Walking the Pastoral Tightrope

Inevitably, there’s always someone who says it. They don’t mean to be demeaning or to diminish the work you do. They don’t mean to sound cavalier about what you’ve given your life to do and be. At least I hope that’s true. 

But, nevertheless, every time I hear it, I feel frustrated. 

“You’re a pastor, so you really only work on Sunday. What do you do with the rest of your time?”

And you realize, when someone says some variation of the above, that they really do think all a pastor does is stand up on Sunday to give a teaching/sermon/talk. They don’t know about the hours of preparation, the hospital visits, the meetings, or the countless stories into which you are invited–some full of joy, some full of pain. They don’t know about that feeling you have at the end of a teaching, that feeling that your soul has just been bared before an entire room full of people, which for some has raised the central existential question of “what’s for lunch?”

The reality is, there are as many expectations of what a pastor is or should be as there are people in the room.

Some expect her to be a wise sage.
Some expect him to be ever-present and available.
Others want her to preach sermons that focus on “those people,” or for him to avoid any mention of politics, and just preach the truth (which often means affirming their preconceived ideas, not challenging them). 

There’s never a shortage of expectations or opinions about who pastors should be.
The job description is ever evolving. 

I’ve been in a pastoral role since I was 19. That’s way too young, by the way. It used to make me so mad when people would say, “You’re awfully young to be a pastor.” The truth is, they were right, and they don’t say it any more, much to my chagrin. Alas, I digress. My point is that for almost 20 years now I’ve been in this role, and my understanding of what it is and means is still growing. But, if I had to say, “A pastor is X,” then here’s what I would say:

Being a pastor is about holding the tension between the pastoral and the prophetic.

First, the pastoral role. “Pastoral” here connotes the role of a shepherd. Someone who comes alongside to offer guidance and care. This facet of being a pastor is where relationships are cultivated and bonds are formed. It’s the hospital visit, dedicating a new baby, offering comfort during a time of loss, presiding at a wedding, being a sounding board, seeking to offer whatever wisdom you have. The pastoral role is about joining people in their journey and, together, pursuing transformation. When most people think of a “good pastor,” they probably think of someone who was there for them, nurturing them, encouraging them. This aspect of being a pastor is so very important. 

Then, there’s the prophetic role. By “prophetic” I don’t mean “predicting the future.” That’s a misnomer. In the biblical tradition, a prophet is someone who speaks a message from God. This often takes the shape of speaking truth to power, challenging convention and status quo, casting a vision of what could be, and being a voice for the marginalized and the victims of said power.

Notice these lines from the Hebrew prophets:

The prophet Amos, speaking for God, says, 

“I hate, I reject your festivals;
I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
I won’t be pleased;
I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” [5v21-24, CEB]
The prophet Jeremiah challenged those among the religious leadership, who believed that the Temple protected them from judgment, in spite of their mistreatment of the most vulnerable among them:
“This is what the LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, says: Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place. Don’t trust in lies: “This is the LORD’s temple! The LORD’s temple! The LORD’s temple!” No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly; if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin, only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time.” [7v3-7, CEB]
These are two examples of a vast tradition of prophets who challenged hypocrisy, injustice, and inequality. This tradition has lived on. Jesus was considered a prophet in his day, one who spoke and embodied a message from God. To speak more contemporarily, people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived and died challenging the evils of segregation and racism, are in this same vein, this prophetic tradition. 
And we need the prophetic voices today. We need those who will risk their success, their comfort, or their position to speak truth to power; not because of partisanship, but because of truth. We need those who will refuse to sit quietly by while injustice becomes the norm, and instead, rattle the cages, make noise, and proclaim the justice and love of God.
This, friends, is a vital part of the pastoral calling. If pastors only speak polite platitudes, reinforce preconceived ideas and prejudice, live safely and collect a paycheck, then we have betrayed our calling and our tradition. Simply put, a pastor who doesn’t make you uncomfortable sometimes, who doesn’t challenge what you “know,” who doesn’t push you beyond your comfort zone, isn’t fulfilling the role he or she has been given. 
I don’t mean what we often think: pastors who yell and scream, who condemn “those” people, and keep long lists of who’s in and who’s out. 
I mean pastors who challenge our racism, who call us to generosity, who critique our power structures that benefit the few on top. I mean pastors who refuse to marginalize people who are made in the image of God, just because it’s good for the bottom line. I mean pastors who stand courageously for truth, justice, and compassion. I’m beyond grateful to know many of these pastors. They inspire me, and I want to be more like them when I grow up.
Of course, we also need the pastoral function of a pastor. That is essential to the caring for and leading of a community. But we do not need it at the expense of the prophetic function. We need pastors who will, as it is said, ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’
Being a pastor, some days, feels like walking a tightrope across a vast chasm with no net. At any moment you could lose your footing and fall into the canyon below. Yet, our love for people, our desire to participate in the transformation of ourselves, others, and our world, drives us forward. Our hope for a more just, generous, and compassionate world keeps calling us to walk this tightrope. And so, we walk. 

One thought on “Walking the Pastoral Tightrope

  1. As for the role of shepherd, I always gave (I’m now retired) the council a written report with meetings attended, number of hospital, home, nursing home, and counseling visits for the month. My board members knew I kept busy.


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