Ah, the countryside. It can be the place of daydreams for a city-dweller. A gentle breeze wafts over lush green meadows and rolling hills. All is quiet save for the lowing of cattle or the bleating of sheep. Life is simple and proceeds at an easy, unhurried pace. The setting is peaceful, idyllic.
That’s one sense of the English word “pastoral.”
I think that definition would make your average pastor laugh.
Probably even the above-average ones.
Pastoral ministry is anything but idyllic. Maybe we should have known. After all, when Jesus tells people that he’s the Good Shepherd, he doesn’t talk about how peaceful everything is going to be; he goes straight to talking about how the shepherd must die, because the Father says so (John 10:14-18).
Moreover, when he commissions Peter to follow in his footsteps by caring for and feeding his sheep, he doesn’t offer a great salary and benefits package. He doesn’t promise prestigious career advancement. He doesn’t talk about the wonderful working conditions. He talks about death (John 21:18-19).
(I expect the seminary where I teach won’t be using this blog post for recruitment purposes.)
We usually take “pastoral” to mean something associated with pastors. But like the word “bucolic,” it also means something associated with shepherds and the countryside, and many imagine rural existence to be calm and peaceful compared to the noise and chaos of the city. Pastors, following Jesus, know themselves to be under-shepherds, serving the Good Shepherd, as Peter did. But any idyllic ideals they may have had about church life when they entered seminary are typically dispelled quickly once they’ve been appointed to an actual congregation. It feels a little like death.
Part of the problem, of course, is the sheep.
Real sheep don’t have much individual ego, and come when the shepherd calls. Metaphorical sheep (that would be you and me) have their own ideas and aren’t so docile. In fact, there’s often a bit of jostling in the flock to see who might rise to the level of alpha sheep.
That’s supposed to be what the wolves do.
None of this is meant as a fatalistic message to pastors, such as, Shepherding means death, so deal with it. God’s people are characterized as sheep to convey their lostness and dependency. But in neither the Old Testament nor the New are they passive or easy to lead. Ask Moses. Ask Jesus or Paul. God’s people can be a stubborn, unruly bunch. Not always, of course — just often enough to remind us not to romanticize the role of an under-shepherd.
It’s hard work.
But to those who are called to it, it’s the only work.
P. S. to all the metaphorical sheep reading this: it never hurts to show your pastors honest appreciation for their sacrificial service. But if you really want to honor their vocation as under-shepherds, show them how their ministry has helped you to love and follow the Good Shepherd more truly. For pastors who are worth their salt, that’s the encouragement they want and need.