Chapter 6: The Ministry as Shepherding

Ferment in the Ministry
by Seward Hiltner

Chapter 6: The Ministry as Shepherding

In the three aspects of ministry that have been before us so far, we have found focal images that lift up the principal points about meaning. There is a leading image for preaching, one for administering, and one for teaching. But when we turn to the present subject, we find that the focal image is already built into our terminology. We cannot even talk about this aspect of ministry without using the metaphor of shepherd or pastor. There is no way of referring to pastoral care that omits the shepherding analogy. On the face of it, this fact would appear to make our task much easier. If shepherding is such a pervasive image that it has even monopolized the language, surely we can move securely and discard all complex dialectics in our interpretation of the ministry as shepherding.

On the contrary, the situation in fact is more complicated than it first appears. For the words "pastor," or "poimen," or "shepherd" have been used in Christian history in two senses, not one. On the one side, the "pastoral" has been conceived as one kind of activity along with others, often as caring for or disciplining or nourishing. But on the other side, the noun "pastor" has been applied as a substantive to the minister, and then anything that he did as pastor was regarded as "pastoring" or "shepherding," thus equating shepherding with anything properly done by a minister. There have been many uneasy compromises between these two notions, both of which seem to me partly right and partly mistaken as they have been stated. Certainly the attempt to equate pastoral care with the total work of ministry is unsatisfactory; for that simply uses an uncriticized metaphor as an imperialistic declaration about the ministry as a whole, and thus concrete meaning is lost from the metaphor. But the other attempt, to make shepherding only a kind of slice of the ministerial pie, is also inappropriate; for it means that there could be nothing seriously pastoral as one preaches or administers, and that is false.

My solution to this problem has been to regard pastoral as a perspective, to note that no event in which a minister is involved is devoid of some pastoral intent and significance, but that in some such events the pastoral motif becomes dominant or of overriding importance. Generally speaking, it is these latter instances to which I would give the name "shepherding" or "pastoral care." I would also limit the term "shepherding" to those situations in which it is possible for the minister to concentrate on the healing, sustaining, or guiding of the person or persons, rather than having primarily, at that point, to protect the interest of the group or the institution as perhaps against that of the person. This distinction does not exclude all "discipline" from pastoral care, but it does exclude such discipline as must sometimes be undertaken whose primary aim is not the reconciliation or restoration of the person.

Modern Precursors of the Shepherding Image

The shepherding image in some form, hopefully the form that will be suggested later, is very probably here to stay. But we need to note that the images and metaphors that were used in the modern revival of concern for pastoral care, with which I am in deep sympathy, have only recently become concerned about shepherding, and for a time were quite different in character. At the very least, this historical fact is a warning that the shepherding image may become irrelevant or meaningless. Any attempts to revive it, such as I myself am making, are likely to be abortive unless they can avoid some dangers into which the image has fallen in the past.

At the turn of the present century, I suspect the dominant image of pastoral care was the minister ringing a doorbell. The writings of that era that were intended for students and for other ministers all stressed pastoral assiduity. If one did not know his sheep, how could he feed them? That very common notion of the time implied that pastoral calls were the knowing, and if the people came to church to hear the sermon that was the feeding. To be sure, in the good books of that general era, such as John Watson’s The Cure of Souls or Charles E. Jefferson’s The Ministering Shepherd, there was much wisdom that would be appropriate for any age of ministry. But the image of pastoral care was very much of the doorbell kind. Even if a lecturing or writing parson made a lot of house calls himself, he feared that young ministers would not do so; and in a nice way he tried to enlist them into this faithful activity through testimonial forms of exhortation.

But we now know that, on psychological grounds, exhortations are not the most likely ways of convincing people. They carry a hidden undertone that the thing in itself is really rather dull and has to be dressed up to make it interesting. There were no cases in those days, only anecdotes; and with rare exceptions the anecdotes were all success stories, in line with the hortatory motif. The motion that analysis of a failure might very well elicit much more interest and commitment than an anecdote about success had seemingly occurred to no one. Thus, although we still need to respect the doorbell image, in the sense that the pastor must make himself available to his people and not merely wait in an office until they come, we must reject its hidden assumptions that pastoral work with people is routine, perhaps dull, and certainly not as central to ministry as preaching.

The first competition received by the doorbell image was what I hope Harry Emerson Fosdick will forgive me for calling the "Protestant confessional" image. In a large New York church, and preaching as he always did to try to touch with the gospel the actual needs of people, he found himself besieged by persons seeking interviews. He sought guidance from one of the wise psychiatrists of that day, Thomas W. Salmon; tried to do what he could in helping the people who came; or referred them to others who could help. He also, in an article of the early 1920’s, used the phrase, "Protestant confessional." Not long ago I corresponded with him about his intent in using the phrase, and was confirmed in my judgment that he only meant to say that ministers should be as ready of access to persons burdened with guilt and other negative feelings as are Roman Catholic priests. But the phrase caught on. Busy ministers — and who would admit himself to be otherwise? — suddenly saw entirely new potentialities in talking with people in their studies or offices. Perhaps some used the new image as an excuse to get out of pastoral calling. For the majority, however, the Protestant-confessional image was simply a call to make it clear that ministers had studies where people could talk with them. This became, then, a kind of "interview image," the pastor talking individually with persons who have sought him out. In retrospect, it seems very much like the salesman who has been driving himself frantic traveling over his territory and to whom it suddenly occurs that a lot of his best customers, if given the chance, would like to take the initiative and come to him.

The interview image was appealing in several ways. First, the minister could rid himself of the charge of peddling pills to people who did not want them; for he would interview no one unless the person had sought him out. Second, unlike the home call where the crying baby and the frying bacon could be distracting, it was possible to control the conditions and structure of an interview, thus giving the comforting illusion that one knows what he is about. Third, the general public was just beginning to accord high prestige to several professions for whom the interview is standard procedure, notably psychiatry but also such areas as personnel work, educational guidance, and even social ease work. Clinical psychology had not yet come upon the scene in its modern sense. Thus, the pastoral discovery of the interview was temporally correlative with society’s discovery that people who interview are important people. Finally, it was tempting to think that, with [he more carefully controlled conditions of the interview, something like scientific method could be applied, to the eventual aim of helping many more people.

It is curious that the early days of clinical pastoral education, which has done more than any other movement to foster the present knowledge and skill in pastoral care, actually relied only in part upon interviewing methods and yet made the interview image dominant as the ideal. In actual practice clinical students often began by handling bedpans, were graduated either to making bedside calls or taking a patient for a walk. Such modes of relationship were actually more representative of pastoral encounters than was the formal interview. But so high had the prestige of the interview become that even this practice did not prevent the formation of an ideal interview image.

The first literature that appeared as a result of the new movements, beginning with clinical training but not confined to it, made some use of the interview model although in a vague and diffuse fashion. But the next round of literature, beginning just before World War II, clearly patterned itself on the interview model. Rules were given for "counseling," presupposing the interview situation as normative, with even the hospital call being subjected to the interview image in its essentials. It is probable that Carl R. Rogers’ important book, Counseling and Psychotherapy, published in the early 1940’s and read by many ministers also contributed to use of the interview image.

During World War II and afterward, Harry Bone and I taught a course at Union Theological Seminary in New York. This was entitled "counseling." We were of course committed to use of the case method. When we began, we too had the interview image in the back of our minds. But our students, for the most part, were not operating in situations where they could interview people in any formal sense. We told them, therefore, to report on "contacts" of any kind beyond the realm of personal friendship — calls, apparently casual encounters, and the like. To our great amazement, these materials proved to be rich beyond our hopes. We consciously discarded the interview image and came to terms happily with the fact that 90 percent of the potential helping work of most ministers is done in noninterview situations. Even though my book of 1949 was called Pastoral Counseling, and attempted to deal carefully with structured situations symbolized by the term "interview," its principal thrust was in the direction of dynamic analysis of all the kinds of potential helping contacts, formal and otherwise, that the minister has. Thus it was a movement away from the interview image and in the direction of the shepherding image, although it was to be another six or eight years before I developed this latter fully. But in the interim some others, notably Wayne E. Oates, had begun to do so.

Dangers of the Shepherding Image

The clearer it became that we had to develop a fundamental theory of pastoral care, and not just of pastoral counseling, the more it became evident that one of two things had to happen. Either some new central image must be found, or the shepherding image revived and analyzed. Since no possible new central image has been brought forth by any one, to the best of my knowledge, the sole alternative was reconsideration of the shepherding image. Here I rule out of account the small group of ministers who have, in effect, extended the interview image into a psychotherapeutic and even psychoanalytic kind of image; for this simply rules out as insignificant or irrelevant 90 percent of most ministers’ opportunities to help. Its defect lies much less in what it tries to assert — careful training, attentiveness to the person, taking adequate time, and the like — than in what it denies — that people can also be helped in many less formal ways and that it is the inherent business of the minister to use the range of ways open to him in his representative capacity.

A reanalysis of the shepherding idea, however, demonstrated at once that there was no clear-cut and agreed-on cartoon comparable to the preaching image of open-Bible — pulpit — preacher. What even the most casual historical inspection showed was two elements — sheep and shepherd — as constants, but with the kind of imageous relationship between them, and combined with additional elements, manifesting great variation. I came to see, on further study, one other common element in all the images — the presence of tender and solicitous concern on the part of the shepherd. But since this is not something that can be portrayed in precisely the same way in all circumstances, it is not the same kind of element as the sheep or the shepherd.

The first task, manifestly, was to disclaim possible elements, meanings, or implications in the shepherd-sheep relationship that conflict with ministry understood in other or larger senses; i.e., using such criteria as we have already tried to summarize in relation to the preaching and administering images. When this is done, some necessary disclaimers become clear at once.

First, the "sheep" in the relationship are to be understood as representing need, and not as inherently stupid, incapable of initiative, or even wholly "innocent." If sheep get lost when they wander away, it can hardly be the spirit of inquiry or adventure that is reprehensible in itself, but rather the ambiguous mixing of this spirit with impulsive immediacy instead of planning, with distrust of the shepherd but fear to come out and say so, and with a rationalization that one’s motives are wholly pure and innocent.

Second, the "shepherd" in the relationship is not to be represented as knowing everything, especially about what the sheep ought to do. He may indeed be shown as having such positive qualities as solicitous concern, but he is to be a very human shepherd. He may of course be regarded as an undershepherd, while Jesus Christ is the sole Great Shepherd. But if this image is to be one of ministry through human beings, and thus coordinate with the other images, it must not confuse the shepherd or undershepherd it is demonstrating with Jesus Christ. If there is such confusion of identities, then our shepherd may wrongly be represented as having perfect agape, knowing everything, and the like.

Third, the species difference between the human shepherd and the animal sheep is not the point of the image, and must be disclaimed. The sheep are in the image not for their subhuman qualities but on the basis of their need.

Fourth, the image may not properly emphasize collectivity at the expense of individuality. If more than one sheep is shown, it must be clear that pastoral concern for the flock is not exercised merely on a mass basis. This image is probably not the place to adjudicate the relative claims of the lost sheep and the ninety and nine; but as in the parable, it is the single sheep that should be emphasized.

Finally, although the intent of the image deals with concern and attitudes and not with methods and procedures, it ought not to be so presented that skills and procedures appear to be denigrated.

In the light of these necessary disclaimers in the shepherd-sheep relationship, it follows that several kinds of cartoon images that have sometimes been used are incapable of carrying the proper meaning. We cite some of them.

First is the picture of the shepherd with his flock gathered round him. This image is too vague, general, and diffuse, and says nothing about individuality.

Second is the shepherd cradling a single sheep in his arms. This will not do on several counts. It is sentimental; it implies the superior-inferior relationship; and if the sheep is presumed to be injured, it violates the most elementary principle of first aid. That is, it combines sentimentality with a lack of common sense.

Third is a shepherd on foot gazing into the distance where, perhaps, the lost sheep may be glimpsed. The trouble here is that concern seems linked with inattentiveness. How did the sheep get so far away before its absence was discovered? And is it really lost if the shepherd and we can see it?

By this time you may wonder, since the difficulties of getting the right relationship between shepherd and sheep seem so considerable, why we do not leave the pasture and get on with our pastoral urbanization. I abjure you to have patience. The task is not easy, but it is not impossible, and it is worth attempting even in a nuclear age.

The Shepherding Image, Old Style and New

The fundamental intent of any defensible form of the shepherding image is to show the helping concern of the shepherd as somehow relevant to the need of the sheep. Thus, the actual image ought to show the shepherd performing some service or preparing to do so. If it can be made plain in the cartoon that the help being given is relevant to the needs of the sheep, then the image has a real chance of making its point. A kneeling shepherd removing burrs from a sheep’s legs would be one possibility. Even the kneeling would be a good indication of service that has nothing to do with status. Or a shepherd walking beside a sheep on its way back to the flock would do, so long as the shepherd was not pushing or prodding. The actual sheep itself, I suspect, ought to be more like a ram and less like a lamb. The shepherd ought to wear something he will not trip over while running.

A Roman Catholic priest with a soft heart for animals took pity on a baby lamb when its mother died, fed it faithfully from a bottle, and gave it tender loving care. Even though there were no other sheep around, the lamb did not seem to miss interovine relationships and got along quite well with his siblings, who were ducks. Some time later the priest went to visit a large farm, took his sheep along with him, and looked forward joyfully to introducing his friend to the sheep on the farm. He did so, but the acquaintanceship did not ripen into friendship. When he looked for his sheep, he found him down at the duck pond.

We may look further at the image of the kneeling shepherd removing burrs from the sheep. Rightly interpreted, the image should help to clarify at least the following points.

First, when the need is present, the shepherd meets it. He removes the burrs. He does not moralize to the sheep about having run off course. Whatever may have produced the predicament, he confronts and deals with it now, with tender and solicitous and, we trust, intelligent action.

Second, in order to get the sheep to stand still, he has presumably used whatever means are appropriate to secure the sheep’s cooperation. Not only is the sheep respected. It is also, so to speak, consulted. The shepherd should know that next day he himself may acquire the equivalent of burrs and require help.

Third, the shepherd’s kneeling shows symbolically that there are no basic or categorical differences of status, proneness to need for help, and the like, between him and the sheep. His attitude of humility manifests this fact.

Fourth, the old-style shepherding image shows, if it is rightly set forth, that our culture’s movement from an agricultural to an industrial civilization need not render the metaphor irrelevant or meaningless, and that the basic needs that pastoral care tries to meet remain the same from age to age.

It is, then, both possible and necessary to make use of the old-style shepherding image. Yet we should be less than honest if we denied that it contains difficulties. The most important function of our analysis up to this point has been to rid the image of the wrong kinds of implications, and to point up sharply the two points that the image must convey: the attitude of tender and solicitous concern on the part of the shepherd and the relevance of what he is doing to the need of the sheep. We know what kinds of shepherding images may not be used. If the image we have advocated seems only partially capable of conveying the positive meanings, at least we know what those meanings are and may seek other ways of conveying them.

But there is one other possibility in the image. With the help of science and technology, literal shepherding itself has changed. A few years ago in New Zealand I had a good look at modern sheep farms. The climate there, probably like that of most of the areas described in the Bible, made it unnecessary to have buildings — unlike much sheep farming in the United States. Notable among modern methods are those which might be called "preventive." There are methods of preventing diseases, illustrated by the addition of antibiotics to the diet. There are methods of preventing loss; for example, fences not only around the property but also at the top of cliffs or other dangerous bits of terrain. There are ways of securing balanced meals through chemical analysis of the soil or purification of the water supply. Certainly these devices suggest that shepherding begins with some kind of prevention, of doing whatever can be done to prevent specific troubles from arising.

But in addition to measures of prevention I found that modern sheep farming has also made advances in the early detection of difficulties, and in a rapid approach to them once detected. The New Zealand sheep farmer who can afford it has an American Chevrolet rather than a horse, and he rides around his farm carrying binoculars. He carries a kit with him; and although he is not a veterinary physician, he has learned how to do elementary first-aid. He has also made arrangements with a veterinary physician for service as may be needed; and even small airplanes or helicopters, if they have not yet been used, are certain to come into service in the near future, whether to transport physician or sheep. If only the sheep could talk, one could even imagine walkie-talkies as a future standard installation. If we are to use this new kind of sheep farming as analogy with our own work, certainly we need to consider the walkie-talkies; for our sheep do indeed talk.

When we put together all these modern improvements in literal shepherding, we might come out with an image like this: shepherd standing beside Chevrolet, with binoculars focused on distant sheep who has caught his leg in a crevice. Or perhaps modern shepherd kneeling beside sheep with leg caught, Chevrolet in background, first-aid kit spread behind him, and binoculars temporarily laid beside first-aid kit, While there may be humorous elements about this image, it is an important reminder that the means of shepherding may change, and hopefully may improve, but that the tender and solicitous concern and the relevance of the shepherd’s actions to the needs of the sheep remain constant.

The shepherding image, new style, does add a point to the shepherding image, old style. It becomes clearer that good intentions are not enough. Skill, accessibility, speed in helping, and good referral services are all shown in the new-style image in a way that the old-style cannot match. So long as the image is being used properly, then, to demonstrate the attitude and relevant action of the shepherd in relation to need, our analysis has hopefully rescued the whole business from both distortion and desuetude.

But insofar as the shepherding image seeks to show anything else, especially the attitude and action and obligation and initiative of the sheep, we must simply face the fact that it will not do. Try as we will, we cannot present sheep, however transformed, so as to manifest the proper attitudes, action, and initiative of the human being who is to seek help from his pastor. Besides, there is no use in lying or faking about sheep. They are not among the cleanest or most intelligent of animals. Their relative tractability seems to come not from goodness but from lack of imagination. In all intelligent qualities goats are far ahead of them. There is a good deal of merit in the suggestion once made to me that I write a book on The Christian Goatherd to match my book The Christian Shepherd.

Whatever merit our reconstructed shepherding image has, and we believe it to be considerable, it cannot, then, convey what needs to be interpreted about the persons who need help. Its utility is confined to the attitude of the shepherd. For an image about those needing help we must look elsewhere.

The Clinical Image

In order to convey the parishioner’s side of shepherding, there seem to be four image candidates. Two of these have already been mentioned as part of our initial historical review, the doorbell image and the interview image. A third possibility is what might be called a group counseling image. And the fourth possibility is the clinical image. I plan to argue that there is some merit in each of these images, and that rightly interpreted each has a place, but that the clinical image should be central.

The clinical image shows a pastor making a bedside call upon a parishioner in hospital. The pastor should have a Bible, or a reversed collar, or a Communion kit to demonstrate what he represents and to differentiate his service from that of physicians and other hospital helpers. He should be sitting on a chair beside the bed, rather than standing, partly to show that he is not administering medicine but mainly to suggest that the nature of his ministry is through conversation, talking and listening, and other procedures like prayer and reading which also involve verbal means. The parishioner is to be shown as involved in the conversation and not merely a recipient of words. His being in the hospital bed shows that he is suffering, that he is being helped by all the available means, and is thus a reminder that all available means come ultimately from God. But it shows also that, whatever the specificities of his condition, they all have a dimension that is the specific province of the minister of religion to help with. The parishioner is shown as accepting the minister’s call in that capacity. There is no suggestion that he expects the minister to do everything he needs, nor on the other side that he expects the minister to be concerned only with narrowly religious matters and not also in his overall situation, condition, and attitude.

It may be objected that this clinical image is not normative, that a lot of the pastor’s best help may be given when the parishioner is not in bed and has sufferings other than the kind that require bed. The fact is true. But our best and most convenient image of suffering is still the bed and the hospital. It should be easy enough to suggest that although the patient in bed symbolizes suffering, he does not exhaust it.

But if we retain the clinical image as central, we can then see how the counseling or interview images may be used as auxiliaries, but partially transformed from the way they originally appeared. The pastoral counseling image may show two persons, a pastor and a parishioner, seated face to face, with a cross or other symbols to show that they meet in the pastor’s study or office. They meet on the same level, and face to face. Obviously there is conversation. Both should have furrowed brows or the equivalent, the parishioner to show his suffering and the pastor his concern. This image may be very important indeed, so long as it is subsidiary to the clinical image. Taken by itself, the counseling image might suggest that the pastor can do all the helping needed, or that he is concerned only with some kinds of suffering and not with all, or that this is the elite form of helping to which all others are inferior. But if this image is used as a subimage of the clinical image, then it can be very positively important.

We mentioned as another aspirant for the position of rendering the proper function of the parishioner in pastoral care a group counseling image. The merit of this would be to show that the basic helping function of ministry comes from and through the fellowship, with group attention resting, according to need, upon individual persons, under the pastor’s chairmanship. The difficulties of the image are, however, very great, as it may appear to revert to the mass or flock notion. But if it can be correctly portrayed, then it, like the counseling image, could be an excellent subsidiary to the clinical image.

There is, finally, the doorbell image. For reasons that have been previously suggested, it can certainly not be the leading image. But if it is a supplementary image to the clinical image, then it can be a potent reminder that the pastor goes into the highways, byways, new housing developments, and slums to find and assist with needs, and does not merely call when needs are already known or wait until people call upon him.

I suggest, then, for shepherding an alteration of two leading images. First, in order to show the nature and quality of pastoral concern, there is the shepherding image itself, whether old style or new. Second, in order to show the place, function, and significance of the parishioner, I suggest the clinical image, with subsidiary use of the interview image, the group counseling image, and the doorbell image. All of this may appear awkward and complex. But its intent is to show the pastor as a proper shepherd and the parishioners as also doing their proper part in the helping process.