The Pastor as Interpretive Guide KGS

The Pastor as Interpretive Guide

Kevin G. Smith
South African Theological Seminary

Africa recently crossed an important threshold—more than half of all Africans now live in cities. The worldview of urban Africans is significantly influenced by western ideas and ideals. These changes should cause us to ask, How might our understanding of the role of a pastor adapt to our rapidly changing world? A helpful suggestion comes from Charles Gerkin, who suggests we view the role of the modern pastor as that of an interpretive guide.

In the past, pastors enjoyed hierarchical authority. Much like the sangomas in traditional African communities, pastors were respected members of society whose position carried status. Several factors contributed towards their status. The church was a powerful force in society, and everyone belonged to it, so its leaders held positions of power. Furthermore, they were often the most highly educated members of the community, so their positional power was reinforced by their expert power—people would seek out their opinions because they were perceived to be more knowledgeable than ordinary community members.

Richard Osmer lists four societal changes during the twentieth century which have dramatically undermined the authority pastors carry in society. First, many people now have access to higher education, so pastors are no longer the most highly educated members of their congregations, and their position now carries lower social status than professions such as doctors, lawyers, and so on. Second, the spread of democracy has encouraged people to form their own views, and to hold pastors accountable. Third, in pluralistic societies, people have freedom to choose whether or not to join a church; pastors no longer have authority based on the fact that everyone attends church. Fourth, the secularisation of society has relegated religion to a small compartment of life, and pastors are therefore viewed as lacking the expertise to address non-religious aspects of life (e.g. business, politics, education).

In some African contexts, pastors still have hierarchical authority grounded in their position and status in the community. They are perceived as ‘the man of God’ who speaks with divine authority in all areas of life. However, in urban contexts where western thought and values are prominent, there is a need to reconsider the role and authority of the pastor.

According to Gerkin, in the postmodern context a pastor’s authority is based on the reasonableness of his wisdom and the quality of his relationship with his people. One positive spin off of this change is that people are now much more transparent with pastors. They are less inclined to view pastors as spiritual giants for whom they must put on their ‘best Christian face’. As a result, pastors now have more chance of building open relationships with their people, and walking life’s road with them.

Since pastors are now more able to access the everyday lives of their people, and their influence depends on their everyday wisdom, they can adopt a new leadership role—interpretive guides. The metaphor is based on the idea of life’s journey. The pastor is like a ranger who guides a group of people on a wildlife excursion. The ranger is a leader by virtue of his expert understanding of the terrain and the skills necessary to survive in the wild. He is able to lead the way. Similarly, the pastor wields influence in people’s life because he has godly wisdom; he is able to interpret the Word and the world well enough to discern God’s will in the complex circumstances of modern life, and help believers walk in His ways.

What makes a pastor a good interpretive guide? First, he must have practical wisdom, the ability to interpret everyday episodes, situations, and contexts in the light of God’s Word. Osmer suggests that he learn to discern God’s will by asking four key questions: What is going on? Why is it going on? What ought to be going on? How might we respond? Second, he must be with his people. Following the example of Jesus, he must build good enough relationships with his people that will seek out his advice when they need a wise guide.

African cities are heavily influenced by western ideas and ideals. Pastors who rely on the sangoma model of pastoral authority—an authoritative ‘man of God’ who is separate from his people—should start thinking about how the changes in context and worldview impact upon their influence. Interpretive guides, who think deeply and relate intimately, may be best placed to provide spiritual leadership in postmodern cities.

Works cited

Gerkin, C. 1986. Widening the horizons: pastoral responses to a fragmented society. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Gerkin, C. 1997. An introduction to pastoral care. Nashville: Abingdon.

Osmer, R. R. 2008. Practical theology: an introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.