Magazines 2021 May - Jun The pastoral imperative

The pastoral imperative

04 May 2021 By Bruce Clemenger

Rising above the pandemic in ordinary acts of service to one another

Brockville is Ontario’s first incorporated town located on the St. Lawrence River. Its imposing court house is poised atop the highest hill overlooking the river. Arched in a semicircle around it stand several grand stone churches of different Christian traditions. While Canada never had a state church, we see the historic prominence and influence of Christianity.

Many historians have commented on the tutelage of churches who sought to influence the moral and spiritual foundations of nationhood and to act as the conscience of the state. The Church and specifically clergy played three key functions – prophetic, priestly and pastoral.

The prophetic function admonishes all to turn toward God, by implication away from distractions. It directs sight toward the transcendent, a God rich in mercy (to forgive), grace (to nourish) and compassion (to comfort and encourage). It serves like a steeple, a tower that points upwards and a bell that tolls reminders of the sacred. It’s a call to humans created in God’s image yet free to accept or reject our created purpose. In contemporary Canada, the prophetic is largely unheeded unless it appears to align itself in tandem with a secular agenda.

The priestly function provides rituals of stability for understanding life, death and transformation while also lending legitimacy to secular authority. A priestly blessing at sacred moments of communion – when two lives come together, new lives are born and lives gather to face death – all mark significance in time. In some traditions the priestly role also provides absolution. When the importance of God wanes as other gods and their idols are followed, and as the compass of a transcendent moral order is denied, the need for the priestly is eclipsed.

The pastoral function is however still seen and valued – essential even in a secularized society. Those uniquely called and credentialled as pastors deserve our respect and support in this challenging task. Pastoral forms of service however, are not exclusive. They are ones we can all cultivate as we come alongside others with tangible varieties of comfort, providing physical or spiritual spaces of safety and nourishment where the immediate needs of the heart, mind and body are met (Psalm 23). We rejuvenate and restore the hungry, lonely, lost, grieving or suffering.

How many youth are struggling with hopelessness just as seniors are with loneliness? Are we grieving well amid the disruption of routines and the mandated isolation? In the pastoral, noticeably and tangibly experienced, we find expression of God’s love and care in times of trial and pestilence (Psalm 63 and 91).

Throughout the Gospels the pastoral nature of Jesus Christ is manifest. Being human and knowing human suffering, He is forbearing and able to compassionately and generously respond, meeting pressing needs and exuding a restorative vision of human life and meaning, including healthy boundaries and times of rest and prayer.

The pastoral leads others to green pastures where, like sheep, humans can be nourished and comforted. In John 21 we read of the affirmation of Peter’s calling from the perspective of the risen Christ. His scars would be visible in this exchange, making the encounter all the more powerful.

Forgiveness is required for restorative wholeness in relationship. Having denied Christ three times, now by the sea during a breakfast meal, thrice Peter is asked if he loves Christ. Thrice Peter affirms his love. And thrice Jesus reaffirms Peter’s calling – pasture my tender lambs, oversee the sheep and continually care for them through to maturity.

Particularly in times of crisis, when belonging is a primary need, experiencing the pastoral is critical. In offering and receiving help, we affirm life has meaning, lives have purpose and matter, and each would be missed if dead. Socially and spiritually connected in essential ways, the pastoral imperative reenforces the truth of our God-image-bearing likeness, endowed with dignity and worth.

We visibly experience the necessary function of the pastoral imperative in Christ followers who become the hands (to feed, carry, touch, embrace) and feet (swift to come alongside with provisions, protection), especially during amplified needs that a pandemic fosters. The prophetic and priestly are still present, but it is the pastoral prominence that turns contemplation upward and resounds in influence readily recieved.

We see the strength and majesty of the ordinary act of pastoral service answering this crucial question: Where is God? He is present, noticing, receiving and embracing. Ordinary acts such as prayer, words of encouragement, sharing the Word, making provision and even asking questions about ultimate significance during a pandemic to those you meet all serve human need. He is risen indeed in the pastoral imperative.

Bruce J. Clemenger is President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Please pray for our work and support us at or toll-free 1-866-302-3362.

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