Like a shepherd, a good pastor cares for his or her flock, making sure they are nurtured, fed and shielded from predators. For all those reasons, “shepherd” reigns as the metaphor-of-choice for a pastor.
A pastor as shepherd visits the sick, counsels the bereft and confused and tries to ensure the “flock” is somewhat corralled (or as Paul might put it, “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel . . .”).
I must admit that pastor as shepherd was not the metaphor that inspired me to become a pastor. It’s not that I found it necessarily incorrect. It just seemed boring.
Growing up, I could see my pastors excelled as shepherds. That only dampened any desire on my part to become one. Sure, a shepherd is fun to play when you’re a kid and like to pet sheep and hit your friends with a rod, but as we get older we begin to realize that sheep stink and your friends will hit back. The metaphor simply lacked power to stir any passion inside me.
Until, that is, I got to know the Lukan shepherds. Now, I had certainly met these shepherds before (one can scarcely avoid them this time of year), but I had never considered that a pastor might be this kind of shepherd. The kind, as N.T. Wright points out, that confirms to Joseph and Mary the truth behind their dreams about Christ. The kind that would reassure Joseph, who, perhaps in that very moment, had begun to wonder whether Mary had duped him. The kind whose words would later assure Mary that, even though young Jesus was running around with his friends making obscene noises with his armpit, he truly was the Christ.
Put another way, the shepherds reminded this young couple that, though their situation seemed somewhat ordinary or even “under-ordinary,” Christ was truly in their midst. That even though they struggled against harsh and sordid circumstances, now with the added burden of a newborn, this crying, helpless child was really the Christ. That though they may be tempted to wait for their lot to improve before they dared believe, they were called to believe right now, even though their eyes might suggest otherwise. The shepherds challenged them to grasp that the extraordinary Christ was alive and at work in their ordinary world.
Only when I saw the possibilities open to an Advent shepherd did I begin to grasp this concept of a pastor.
Most parishioners live very ordinary lives. All too often, this seeming ordinariness keeps them from believing that an extraordinary Christ has entered their world. As they change their babies’ diapers, work at ho-hum jobs and try to keep familial relationships intact, the ordinary has perhaps blinded them from seeing the possibility of Christ being birthed among them.
Pastor as Advent shepherd shows ordinary folks the extraordinary Christ in their midst. Pastor as Advent shepherd is called to help others (as well as one’s self) see that ordinariness is not a sign that Christ has left our story, but that Christ is preparing to make a grand entrance if we would but begin to expect it. Being an Advent shepherd entails risk or frustration, but also the opportunity to convince folks of things they can neither see nor hear.
Truth be told, it also entails a challenge to ordinary pastors who may find the extraordinary Christ somewhat elusive in our own lives. Still, it is this difficulty and risk that stirs my passion in ways most shepherding tasks do not. We share the glorious opportunity open to the shepherds who spoke words of faith and hope to that ordinary couple 2,000 years ago. May we have the courage to speak those same words to the ordinary men and women we encounter every day.
JERRY DECK is executive director of Presbyterian Global Fellowship.