmail.com

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