Real Shepherds: Thomas Oden on pastoral leadership as service

tom odenIn Thomas Oden‘s Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry, he takes one chapter to reflect on the analogy of pastor as shepherd. In the midst of that chapter, he strikes at the heart of what I think is missing within much of pastoral ministry as it is currently practiced in North America: pastoral authority approached as service.

The shepherd is not without authority, but it is of a special sort. The shepherd’s authority is based on competence grounded in mutuality, yet this authority requires accurate empathy to be properly empowered. Pastoral authority is not primarily coercive authority, such as that of a judge or a policeman, but rather authority based on covenant fidelity, caring, mutuality, and the expectation of empathic understanding (Gregory, ACW, vol. 11, Part 2).

This conception of authority has a christological base in the minds of Christian believers. From where else did Christianity learn this unusual view of authority? It is precisely from the servant messiah that we learn of the paradoxical unity of dignity and service. It is from the true God, true man, who though he was rich became poor for our sakes (2 Cor. 8:9), “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8, RSV). The pattern of authority is that of the incarnate Lord, who expressed in a single, unified ministry the holiness of God amid the alienations of the world, the incomparable power of God that was surprisingly made know in an unparalleled way amid crucifixion and resurrection.

Wherever Christians speak of authority or dignity of ministry or headship of the shepherd, those are not properly understood as coercive modes of power, but persuasive, participative modes of benevolent, empathic guidance. This is an extraordinarily complex, subtle, and highly nuanced conception of authority, but it is intimately familiar to those who love Christ and listen for his voice. The proper authority of ministry is not external, manipulative, alien power that distances itself from those “under” it, but rather a legitimized and happily received influence that wishes only good for its recipient, a leadership that boldly guides but only on the basis of a deeply empathic sense of what the flock yearns for and needs. The analogy of shepherd was not promiscuously or thoughtlessly chosen by Jesus as the centerpiece of ministry, but wells up from the heart of God’s own ministry to the world. (p. 53)

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