What does it mean to be “pastoral”?

I’m a pastor. Have been for ten years. Best job I can imagine. I get to serve the God I love and work with the things our God loves most deeply: his word and his church. As the Senior Pastor of University Reformed Church I am 100% in favor of being “pastoral.”

So long as the word means what the Bible means for it to mean.

When I see the adjective “pastoral” placed in front of a noun it seems to me the word is almost always meant to convey, in contemporary parlance, a truncated set of virtues. A “pastoral approach” implies gentleness, patience, and a lot of listening. If someone is “pastoral” he is good with people, sensitive, and a calming influence. “Pastoral care” means comforting the sick, visiting widows, and lending a shoulder to cry on. These are all find examples of being a good pastor.

But these examples do not exhaust what the Bible means by “pastoral ministry.” My fear is that the soft virtues of pastoral care have so eclipsed the hard virtues that for many people a “pastoral approach” is another way of saying “amiable, personable, and psychological.” At worst, “pastoral” becomes that wonderful temperament we exude when we get through being preachy and theological. Slap the pastoral adjective in front of something and that thing becomes a whole lot sweeter. The biblical approach might be nasty and theological approach nefarious, but the pastoral approach sounds nice.

And yet, what is the “pastoral approach” except the approach of a shepherd? By definition, a shepherd is pastoral. That’s what the word means. So think about what shepherds must be like. According to Psalm 23, a good shepherd feeds, leads, guides, protects, and preserves. Shepherds in the ancient world were “remarkable and broadly capable persons.” As Timothy Laniak observes, “They were known for independence, resourcefulness, adaptability, courage and vigilance. Their profession cultivated a capacity for attentiveness, self-sacrifice, and compassion” (Shepherds After My Own Heart, 57). Shepherd leadership involves the use of authority, expressions of compassion, and protection of the flock. A “pastoral approach” may entail sympathy and patience, but the adjective pastoral must not be reduced to these things. The work of the shepherd encompasses everything from watching little lambs, ordering the sheep, and fending off wolves.

At its most foundational, pastoral ministry, Laniak concludes, “is the subtle blend of authority and care” (quoting Tidball, 247). Above all, the shepherd aims to serve the flock, even at great personal cost to himself. The shepherd is accountable for the sheep as their “protector, provider, and guide.” He must be the type of leader who can rule with a rod of iron (Psalm 2) and tenderly carry the nursing ewes (Isaiah 40). To be “pastoral” is to be tough and tender, courageous and comforting. The adjective must be sufficiently broad as to make sense of the broadness of the biblical imagery. Being pastoral is different than active listening combined with non-offensiveness. A truly pastoral approach exercises authority with compassion, provides protection through self-sacrifice, and looks after the weak by offering leadership that is strong.

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12 thoughts on “Embracing a Pastoral Approach”

  1. What a fascinating blog post! I love how you delved into exactly what “pastoral” means—in both the Biblical sense and the modern-day sense. My own church’s pastor is sure to enjoy reading this post as much as I did, so I’m going to send it over to him as soon as I’m done writing this comment! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  2. Phil Allcock says:

    Very interesting. I think that Mark 6:34 is a key, and sadly ignored text. “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.”
    Whatever we say about pastoral ministry, if we are to be faithful followers of Jesus, then a teaching ministry (driven by compassion) must be at its heart.

  3. Jessica says:

    I think of Jesus as the best example of “pastoral” leadership. He was loving in His rebuking, teaching, compassion and service. It is too bad that men have a tendency to be either pastoral in the rebuking/teaching area to the exclusion of the priestly side, or overly gentle and sensitive to the exclusion of the correction/teaching side. Thanks for the post!

  4. Wilson says:

    thank you for the post, the clarification was edifying and encouraging…

  5. David Axberg says:

    This is my attempt at a visual of what a shepherd does when faced with a wolf entering the flock. Thanks to the Avengers and the Hulk. No Puny gods allowed. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dkPpmIsEiY Thanks Kevin May the one true God Bless Now!

  6. Kevin,

    I greatly appreciate this clarification. How much of this distinction is between the noun (pastor) and the adjective (pastoral)? I think the office, role, or function as pastor holds much of what you explain. But the breakdown is in the adjective; that somehow when we use the word descriptively it loses its gravity and eases toward softness.

  7. Thanks for this reminder of what pastoral care should look like.

    In addition to the “amiable” pastor, I have experienced the other extreme where the “pastor” viewed the sheep entrusted to his care as his workforce for accomplishing “ministry” goals.

    Neither the amiable “anything goes” pastor, nor the controlling “I’m in charge” pastor are what I see in Jesus or anything that Paul encouraged Timothy and Titus to be.

  8. Randy Lubbers says:

    I must confess you almost lost me in the first paragraph when you alluded to the “things” God loves most, “the word and his church.” I immediately thought, “For God so loved the WORLD that he gave his only begotten Son.” Perhaps just a difference in perspective….

    Regardless, I fear your “fear” might be misplaced. You almost sound afraid — very afraid — of what you call the “soft virtues of pastoral care.” From what I can tell, the church still desperately needs more and more patience, gentleness, and humility which might be manifest in the willingness and openness to listening to the way the Spirit may be speaking through God’s Word to others. I’m not disagreeing with much of what you present in the second-to-the-last paragraph, but I do take issue with the hard vs. soft dichotomy. Indeed, isn’t it more difficult, challenging, courageous and, if you will, “hard,” to practice patience and gentleness than to rule with a “rod of iron”? Does it not arguably require more courage and wisdom to be a calming (non-anxious) presence in the midst of turmoil than to practice the “hard virtues”?

    By the way, I’m not sure the psalmist intended to prescribe the “rod of iron” to ministers of the Word and sacraments serving as the pastor and teacher of a congregation. If so, then are we to “dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (2:9b) as well?

    “The Lord is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in enduring love” (Psalm 103:8). If the “biblical approach” is truly nasty, then, do you think, perhaps the particularly nasty interpretation and/or application should be reevaluated? Likewise with the nefarious theology? (See T.F. Torrance “The Mediation of Christ” for a strong case against that.) “God is love”–that is not any more a truncated picture of God than is Psalm 103:8. Likewise, the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) (which sound a lot like “soft virtues”) is the essence of all pastoral leadership and authority. There is no dichotomy.

  9. Timothy says:

    I wonder if this is one crucial image of many for the elder. My fear is that if it is taken alone it supports a crippling spiritual welfare system for Christians, rendering the pastor the only go to guy for ‘Ministry Work’, which is so prevalent today. The pastor as teacher that equips for the work of the ministry should cause us to pause, and should invoke a series of other images for elders (prophet, king, general etc.).

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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