Jump directly to the Content

Broader Pastures, More Breeds

The role of the pastor has grown over the centuries.

Almost 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find the source of the Missouri River, and from there to discover a relatively easy water route west to the Pacific. Such a waterway, they discovered, doesn't exist.

But they did succeed in mapping the Northwest and, 15 months after they began pushing themselves upstream, they found, near today's Montana-Idaho border, the source of the mighty Missouri.

Lewis's journal records that on August 12, 1805, a member of the expedition, Private Hugh McNeal, "exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri."

The Missouri at its source looks a lot different than the powerful current that flows into the Mississippi River near St. Louis.

Likewise, the role of the pastor has broadened significantly from its origins in the hills of Galilee. Several major tributaries have contributed to the currents of contemporary ministry, but it's the same river.

The pastor's biblical beginnings

The term "pastor" comes from the Latin word for "shepherd," the metaphor used in both Old and New Testaments for one responsible for God's people. The primary shepherd/pastor is the Lord himself (Psalm 23), but the Bible also recognizes human undershepherds—some good, some not so good.

In his day Ezekiel condemned these undershepherds for looking after themselves and neglecting the flock. "You have not strengthened the weak … or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost" (34:4).

The New Testament instructs elders to be good shepherds. "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock," writes Paul. "Savage wolves will come in among you. … So be on your guard!" (Acts 20:28-31).

Peter tells elders to willingly be "examples to the flock. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of glory" (1 Peter 5:3-4).

Thus the Bible presents pastoring primarily as protecting and feeding the flock of God. Over the centuries, these functions developed into specific and distinct roles.


Feeding the flock means many things: instructing, encouraging, sacraments, and more. The Reformation recovered the emphasis on the pastor as the "teacher of God's Word." Preaching had long been neglected in the church; it had given way to sometimes rote and thoughtless service at the altar. The Reformers placed preaching in the central place as the primary way to feed the flock of God. Breaking the Bread of Life means, at least in part, preaching the Word.

Curer of souls

In the 1600s, the Puritans enhanced the concept of pastor, by stressing the role as "physician of the soul." A pastor must know the flock—and discover each person's spiritual condition, healthy or unhealthy, primarily by asking questions (How is it with your soul? How are you resisting evil? How are you serving God? Are your affections holy?).

And if he discovers a fundamental ill, he prescribes some remedy to restore spiritual health and vitality.

As theologian (and modern Puritan) J.I. Packer describes it: "There is such a thing as spiritual depression. Relationships or a marriage can collapse. Children can disappoint you. The business can go bankrupt. Grief or trauma produce states of mind and emotion that call for spiritual counsel. Because we're to live to the glory of God, all our moods have to be brought into relation to God, his love, his work, and the ongoing process of sanctification.

"The sanctifying of troubles is a prominent New Testament theme. Troubles are to be expected, but God can sanctify them. The pastor, in the Puritan understanding is there to be God's agent, God's lightning rod, the transforming link between the distress of the Christian and the love and power of God."

Arranger of relationships

A distinguishing characteristic of the Methodist awakening in the 1700s was organizing people into groups in order to "maintain the glow" that the Lord had ignited in their hearts.

Thus, every Methodist conference (or regional group) would be subdivided into "classes"—12 persons with a leader. Like home groups today, they would meet once a week between Sundays. They would pray together, discuss Scripture, share their experiences, and encourage each other.

So in Methodist circles pastors became overseers of small groups for the purpose of nurturing believers.

Manager and missionary

In the twentieth century, new tributaries entered the broadening stream of pastoral expectations.

With individualism and isolation increasing, the need for community is stronger than ever. Pastors assumed a greater role in maintaining corporate life, or put more crassly, "running a church"—recruiting, motivating, administering.

Put positively, this merely extends the role of "organizer of nurturing relationships" who tends to the health of the community.

The downside is that a pastor may feel more like a manager of church business than a shepherd of souls.

And surrounded by a decreasingly Christian society, the need to evangelize the world at the church's doorstep is unavoidable. "Missionary to our own neighborhood" has been added to the pastor's role.

Jesus, of course, affirmed the shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek out the one that is lost (Luke 15:4-7). No pastor can be content to simply supervise those currently in the fold.

Today every pastor is "seeker sensitive" to some degree—aware of the need for evangelism and outreach—and feels the burden for those not yet in the flock.

So the task of protecting and feeding the flock has widened.

As Private McNeal discovered, standing astride the rivulet can be exhilarating, but he was also more than eager to ride the broader current all the way home.

Marshall Shelley is executive editor of Leadership and sister publication Christian History.

Support Our Work

Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month

Homepage Subscription Panel

Read These Next

Protection from the Pressures
Protection from the Pressures
Five commitments safeguard my marriage and ministry.
From the Magazine
How Scripture Keeps Surprising Me
How Scripture Keeps Surprising Me
As a child, I hid God’s Word in my heart. Now it sneaks out when I least expect it.
Editor's Pick
Who Canceled the Apostle Paul?
Who Canceled the Apostle Paul?
Lessons from the first Christian influencer on how to lead when you are hated.