While boarding a plane in St. Louis, I noticed that the man in front of me was oddly dressed. He was wearing a long brown robe with a rope belt. The man looked like a monk from an age long past. The woman taking tickets gave the man a big smile and said “Hello Father.” as if she knew him. The medieval-monk did not know the woman, but he noticed that she had addressed him with the title “Father,” so he asked if she was a Catholic. She replied hesitantly, “Well, yes, but I have not been to mass for a long time.” The monk gently chided her for her idleness as he moved on to board the plane, and then the woman, still laughing nervously, turned to scan my ticket.
Why did this woman call the man “Father,” if she had no real connection to the institutional church anymore? Why did this priest, and supposedly priests like him, garner a measure of her respect while having little to no impact on her behavior, specifically regarding church attendance? These questions, I think, all revolve around one larger question, “Why do you need your pastor?”
Christians in our country tend to view pastors as noble holy men who fill a niche role in our society. They are seen as servants of the people who push us to better ourselves. In this way, pastors and priests are the original self-help gurus, in the eyes of many Americans. They are also understood to have some form of authority, because they are in touch with the “big guy upstairs.” And so, like the woman taking tickets, we instinctively know that they deserve a measure of our respect. Yet, whether a pastor wears an archaic robe or not, the profession of pastor is also viewed as old-fashioned, a remnant of times gone by.
Is the role of pastor really so superfluous? The answer is probably yes, if pastors are merely what the previous paragraph describes: self-help gurus and holy men with a direct line to the “bearded man in the clouds.” But this isn’t what a pastor is supposed to be. If American Christians genuinely understood and embraced the biblical vision of pastor, they would likely be more active in their local church.
What is this vision? I’ll be brief, but I will also list a few books for further reading at the bottom, in case I spark your interest.
Here are three descriptions of a pastor that fit the biblical bill but, unfortunately, are not the descriptions many Christians would ascribe to their own pastors. I’ll begin each description with “your pastor,” so that you can think about these descriptions and how they fit or, unfortunately, don’t fit your pastor.
1. Your Pastor is a Local Theologian
In the age of podcasts, religious television, and YouTube, many Christians consult “the experts” for their theological questions rather than their own pastors. While not every pastor has been adequately trained in biblical studies and theology, for the most part, I think this trend is a mistake. The local pastor is called to shepherd the local church, and this includes shepherding our biblical and theological viewpoints. By this I mean our most basic, fundamental beliefs about the world around us. And the reality is, only your local pastor can give you this kind of theological counsel in the personalized way that we so need.
Let me put it this way: the pastor is meant to be your metaphorical ophthalmologist (eye doctor). When I was twelve, I went to the eye doctor to get glasses. The ophthalmologist used her expertise to fit me with the correct lenses and frames that I needed. These glasses allowed me to see the world as it really was, rather than as the fuzzy mess my eyes beheld, based on their own strength. In the same way, pastors are meant to fit a congregation with a biblical framework that allows each member to see the world for what it truly is: a broken, fallen creation of God in deep need of redemption through the God-man, Jesus Christ.
Christians should be in the process of being formed by the local theologians that are our pastors. These pastors should be intentionally shaping their sermons (formal Sunday sermons & informal biblical counsel) to instill in their particular congregations a thoroughly and extensively biblical worldview (Rom. 12:1-2). Sunday morning sermons are not mere self-help talks to give you techniques to achieve personal happiness. Sermons are one of the most powerful means by which God cleanses you of your default selfishness and re-orients you for the sake of His own Kingdom purposes.
2. Your Pastor is a Liturgical Waiter
We often picture pastors as relatively benign individuals. As I use the word “pastor,” you may picture a man in a suit or a black robe standing in a church pulpit, delivering a sermon. You may see him playing baseball with the youth group or praying at a fellowship meal. But sometimes the ordinary and familiar nature of pastoral work causes us to overlook the, dare I say, “epic” role that the pastor holds. Picture this: a man with an oversized Bible boldly standing in a storm at the edge of a seemingly endless sea. The expansive mass of water is being violently stirred by the storm. And on the other side of the man is a magnificent, wooden table, set for a feast.
This man is a pastor, ready to be an administrator, a liturgical waiter of sorts. He stands between the Lord's table and the seas of baptism, in the midst of the brutality of this fallen world. This picture reminds us of the divine, Spiritual power which stands behind the seemingly ordinary pastoral ministry of Word and Sacrament. Every Sunday we get to partake in the Spiritual benefits of the “means of grace” that are found uniquely in the reading, preaching, singing, confessing, seeing, tasting and “amen-ing” of the Word of God. Your pastor gets to be the minister or waiter of these most gracious means. Epic, is it not?
3. Your Pastor is a Specialist in the Art of Dying Well
In theology there is a term that is often misunderstood. The term is “eschatology,” or the study of the end. Sometimes we think that eschatology can only be associated with Armageddon, predictions of approaching catastrophic events, and the final return of Christ. What we tend to forget is that eschatology is deeply practical, because eschatology is also about how we live our lives now. The end of a well-crafted story will determine the identity of the good guys and the bad guys and will evaluate the worth of the choices and events that took place during the earlier parts of the story. Christians, in the Scriptures, have been given a glimpse into the end of the story (Rev. 21 & 22), and therefore we have been given great wisdom about how to live now.
Pastors are trained to tell the story of Christianity, the great narrative of God’s redeeming his creation through Christ (Col. 1:19-20). Our life now is not all that there is. Jesus will win and his beloved church will live on into eternity. Death acts simply as a door through which we all must walk. The only question is: “Will we die well”? Will our lives be geared in such a way that ignores the reality of death and the afterlife or will our stories be shaped by the biblical picture of the end?
Therefore, pastors are called to be our own personal “specialists in the art of dying well.” A pastor will welcome a newborn infant into the world with joy and into the church with baptism one day. While that same pastor, on the next day, will accompany, comfort, and counsel a grieving family in a funeral home. The work of the pastor as "specialist in the art of dying well" has just begun for this little baby and it has come to its completion for the one who has "passed on." Only the Christian pastor is equipped by his training and his office to play these privileged and humbling roles in the great story of God’s redemption as we anticipate the end.
“Why Do You Need Your Pastor?” Well, perhaps the descriptions above have brought more substance to the calling that is the Christian pastorate. If this has made you curious to learn more, try reading one of the books below.
1. The Pastor As Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision by Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachen
2. By His Spirit and Word by Cornelius Venema
3. Becoming a Pastor Theologian: New Possibilities for Church Leadership edited by Todd Wilson & Gerald Hiestand