rethinking the word “pastor”

kathyescobar church stuff, leadership, women in ministry 77 Comments

rethinking the word pastori have had this post swirling around in my head for over a year now and am finally taking the time to put these thoughts about the word “pastor” in black-and-white.

6 years ago on january 1st i went on a church staff as a “pastor.”  looking back, the whole thing is so weird because i never thought of myself as a pastor even though i’ve really being doing it in some weird shape or form since i was a teenager.  my graduate degree is focused on organizational development and years later, after having a bunch of babies and finding myself in “church” instead of the professional world, i decided to get more ministry-ish training and go to seminary to pursue a second master’s degree in counseling (i discovered i was an utterly horrible therapist–i stink at 50 minutes once a week, and the only thing i kept thinking when i was with people was how to plug them into healing community outside of the office and introduce them to other friends who struggled with similar faith/life things).  i also discovered that i didn’t want to go to graduate school twice for the same level of degree.  so after my first year at seminary and my counseling practicum i knew i was on the wrong track and made the switch to spiritual direction–which i love and was a better fit for all kinds of reasons–and got myself a fancy certificate in it (that no one really cares about) in 2004.

my point, though, is that i had been facilitating groups and journeying with people for years, always focused on shepherding people, healing, compassion, and change in their real life; yet, i never, ever considered myself a “pastor.”  that word was reserved for people who stood up in front of people at a pulpit or on a stage and taught for 30 minutes and did ministry for a living. and when i got a call from a friend asking me if i’d consider going on staff at his church as the care pastor in 2002 i thought he was calling to ask me if i knew anyone who might want the job; it never occurred to me that he would be calling to ask me to do it.  i didn’t take the position; the twins were too little and i didn’t have the support from home i needed to go for it then.  after turning it down, i thought my “big opportunity to be an official pastor” was gone.  so i kept doing what i loved to do and cultivated a soul care ministry at the church i was at, doing all kinds of pastoring-ish things but never having the title that went along with it.  in 2003 i got another phone call asking me to re-think the care pastor position, this time as the associate care pastor since the church had grown and they needed 2 instead of one.  this time, the twins were a year older and jose was on board so on january 1st, 2004 i stepped into the title & role & money of a “pastor” on a big church staff.   two short & wild years and two pastor-titles later i found myself out of a job but with an ever greater passion for cultivating true community.

i readily admit that i liked what came those first few years with the title “pastor” in a big exciting church.  you automatically get something that you don’t get when you are a lay person, even though honestly i had been doing many of the same things for years.  i also saw a side to church leadership & politics that i am quite certain i would never put myself in a position to see again.  but i think for me the far-more important piece of those couple of years was someone calling out the pastoral gift in me, seeing what i couldn’t see.  i will always be extremely thankful for the opportunity to step into pastoral care in a more tangible and real way.  at the same time, there are still times that i feel like a pastor-step-child when i am in certain pastor-y circles & they get to talking because i do not have a masters of divinity degree, i am not ordained by a specific denomination, and i don’t know greek.  i think i am one of many who love being with people and are really good at it but might not have the proper “credentials” in certain eyes.  unfortunately, credentials is what the system has perpetuated about “pastors.”

i think the misinterpretation and misapplication of what it means to pastor gets in the way of living out the biblical principle of the “priesthood of all believers” that resonates deep in the hearts of many but rarely has a place to be cultivated in a typical church setting.

i believe pastoring is a gift, not a title.  many have come to believe that being a pastor means someone who 1) has gone to seminary; 2)  “runs” churches; 3) preaches sermons; 4) marries and buries people.   i really don’t think this was the biblical idea of the word poimen, which is synonymous with shepherding.

so here are some of my thoughts about pastoring. i know they will bug some people, that’s okay.  for others, maybe some of these ideas will resonate.  they’re just some things to ponder & i’d love to hear more from you.

  • pastors are the people who are caring for, shepherding, loving, and journeying in close-relationship with people wherever they are, whether that be as part of church, at work, in their neighborhoods, etc. their focus is on relationship, relationship, relationship.  years ago a young woman told me that the weekend communicator at the mega-church she was going to was a “really amazing pastor.” it was hard because i wanted to say back to her, “honey, he is not a pastor.  yep, he’s an amazing speaker and teacher and extremely gifted CEO, but he will never, ever know your name, let alone your story… he will never counsel you or have you over for dinner, hold your babies or be with you when you or one of your family is sick in the hospital or going through a rough patch. he will never do anything that someone with a true pastor’s gift will naturally do.” yet, he will get all of the kudos and benefits of being a “pastor” without ever actually shepherding or being in pastoring relationships with people.  i can’t tell you how many times i have heard from a variety of different churches that their senior pastor “isn’t really a people person.”
  • to me, pastoring doesn’t require an education. sure, we can all learn new skills and strengthen our gifts, but i know many-a-pastor-in-the-truest-sense-of-the-word who has never taken a class at Bible college or seminary.  again, we are mistaking a gift for a role or a job, a leader for a pastor.  often people will ask me if they should get seminary training to learn how to become more pastoral.  my response “um…well….in my opinion, the best education you can get is to start working the 12 steps for yourself and steep yourself in learning about codependence, boundaries, and spiritual and emotional healing individually and in groups. and yeah, that’s free!”
  • we need to quit calling people who don’t like to be with people pastors because it is diminishing & unempowering the ones who do. it’s so funny to me how there are women in all kinds of churches who shepherd, love, and care for people and can’t ever be called “pastor” and yet i have seen men-who-can’t-stand-people-and-only-are-in-charge-of-networking-the-computers be called an “operations pastor.”  it’s comical on one level, but on a whole other one, it’s not funny at all. my vote is to call preachers who never interact with a person in their congregation beyond the big-donors-they-golf-with “weekend communicators” or “executive directors” and reserve the word pastors for people who are providing spiritual and emotional care to people.
  • most people’s true “pastors” aren’t the pastor of their church, they are close friends or people in community who care for them and love them. the person who you are going to call when you are hurting, who will be with you in the hospital when you are sick, who loves your babies and cares about their well-being beyond just words, who will provide prayer and spiritual and emotional support when you need it, that’s your pastor.  i have a lot of amazing pastors in my life–some with pastor titles, some without–but they are all lovely naturally gifted people that do all of these things for me in different ways.   i have one challenge for us this week–tell those people, whoever they are, that you consider them one of your pastors and are thankful for their love & care.  it will encourage them–and maybe surprise them more than you might expect.  i think that is a step in the right direction to re-claim the word far beyond official church leaders.
  • i do believe there are all kinds of amazing pastors truly pastoring their churches. their gifts line up with their role and they love their people in amazing ways.  i am privileged to know some of these pastors and see their heart for shepherding their communities.  it doesn’t bother me a bit that they are called pastors; i honor their heart and commitment to live out what they are built to do. journeying with people is hard work, and i deeply respect those shepherds out there who are really shepherding.
  • like the word “church”, i don’t know if we will never be able to fully redeem the word “pastor.” i think it might be too far gone.  there’s too much baggage with it.  the seminary system that cultivates people who have to get “paid pastor” jobs to pay their bills after all that debt perpetuates it.  people confusing leadership & pastoring perpetuate it.  people who don’t have anyone to fan their natural gifts into flame and validate them will stay underground thinking they might not have what it takes to contribute as much as they could.  and so we’ll keep re-creating little systems where there is a separation between the “professionals” and the “not-so-professionals”, the “strong leaders” from the “real shepherds” and those who aren’t the pros or loud or leader-y enough will continue to feel inadequate or unprepared or un-infused with support to use their gifts.   i recently told someone that the refuge is “full of pastors.”  it is.  there are so many mercy-people, shepherds, true lovers of people.  they have no education or training or any of the put-together requirements we have placed upon the role.  but they naturally pastor people, advocating, caring, and loving for others.

i am not calling for the abolishment of pastors.  i believe it is a beautiful and lovely gift; one of the many beautiful and lovely gifts that it takes to make a body whole. i’m just calling for a re-thinking of the word so that its true meaning & purpose shines through instead of associating it with a whole bunch of things that have absolutely nothing to do with the heart and spirit of pastoring.

i also love what my kenyan friend said, “kenya doesn’t need more evangelists; it needs more pastors.” i have a funny feeling it’s the same thing here in the US and in all kinds of places across the world.  we don’t need any more public speakers or incredible communicators or someone to tell us we need to become a Christian.  instead, this world needs more people willing to truly journey with people of all shapes, sizes, religions, socioeconomics, and everything in between in the messy, ugly, beautiful places of their real story, real lives–to create little pockets of love and care wherever that might be. yep, this world needs more real pastors.  and i actually think there are far more pastors/shepherds out there than we even know, they just need someone to validate their gift & infuse them with the courage to use it freely.

my hope is that if you are one of those people who is really a pastor but not a “pastor” (as in having that title bestowed upon you by some system) that you continue to boldly and freely use your gift.  don’t let someone else define whether you are or aren’t.  it’s a gift God has given you.  please use it, use it, use it.  the world needs you.