What makes a Pastor a Pastor?

The 3:00 a.m. Phone Call
What makes a pastor a pastor?
Gordon MacDonald

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Remember that political ad in which the White House phone rings at 3 a.m. and someone has to answer? I know the experience. Sort of.

My phone call came late one afternoon. The caller, a church attendee I knew only casually, said he was at the hospital where his wife, Josie, was dying of cancer and might not last the night. Could I come right away?

Even though this call came many years ago, I’m still embarrassed when I remember that my first thought was something like: Where is our pastoral care staff person? I don’t do hospitals. I’m the one who preaches, who leads, who casts vision. Oh, and I’m the one always telling people (from the pulpit) that I love them and care for them.

The caller said his dying wife was terrified. Despite the sedatives she’d been given, she was almost violent and could hardly be restrained. “Perhaps you can say something to her that will help her to relax and go to sleep,” he said.

The hospital was a 20-minute drive. As I arrived, a family friend met me and escorted me to the room. On the way she described how Josie was thrashing about in fear. Occasionally she would scream. No one, the friend said, knew what to do. Even the doctors and nurses seemed stymied.

I took a deep breath and entered the room. There were maybe eight people around the bed: a doctor or two, nurses, Josie’s husband and a daughter. Then I saw Josie in the bed.

“Josie!” I said as I approached. I said her name firmly, as if to establish my presence with some authority.

“Pastor Mac!” she responded. The circle broke as everyone stepped back to make room for me.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure what was appropriate for the moment. It’s awkward when even the physicians relinquish their space at the bedside to me. All I can remember is that something inside of me said, “Take charge; be a pastor!”

“Josie,” I said, “this is a terrible moment for you, isn’t it? You must be very frightened.”

“Yes, Pastor Mac,” Josie replied her eyes darting toward her husband and her daughter. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t leave them. I have to get better.” Then she repeated, “I don’t know what to do.”

What she really wanted to do was sit up and get out of that bed. I sensed she was about to become agitated again, so I put my hands on her emaciated shoulders and, as gently as I could, pressed her back into the pillow. I remember the powerful silence in the room as everyone else looked on. No one objected to what I’d done so far. Perhaps they thought I knew exactly what I was doing.

I no longer believe the biblical title of pastor applies if it takes someone three weeks to get an appointment.

An idea came to me. I leaned closer so my face dominated Josie’s line of sight, and said: “Josie, listen to me. Look into my eyes. I have a thought for you.”

“Yes, Pastor Mac?”

“I want you to listen to some words from God. Just listen! Okay?”

“Okay.”

I began, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything that I need.” I recited Psalm 23 slowly, deliberately, carefully pronouncing each word. Then, “Did you hear me, Josie? ‘I’—that’s you, Josie—’have … everything … that … I … need.'”

“Yes, Pastor Mac, I heard you.” She repeated, “I have everything that I need.”

I went on. “God makes me lie down in green pastures. God leads me beside cool waters. God restores my soul.”

I simplified the psalm a bit and repeated the words. “God … makes … me … lie … down … God gives me cool water … God brings strength to my heart.”

“Did you hear that, Josie?”

“I heard it, Pastor Mac.” She was looking straight into my eyes and hanging on every word. Sensing a bit of relaxation in her shoulders, I went on with the psalm, speaking of the pathways of righteousness, the dangerous valleys where God is present, the shepherd’s rod and staff, the tables of food, and the oil that heals and protects. Finally, I reached the last lines and expanded them a bit: “and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever … and ever … and ever.”

As distinctly as I could, I said, “Josie, you’re in those words. They’re about you. You are one who is in God’s care. You’ve been a wonderful wife and mother. You’ve been a good friend. And now it may be time to go and live in God’s house for ever and ever and ever. Some day we’re going to join you. Each of us.” I named Josie’s husband and their daughter. They’re going to be there with you.”

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“I’m sure,” I said. “And I want you to know that everyone here loves you and is thankful to you. I want you to rest now and let God take you where he wants to lead you. Josie, don’t be afraid.”

“Are you sure it’s okay to go, Pastor Mac?”

“Yes, I’m sure, Josie.”

Then Josie did something I’ll never forget. She looked away from me and spoke to her husband: “Thank you for being such a good husband to me.” And to her daughter: “I love you; I’m so proud to be your mother.” And then to the medical people: “Thank you for taking such good care of me.” After a few words to each friend in the circle, she thanked me. Then Josie closed her eyes, sank into a calm sleep and, about an hour later, left our presence.

Ministry of divine connection

I’ve been a pastor for nearly 50 years. When I try to characterize the nature of my work, that story seems to sum up the core task of a pastor. Call it a priestly function or a pastoral one, it’s all the same: helping people connect with God.

A desperate husband needed someone to bring spiritual strength into one of the worst moments of his life. Medical personnel who had exhausted their means needed someone who could speak into a patient’s heart. A fearful and confused woman needed someone who could offer her a word of guidance from God. On that day I was given the grace to be the person who did all of this.

The psalm that I spoke into Josie’s heart has been familiar to me since age 5, when I first memorized it because my grandmother bribed me with a dollar bill, big money in those days, to quote it without error. It took less than an hour to do the job.

As an adult, the psalm served as something of a tranquilizer when I was troubled and couldn’t sleep. Over and over I would quote it to myself until the sensation of following Jesus the Shepherd on secure paths toward green pastures and cool waters overcame my inner turbulence.

The psalm served me in another way, many years into my ministry, when I began to weary of church leadership. My job had changed as our congregation grew, and I changed me from a pastor, who knew something about almost everyone in the church, to a CEO. Formerly, I’d engaged with people; now I ran an organization. I felt guilty that I could no longer say as Jesus did, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” Truth be told, I didn’t know most of them, and they didn’t know me.

Quoting that psalm to myself one day, I was struck with the notion that the Psalm was really a job description for a shepherd or a pastor. Why had I not seen this before?

Traditional scholarship attributes this psalm to David, who knew sheep and shepherding intimately. Another psalmist, musing upon David’s journey wrote, “[God] chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people …and David shepherded them with integrity of heart.”

During his apprentice years in the field, how many times had David picked up on the fear of his flock when they sensed danger? How many times had he found it necessary to lead them through dangerous valleys and on to greener pastures and cooler waters? How often had he used oil to clean sheep-wounds or protect them from the annoyance of insects? How often had he rescued a helpless lamb from a precarious situation?

No wonder, when David later attempted to describe the nature of God, he used a word picture with which he was thoroughly familiar. God is like a shepherd. Implication? If you are a part of God’s flock, you have everything you need.

A dirty job

In modern times, we tend to glamorize shepherds. We picture them in clean clothes carrying cute little lambs on their shoulders. Be careful!

The fact is that ancient shepherds (I can’t speak for them today) were generally found on the bottom rung of society. Rarely did they own the sheep they tended. Rather, they were like “temps” who minded sheep in the countryside on behalf of sheep owners who probably lived nearby. Let’s be frank: most shepherds in Bible times were not esteemed.

When Moses fled Egypt, the only job he could get was as a shepherd. For 40 years he tended the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro. The subtle biblical message: look how far Moses fell, from an Egyptian palace to a shepherd. It raises the question: what does shepherding do to a man? Moses, David, and others did their graduate work in leadership in the shepherding business.

It’s interesting that angels selected shepherds as the audience for their Christmas recital in the skies near Bethlehem. Shepherds are credited as first-worshipers at the manager scene. Why?

Later, Jesus would liken himself to a shepherd. Why not a military general, or a business owner, or the High Priest in Jerusalem? Clearly, he was more drawn to the notion of sheep that trusted their shepherd and followed obediently.

Jesus told the story of the shepherd who, at the risk of his own life, went into the wilderness to search for one lost sheep. Was this really good business? Or was it an exaggerated story to make the point that one sheep (or person) was equivalent in value to the 99 others who remained with the flock?

Paul would suggest that the Ephesian church leaders draw their understanding of church leadership from a shepherd. “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock … be shepherds of the church of God … wolves are coming, and they won’t spare your flock.”

In keeping with the notion that most shepherds are not sheep-owners but sheep-tenders, Paul reminded the Ephesian leaders that their “flock” was really God’s, and that they were the go-to guys to guarantee the church’s integrity.

Back to Psalm 23. If the piece is something of a job description for pastoral leadership, there’s some thinking to do.

A pastoral job description

The Psalm, first of all, suggests that a shepherd—not unlike a mother—makes sure that sheep have everything they need in order to stay healthy: water, grass, a safe place to rest. These are typical concerns of a nurturer, one responsible for the sheep’s well being.

Then the Psalm offers another view of leadership. The same shepherd who provides grass and water leads the flock along pathways that can be challenging, even threatening, and valleys where predators lurk intent on taking down a lamb or two. This shepherd knows how to keep his sheep calm and keep the wolves away.

This is quite some shepherd. This is, David seems to be saying, who God is to me.

Funny that the Bible would offer a picture of God as a shepherd. Any difference between this and what William Paul Young has done in his controversial novel, The Shack, when he likens God to a somewhat large, bountifully loving, cheery, hospitable woman who invites broken people to her table? In both cases, the unlikely pictures certainly get your attention.

The word pastor is built on the notion of that kind of shepherd. It’s associated with the feeding of sheep as well as the spiritual feeding of people. In fact, it offers a fresh view of Jeremiah 3:15—”And I will give you shepherds after my own heart who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.”

In the New Testament, the word for shepherd and pastor became the same. Want to pastor a church? Then you’re a shepherd (in the likeness of God), and the people you lead are your sheep.

I would contend that the pastor/shepherd is the core element of any group that hints at being a congregation. The clearest description of a church can be found in Jesus’ words, “where two or three are gathered in my name.” My contention would be that within that “two or three” there will always be someone that Jesus “gifts” with the pastoral role. Who is he or she? What do they do?

Such a person—like a shepherd—has a simple job: to gather the people; see that they are refreshed spiritually and that they are prepared for dangerous pathways. Most of this they do by simply being there. By monitoring the soul.

Years ago Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote: “I distrust a preacher to whom sermons seem the crux of his functioning. The temptations of a popular preacher—if he is only that—are devastating. He is applauded by fans, credited with a Christian selflessness he cannot claim and enticed by many listeners to think of himself more highly than he ought to think … . Let any preacher who has such an experience humbly run home and pray to be delivered from its seductions. Only the grace of God can deliver him—that and a genuine care for persons, so that to him, as to Jesus, all that matters in a crowd is the opportunity to get vitally in touch with some individual.”

It would be interesting to ask someone who knows these sorts of things, “What is the maximum size of a flock that one shepherd can lead? When does a flock get so large that one shepherd is no longer able to lead, feed, and protect them?”

When I started in ministry, the majority of pastors led flocks of 90 to 300 people. Most pastors had no assistants, answered their own telephones, and were reasonably available to anyone in and beyond their church. Their job was quite similar to that of a shepherd.

As a child, I would often hear my father (a pastor) say to my mother as he left our home, “I’ll be calling until supper time.” That was 80 percent of his job: calling. In homes, at businesses, whenever people were in the hospital. A call consisted of Bible reading, prayer, probing questions about personal faith, and a challenge. Pastors knew their people, and the people knew their pastor. Like shepherds and sheep.

By the way, I am not pining for those days, believe me. Let’s not get too romantic here. The times of which I speak were often times of low salaries, parsonages or manses, and 24/7 expectations by the flock.

On the other hand, is the present situation in most congregations any improvement? What are we saying when the most direct connection people have with their pastor is listening to a sermon? Is there any kind of personal engagement with the people who make up the flock?

I often recall the woman in my church who was easy for all of us to ignore. She was chronically depressed and usually medicated. One day I saw her from a distance and shouted out instinctively, “Hello, Marilyn. How are you?” Then I turned to other things. But she stood next to me said, “Pastor Mac, you say, ‘Hello, Marilyn. How are you?’ But you don’t want to know. You don’t have time to find out.”

She was right. She said what a lot of others probably wanted to say but lacked the “courage” that medication sometimes offers. Marilyn’s words continue to haunt me.

I no longer believe the biblical title of pastor applies if it takes three weeks for someone to get an appointment. I do not believe the biblical word for pastor applies when someone can say, “I’ve heard him (or her) preach for three years but we’ve never met.”

I am not criticizing megachurch leaders. I know and respect many of them. I’ve been one. To be honest, I loved most (not all) of my job when I led a larger congregation. But I suspect we would be more honest if we referred to a megachurch leader as a bishop or—call it what it is—a CEO or president. But—and here’s my point—let’s save the title of Pastor for the man or woman who goes face to face with people whatever their need. Like in that hospital room.

The pastor does not “shepherd” people by merely preaching to them. Pastoring works through personal relationship, through personal prayer, through personal instruction. It responds to questions; confronts when there is sin; confirms when God is speaking. A pastor’s whole life becomes a model for people to follow.

This was Paul’s idea when he wrote to Timothy, “Set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.” Or later when he wrote, “Be diligent in these matters, give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.”

We must be careful not to think that we have pastored through books, DVDs, websites, and sermons. Pastoring—shepherd style—is close up and personal. It demands a willingness to answer the phone.

Many years after that hospital visit with Josie, I invited a surgeon to speak to a seminary class I was teaching. Among other things he said, “When we doctors enter a hospital room, we bring a word about physical possibilities, but when you pastors enter that room, you bring a word of hope, a word from God.”

He had described perfectly what I had tried to do that day. And that’s what answering the phone can lead to.

Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership and lives in New Hampshire.

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