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lightstock_270942_small_tgcWhat does it mean to be “pastoral”?

I’m a pastor. Have been for almost 15 years. I love my job. I get to serve the God I love and work with the things our God loves most deeply: his Word and his church. As a local church pastor, I am 100 percent in favor of being “pastoral.”

So long as the word means what the Bible means for it to mean.

When I see the adjective “pastoral” placed in front of a noun it seems to me the word is almost always meant to convey, in contemporary parlance, a truncated set of virtues. A “pastoral approach” implies gentleness, patience, and a lot of listening. If someone is “pastoral” he is good with people, sensitive, and a calming influence. “Pastoral care” means comforting the sick, visiting widows, and lending a shoulder to cry on. These are all good examples of being a good pastor. Seriously. I am all for all of these virtues, and some pastors are sadly lacking in many of them.

But these examples do not exhaust what the Bible means by “pastoral ministry.” We should not let the soft virtues of pastoral care eclipse the hard virtues so that a “pastoral approach” becomes synonymous with inoffensive, therapeutic, and comforting. We don’t want to think of “pastoral” as what we do when we avoid being preachy and theological. Pastors must be patient and kind, but “pastoral” is not another way of saying nice guy.

So what is a “pastoral approach”? By definition, a shepherd is pastoral. That’s what the word means. So think about what shepherds are like.

According to Psalm 23, a good shepherd feeds, leads, guides, protects, and preserves. Shepherds in the ancient world were “remarkable and broadly capable persons.” As Timothy Laniak observes, “They were known for independence, resourcefulness, adaptability, courage and vigilance. Their profession cultivated a capacity for attentiveness, self-sacrifice, and compassion” (Shepherds After My Own Heart, 57). Shepherd leadership involves the use of authority, expressions of compassion, and protection of the flock.

A “pastoral approach” will often entail sympathy and sensitivity, but the adjective “pastoral” must not be reduced to these things. The work of the shepherd encompasses everything from watching little lambs, ordering the sheep, and fending off wolves.

At its most foundational meaning, pastoral ministry “is the subtle blend of authority and care” (quoting Tidball, 247). Above all, the shepherd aims to serve the flock, even at great personal cost to himself. The shepherd is accountable for the sheep as their “protector, provider, and guide.” He must be the type of leader who can rule with a rod of iron (Psalm 2) and tenderly carry the nursing ewes (Isaiah 40).

To be “pastoral” is to be tough and tender, courageous and comforting. The adjective must be sufficiently broad as to make sense of the broadness of the biblical imagery. Being pastoral is different than active listening combined with non-offensiveness. A truly pastoral approach exercises authority with compassion, provides protection through self-sacrifice, and looks after the weak by offering leadership that is strong.


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4 thoughts on “What Constitutes a Pastoral Approach?”

  1. Dr. Richard Zeile says:

    Thank you for another well-reasoned article exhibiting “sanctfied common sense.” My take on what it means to be pastoral focuses on edification- building up the persons under my care. This may entail some tearing down, or clearing wreckage (the work of the Law) as well as, or even prior to, the healing, constructive work of the Gospel. A physician who only comforts and aesthetizes is a quack, and their are a few of them in the professional ministry, and there have been a few who, like the mother who sabatoges her children’s marriages to keep them and the grandkids dependent on her, who lord it over others in subtle ways. May God help us to be faithful in the work He has called us to do!

  2. neville briggs says:

    “He must be the type of leader who can rule with a rod of iron (Psalm 2) and tenderly carry the nursing ewes (Isaiah 40).”

    Isaiah 40 is a Messianic prophecy. There is no mistake in that because it declares ” Here is your God ” . Making that a ference to church pastors is a wrong exegesis.

    The notion that church ” pastors ” could rule with a rod of iron is utterly alien to all the teaching of the New Testament. Psalm 2 is plainly a Messianic prophecy and has nothing to do with contemporary ideas of supposed pastorship.

    Jesus emphatically declared ( Mk 10: 41-45 ) that nobody among His followers was to Lord it over anyone.

  3. The issue of authority with Pastors when explored in the original Greek comes down to the concept of persuasion (peithio). A Spiritual leader is given authority to input wisdom in to peoples lives if they have demonstrated that Christ is reflected in their daily walk, their families, their jobs and their care of people and teaching. People use discernment to see if they have been persuaded after a battle in their minds considering this persons spiritual walk ….the battle is have they been persuaded or not to follow. If they havnt not been persuaded then they are free not to follow. Christ has all authority every knee shall bend to him. Leaders however must do peithio before people should follow.

  4. Serving Kids In Japan says:

    To be “pastoral” is to be tough and tender, courageous and comforting.

    What part of this definition includes forcing members to sign away their civil rights (via 9Marks membership contracts) or putting women through church discipline for the “sin” of divorcing abusive husbands? For myself, I see nothing Christlike or even “pastoral” about such behaviour, and yet it seems to be at least tolerated by the Gospel Coalition.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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