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.