9/23/2020 09:40

Pastoral Authority

"Pastor" is a word I don't really like. It derives from the Latin word "pastor" which meant shepherd and so it connotes a person who decides for us which path we should travel and who uses his stick or maybe her dog to prevent our exploring any other way.

It is true enough that most of us behave like sheep most of the time, following the person ahead of us and not thinking any more deeply than the next blade of grass. It is true too that there is scriptural warrant for using the image of the shepherd for the kings of Israel, God's annointed, and those leading Christian congregations. The image is intended to convey not only control but also feeding and protecting the people.

For myself, I can't escape the implication that the pastor, however benign, is somehow different in kind, a being who has the power and the right to make decisions for the rest of us and to force us into a path of the pastor's choosing. This grates on me. All the "pastors" I have known are very clearly sheep like the rest of us.

Most people seem not to obsess about obscure etymological connotations. For them, the word only denotes the role of a church employee who provides administrative leadership to a congregation usually grounded in graduate-level education. In ordinary conversation I try to maintain this simple view of the word and to avoid imposing my deeper but excessively convoluted reading. To play the actual reality game you need to make your play with the markers where they are.

But then someone, some person who is ordained and a church employee assigned to provide administrative leadership to a congregation, writes about "asserting pastoral authority" and all my misgivings rise up. Who the heck do you think you are she quotes and I quote back. Are you not one of the sheep? Do you really think you are so special that you ought to be revered? Or at least have "to be revered" prepended to your name.

What does it mean to assert the authority of a shepherd? To pull a lamb out of a crevice with your shepherd's crook? No, that is asserting pastoral compassion coupled with skill in using a specialized tool. To beat off the wolf with your shepherd's rod? That is asserting pastoral protection. Both are historically and etymologically consistent with the use of the word (while still implying a special role for the shepherd).

But pastoral authority has a different tone. It alludes to the power to decide the direction we must take. It suggests special knowledge not available to mere sheep: where to find springs and pastures and of how the seasons and the weather vary the landscape and the behavior of lions. It assumes the survival of the flock depends on the shepherd and not the sheep.

Pastoral authority smacks to much of being the keeper of the sheep. It is a phrase I would only expect to hear from someone who would also assert approbation of a desire to be "my brother's keeper". You are not my keeper. You are not my shepherd. We all -- like sheep -- tend to go astray. But if we play the game together we may yet play well.