What Is Pastoral Ministry?
Richard Coekin is the Senior Pastor of Dundonald Church and the Director of Co-Mission, a church planting movement in London. This post is an extract from his book Gospel DNA (pages 104–107), published in 2017 by The Good Book Company. You can buy a copy here.
When the Bible praises God as the "Shepherd" of Israel, he's praised for saving Israel from Egypt and leading them into the promised land – which is parallel with saving us and leading us into his heavenly kingdom. "He brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the wilderness" (Psalm 78:52). This is about more than kindness. It's about salvation.
Likewise, when the former shepherd King David famously wrote, "The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want" (Psalm 23:1, ESV), he praised God for leading him through the valley of the shadow of death to feast in the house of the LORD for ever – meaning heaven. Again, this is about more than kindness – it's about salvation. God's "pastoral ministry" is not just personal care, but saving care – saving people and bringing them into his kingdom!
So, when we read of the LORD condemning the leaders of Israel (prophets, priests and kings) for not pastoring his sheep, it's clear from the context that the selfishness of these shepherds was not just a lack of personal kindness. They'd neglected to care enough for God's people to teach them from God's Word how to be saved, which resulted in the idolatry and immorality that was judged with exile to Babylon. In Ezekiel 34, we read of God rejecting these selfish pastors and promising to come and pastor his sheep himself. Here he beautifully describes what his "pastoral ministry" will involve. There are three themes with direct spiritual parallels in the ministry of Jesus and Paul, and which are required of all who pastor churches today.
1. "Search... rescue... gather": the ministry of evangelism (Ezekiel 34:11–13)
God first describes a ministry of searching for lost sheep, rescuing them from danger and gathering them to himself. We find this in the evangelistic ministry of Jesus. Indeed, he illustrates it with his tender parable about searching for a lost sheep and bringing it home with great joy (Luke 15:3–7). Paul followed Jesus' example in his unrelenting evangelism, cross-cultural mission and church-planting. He was searching for the lost who had been chosen by God for salvation, rescuing people from slavery to sin under God's judgment, and gathering them into God's church family. Pastoral ministry then and now begins with the searching, rescuing and gathering work of evangelism.
2. "Pasture... make them lie down... bind up": the ministry of teaching (Ezekiel 34:13–16)
Next, God says he will care for his flock by finding good pasture to feed his flock, locating safe places to make them lie down and rest, and binding up (healing) the wounds of injured sheep. God was promising that his pastoral ministry would include the spiritual equivalents of feeding, resting and healing people. Jesus did this through his various teaching ministries of public debates, synagogue sermons, small-group discussions and one-to-one biblical counselling. He provided good pasture to feed his sheep with when he saw with compassion the crowds as "like sheep without a shepherd ... [so] he began teaching them" (Mark 6:34). For God's Word is nourishment for our souls.
And he located the ideal place for spiritual rest when he said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and [...] you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28–29). For God's Word of grace relieves us from heavy burdens of guilt and fear.
And Jesus healed people spiritually (as well as physically) with his wise teaching. For the sound doctrine of God's Word gradually heals the damage of sin in our character and relationships.
We shall only be completely satisfied, rested and healthy in heaven, but good Bible-teaching helps us make progress. So Paul followed Jesus' example in his own teaching ministries and here [i.e. Acts 20:17–37] encourages the Ephesian Elders to do the same. Then and now we gradually feed, rest and heal God's flock when we teach the Word of God. Saving pastoral ministry involves Biblical evangelism and teaching.
3. "Justice... judge... save": the ministry of oversight (Ezekiel 34:16–24)
Third, a shepherd in ancient times would need to govern his flock well. In Ezekiel, God speaks of judging between the sheep and strengthening the weak against the strong, who tread down their pasture, muddy their water and push them aside – to ensure that all the flock have access to food. This illustrates the spiritual necessity of protecting the quieter, weaker members of a local church from the noisy demands of the strong, to ensure that everyone is fairly provided for; for instance, the needs of the elderly or single mums or the disabled could be shamefully neglected in pandering to the demands of wealthy parents. Jesus was conspicuously forthright in confronting the powerful elites of his day, welcoming children, the disabled and social outcasts. Likewise, Paul reminds us of his concern to "help the weak" (Acts 20:35). So then and now, pastoral ministry includes wise judgment and compassionate protection to ensure that all God's people are cared for, especially in providing access to appropriate Word ministry.
So God's pastoral ministry involves Biblical evangelism, teaching and oversight of the flock – for their salvation. Ezekiel promises that God would one day pastor God's people through King David. So Jesus, the Son of David, revealed himself to be this divine "Good Shepherd" who would lay down his life on the cross for his sheep (John 10). The Ephesian Elders, and all who are now appointed as pastors to shepherd his flock, must likewise give themselves sacrificially for Christ's sheep in evangelism (search-rescue-gathering), teaching (feed-rest-healing) and governing (fairly judging, protecting and allocating resources).
Most fundamentally, pastoral ministry begins with bringing people to the "Good Shepherd", who is the pastor people need: to Jesus.