I have alluded several times to the evolving meaning of that pesky word pastoral. Once it was a strong word that meant something profound. To be pastoral was to be a faithful shepherd, true to the sheep’s real needs with the real resources of God’s Word and Sacraments. Pastoral was the word used to describe a priest who was able to speak the truth in love, seeking not to condemn or offend but to call to repentance and absolve the sinner in the Lord’s name. Somewhere along the way this word took on a new meaning.
As the meaning evolved, the emphasis shifted a bit from being strong and true to God’s Word like a shepherd who watches over and wisely leads his sheep to being tactful and gentle in the application of words the sinner did not want to hear. Pastoral was the word that used to describe him who could be faithful without being perceived as offensive. That shift was not nearly as significant as the change in meaning that is now reflective of what it means to be pastoral.
Now the word pastoral has come to mean the one who affirms, supports, and encourage people in their own perception. So it means being understanding of the sinner and aiding the sinner in the excuse of and the justification for their sins. It means being chiefly concerned with the feelings of those in his care, making sure that people feel good about themselves, feel good about church, and feel good about their choices. It means being more concerned with people than with the Word of God and choosing to ignore that Word in favor of being seen as warm and welcoming to those in your care. Of course this is applicable to the sex wars over GLBTQ issues but it is not exclusively so. Worship preferences, feel good sermons, foot tapping music, an emphasis upon personal happiness and fulfillment all are arenas in which the term pastoral may be applied. In my own church body, some of ratings of pastors asks of the man is rigid or pastoral in various areas of his ministry — obviously the term rigid is the kiss of death for someone looking for a call.
The worst outcome of the evolution of the term is that it no longer has much to do with being faithful to God’s Word, living within a hermeutic of continuity with respect to catholic doctrine and practice, and calling people to repentance from their favorite sins. Thus the final stage of being pastoral may be to be merely an echo of people’s preferences and desires and powerless to do anything other than welcome and encourage unconditionally people and their sins. Failure to welcome and encourage unconditionally the sinner will become the chief betrayal of the gospel — a word which itself has been distanced from its original meaning of the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and risen and now simply means to love in a non-judgmental way. The pastoral priest or minister is the one whose chief concern is not God and His Word but the wishes of the people. Thus the church becomes something like a favorite stuffed animal — something inanimate but endowed with sentimental meaning and value. The church and her ministers are not free to speak clearly or boldly or faithfully God’s Word but the people in the pew are apparently free to impose conditions upon the church.
Theology has become therapy and this triumph of the “pastoral” replaces the cross with a therapeutic deism requiring the ministers and the church itself to abandon its calling to be faithful to the Lord and to abdicate its role as theologians in favor of psychologists. Some denominations are taking the lead in the revision of what it means to be pastoral — think ELCA and the Episcopal Church — but it would be wrong to think that other church bodies are not also influenced by the changing definitions and expectations of church and clergy. Some may be ahead of others but all of us are under the gun here and the pressure is on. This is a battle which we must win — not for the sake of winning but for the sake of the world for whom Christ died and the repentance and faith that receive and rejoice in this redemptive work. Finally, it will not take long for the world to figure out that the church has become rather pathetic in her craving for the attention and affection of people and will do whatever is necessary to receive them. At that point the world will move on and find something else to replace the church and provide the affirmation, encouragement, and support the world seeks. At that point the impotent church will be of little use to God she has long ago abandoned or to the people by whom she so desperately wants to be noticed.