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]
“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]