Pastor as 'shepherd'?

Discuss one of the biblical images that has shaped the church’s understanding of pastoral care and explore its contemporary relevance. Include a discussion of the way this image relates to your own ministry of care.

This essay argues for the paradigm of sister/brother as a useful way of understanding pastoral care. In other times and contexts, the church has been seen as an egalitarian family, with brothers and sisters, rather than fathers or shepherds, engaging in the caring of others. Yet the image of the pastoral carer as a brother or sister has not proved salient in the modern Western Protestant church. More common is the model of a shepherd, which corresponds with a fairly hierarchical church structure or professionalized offices of pastoral care. For those interested in more egalitarian church structures, the image of the carer as a servant is more compelling, but, as discussed below, becomes problematic when applied to communities with members already engaged in servitude.

The sister/brother image takes the best from the servanthood model – that is, the reordering of usual power relationships – but remains empowering for women, minorities and other oppressed groups, because it places everybody on an equal plain. I use this model to explore (one of) my own context(s), which is an informal, parachurch community based around an open fortnightly meal, known as Seeds City.

Pastoral carer as shepherd

The term ‘pastor’ itself has agricultural connotations, bringing to mind an image of green meadows, silly white sheep and a tall wise shepherd that guides the flock and gently cajoles (or occasionally yanks) the wandering ones back with his crook. Our preferred model of pastoral care is always intimately tied to our preferred ecclesiology. In this case the idea of pastor as ‘shepherd’ stems from a mode of church that consists of an active, professionalised ‘office’ of pastor, minister or priest, and a relatively passive congregation. Such a structure is a legacy of the Constantine era when the roles of the imperial church were equated with the positions in the imperial civil service.[1] It could, however, have begun earlier, as we see the beginnings of hierarchy in the ecclesiology expressed in 1 Timothy, which makes mention of the offices of bishop (or overseers), elder and deacon.[2]

Today, we see this manifested in many of our churches with one-to-one pastoral care relationships, between pastor and parishioner. What is missing from this model is the involvement of the “community of saints”.[3] Pastoral care, influenced by alternative fields of ‘care’, has taken on the individualistic model found in medicine and psychology[4] - with the ‘shepherd’ replacing the doctor or psychologist.

Given that the common association of pastors with shepherds came relatively late in the history of the church, it is no surprise that it is not well supported by the New Testament texts. It is Christ, in almost every case, who is the ‘shepherd’ (Greek: poimēn): see Mark 14.27f and parallels, John 10; Heb 13.20; 1 Pet 2.25; Rev 7.17.[5]

There are only a few references to Christian leaders as poimēn. The clearest is 1 Peter 5.1ff, which asks elders to “be poimēn of God’s flock that is under your care” until the archipoimēn (i.e. Jesus) returns. The elders are counselled to be “eager to serve, not lording it over those entrusted to you”. The poimēn, in other words, was not to be authoritarian, but to follow a model of service. A second example is Ephesians 4.11ff: “It was [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be poimēn and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith…” In this passage, the role of poimēn is couched within a communal body where the poimēn – whatever this consisted of in a first century Christian context – was one of many roles, played by many people. It was certainly not the image of a single leader guiding a passive and wayward flock. A third example is Acts 20.28, in which Paul asks the whole eldership to poimainō the church ‘flock’. The role of ‘shepherding’ extends beyond a single person.

The modern church requires a diversity of functions as much as the early church, and in many churches there is a movement away from the focus on one person (generally a man) as the shepherd of a flock. This authoritarian model “hardly applies when education is widely available, when social structures are increasingly democratic, and when people have the freedom to discover their unique gifts for Christian service”.[6] For this reason we would do well to explore alternative models of pastoral care.

Pastoral carer as servant

The image of servanthood is a far more biblical paradigm for pastoral care. The idea stems back to the prophetic writings of Isaiah, with the image of the suffering servant (Isaiah 53) taken up by the synoptic gospels to understand Jesus’ seemingly passive and useless death.[7] Perhaps the most poignant servanthood image is that of Jesus, who was Teacher and Lord, taking off his outer garments to wash the feet of his disciples – a task otherwise reserved for servants or slaves (John 13.1ff). Jesus calls on his disciples to do the same for each other (vv 14-15) – a notion taken up by Paul and the early Christian church in Philippians 2.5ff.

The servanthood image is so powerful because at its best, it demands a reordering of societal power relations. In John it is written: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (v 3). The foot-washing ritual immediately follows this statement. It is Jesus’ response to this God-given power: it is a divesting of power. This is what is required of the powerful in God’s kingdom. The idea is in line with Jesus’ refusal of the temptations of economic, political and spiritual power at the end of his desert fast in Matthew 4.1ff and Luke 4.1ff. Similarly, an “upside-down kingdom”[8] reversal of norms is found in the Beatitudes immediately after the temptation narrative (in Matthew). In the synoptics, the statement, “The first will be last and the last will be first” (Matt 19.30; 20.16; Mk 10.31; Luke 13.30) conveys the idea that in God’s empire, the kind of social relations found within our earthly empires will be radically reordered.

Yet from the perspective of somebody who is not powerful, the idea that they must divest themselves of what little power they have may not be helpful. Many people in this world are already servants: serving their families, serving the rich, serving the powerful. To follow the biblical call to be servants, for many, is simply to be who they already are: oppressed and disempowered. Womanist scholar Jacquelyn Grant argues that servanthood language masks the real servitude of African American women, and that such a discourse enables systems of oppression and suffering to continue.[9] Dunfee suggests that all women are marginalised by servanthood language, because they do not have the strong sense of self or personhood required for the minimisation of power. She argues that servanthood language can create a dependency between the woman and those she serves, since without them she has no identity as a ‘servant’.[10]

Not all women are defined by their servitude – as a rich, white, educated woman, I, for one, have a strong sense of personhood. Servanthood language is useful for powerful people like myself who need to be reminded, when caring pastorally, to be humble; serving and empowering others. Jesus did not intend to further disempower servants, but rather to provide a model for a community that would be radically different from the prevailing social order: “The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23.11-12). Servanthood is the message to the powerful, but the powerless require exaltation.

Pastoral carer as a sister or brother

The very early church saw itself as a family. The motif may be related to the fact that the ekklesia gathered in people’s home – the very locale of family. “The home with its expressive kinship language was the basic unit of Pauline foundations,” notes Raymond Collins. “It was the locus where philadelphia, the sibling love characteristic of the believer, was practiced.”[11] The root word translated as ‘house’ or ‘home’ is oikos, which connotes household, family, home and house.[12] In two of Paul’s letters he sends greetings to the church that meets in the oikos of Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16.5; 1 Cor 16.19), and in his letter to Philemon he refers to “the church that meets in your oikos” (Phm 2b). It is this family/household/home paradigm in which the early church is placed.

Many of Paul’s letters are peppered with references to ‘sisters’ and ‘brothers’ (see for example 1 Thessalonians). In his letter to Philemon (the owner of the runaway slave, Onesimus) Paul frames his argument around the notion of a fictive family.[13] He begins by referring to Timothy as a ‘brother’ (v 1) and Apphia as a ‘sister’ (v 2), and then includes Philemon as a brother also (v 7). In Jewish tradition it is a father’s responsibility to transmit traditional lore to his son, and this is what Paul has done with Onesimus in prison – but has replaced the Torah with the Gospel.[14] Thus Onesimus becomes Paul’s own son (v 10), continuing the familial metaphor. The clincher comes with Paul implores Philemon to transform the master-slave relationship into a brotherly relationship (v 16). For Paul, the notion of ekklesia as family transcends the worldly social order marked with hierarchy and servitude.

The early church – or at least parts therein – did not simply imitate the Greco-Roman family norm, which was a hierarchical ordering of sons, wives and children, with the pater familias sitting at the top. Perhaps the example for this was set by Jesus himself, who, after dismissing his own family, states in Matt 12:50: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother”. The pater familias – the linchpin of the social order and the source of all earthly honour – is replaced with the Father in heaven. The church is made up of brothers, sisters and mothers – but the earthly fathers are conspicuously absent. At least in Matthew’s community, the church is modelled on a counter-culturally defined, explicitly anti-hierarchical family, which in many cases replaces biological family relations.

The early charismatic concepts of church tended to be egalitarian, affirming spiritual talents rather than established social hierarchies.[15] Thus Paul, this time using the metaphor of a body, cautions members of the church in Corinthians not to gloat over their own importance, but rather appreciate the integral nature of all gifts, whether manifested in apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, helpers, administrators and speakers of tongues (1 Cor 12.12ff). The radical egalitarianism is captured well in Galations 3.28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Says Robert Kysar: “This is a vision of a community in which the ethnic origin, the social status of free or bond, and the gender distinction of persons are essentially irrelevant. The society of the church was a single, seamless fabric by virtue of its shared baptism in Christ…”[16]

If pastoral care – or indeed any other task – is to be administered in a non-hierarchical environment centred on the notion of a radically egalitarian family, there is room for women as full participants. The new, alternative Christian family became possible because of a belief in the imminent arrival of the returned Christ, negating the reality of death and the necessity of reproduction. The structures that once subordinated women were no longer needed, so women could participate fully in the church.[17]  And indeed they did – shown in the example of the active missionary couple Prisca and Aquila, often mentioned by Paul.[18] Similarly, women clearly prayed and prophesised in the churches, as indicated in 1 Cor 11.5 – despite the seemingly contradictory command for women to remain silent at 1 Cor 14.34-35.[19] Importantly, the fact that the church was based in the oikos, the domain in which women generally presided, ensured that women exercising leadership within the church was a natural course of action.[20]

Pastoral care can take a number of forms, and at its best belongs to the whole community.[21] As such, pastorally caring for people goes beyond one-on-one counselling, and can involve “visiting, bringing food, doing dishes, cleaning house, running errands, or just listening”.[22] The very early church had no regard to office, and so pastoral care was conducted by all. Consequently Luke reports that the Christians in Jerusalem owned their property communally, selling goods and distributing the proceeds to those in the church in need (Acts 2.44-45). Pastoral care is a task for the laity; for the ‘community of saints’.[23] As Stone envisions, “The minister is a facilitator, a teacher, and a leader in pastoral care, but most of the work is done in the community by the community.”[24]

Many of the basic tasks of pastoral care, listed above (bringing food, doing dishes etc), are excluded from a ‘shepherd’ model, partly because they are seen as ‘female’ duties, which a male ‘shepherd’, presiding over his flock, would not involve himself in. They are simply outside the definition of pastoral care.  Many of these tasks are also typically conducted by servants. When a woman brings food to a sick member of her congregation because that is her way of pastorally caring, labelling her actions as ‘servant-like’ ensures that she is doing exactly what the social order expects of her. Her caring is devalued to the job expected of a servant. If, on the other hand, she is doing the job as a ‘sister’, then her bringing of food is contributing to the family of Christ. Such language gives value to common female methods of pastoral care, rather than excluding it from the definition as does the model of shepherd, or placing it within the expected social order as does the model of servant.

Women have an important part to play in pastoral care. If church is to be understood as a community of people, bound together in Christ and mutual care, then it must be understood relationally. Relationships are key to the family of Christ: “to be in the image of God is to be embodied relationally”.[25] Given that many women have unique abilities and tendencies toward cooperation and care, their role in the church is critical.[26] Celebrating the ‘sister’ paradigm of pastoral care ensures that these skills and abilities are valued as the stuff that glues churches together, rather than secondary to the role of shepherd, or expected as the kind of work that women just do.

Unfortunately for the church and its members, the idea of ‘ekklesia as egalitarian family’ took an early demise. The bishops, elders and deacons found in 1 Timothy were likely a late first or early second century development – ushered in when Christ did not return as expected, and the Christian community found it again necessary to continue the social order and the patterns of reproduction that subordinated women.[27] The patriarchal family, as opposed to the egalitarian family, became the new model for church. Men were now worthy to serve as ministers only if they had proved themselves capable as a pater familias (1 Tim 3.4-5).[28] In addition the ‘father’ role is introduced into the Christian family where before it was excluded (see 1 Tim 5.1). It is no surprise that women had their leadership opportunities curtailed: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (1 Tim 2.12). Clearly women in the church had been teaching men and involving themselves fully – now, after a few short decades of church history, church as an egalitarian family was to end.

It was after the cooption of Christianity by the empire in the fourth century that the monastic movement began in full force.[29] In the first centuries of Christian monasticism, the movement served as a counter-cultural expression of Christianity, away from the hierarchy and complacency of the state religion.[30] It is no surprise that this new model of church again adopted the language of family, with monastics referring to each other as ‘sisters’ and ‘brothers’ in a return to familial egalitarianism – a tradition continued by modern-day monastics.[31] The ‘family’ of the monastery was also one of the only places where women could find freedom beyond the reproductive role otherwise ascribed for females.[32] Expressed in a way that emphasises equality, the ‘family’ model of church – where brothers and sisters are equally valued and embraced – could today help churches fight patriarchy and locate the significance of individuals.

My context: Seeds City

I am part of a faith community known as Seeds City. This community is connected to the work of Urban Seed, which works with homeless and marginalised people, in Melbourne CBD. Seeds City is currently comprised of eight people who are ‘covenanted’ to the community: that is, committed to support the group for one year at a time. The majority of covenanted members work or volunteer with Urban Seed (about half live in the same building). We commit to fortnightly open meals and covenanted brunches every second month. We also covenant to attend an annual retreat with the Seeds Network, which connects and support Seeds communities attached to other centres where Urban Seed does its work.

There are a significant number of non-covenanted people who are part of the Seeds City community, who participate in our fortnightly open meals and liturgy but are not committed in the same way as covenanted members. Many of these people are regulars at Credo Café, where Urban Seed extends hospitality to people who are homeless, addicted to drugs or gambling, or struggling with mental health.

I believe that the brother/sister model of pastoral care applies well to Seeds City. There is no one leader: the closest we have is a ‘convenor’ who communicates with the Seeds Network and ensures that meal rosters are followed and covenanted brunches occur. As such, there is no ‘shepherd’ leading the flock and providing one-on-one care. The servant model is less jarring, because many of our educated, middle class members consciously divest themselves of power in order to cook food, wash dishes and humble themselves so as to empower others. Yet for our more marginalised members, a ‘servant’ model may not be appropriate. Eddy, for example, works as a kitchen hand and cleaner in a hospital kitchen; to be ‘servant-like’ is no change from his usual occupation.

To call Eddy a ‘brother’, on the other hand, and myself a ‘sister’, is to place two people, from two different ends of society, on an equal plain. It is to lift Eddy up from his powerlessness, and bring me down from my power. It is the radical reordering as expressed in Jesus’ foot washing ritual, but in our context better expressed as an egalitarian family. For many people connected to our community, Seeds City and Urban Seed are the closest thing they have to a family. Our ‘church’ is a new kind of family, consciously removed from the patriarchal and hierarchical structures that characterise many ‘natural’ families, and founded on principles of love and mutual care.

I have a private school education, two degrees and live in a unit with my husband in Blackburn. Eddy finds it difficult to read, struggles with his mental health and lives on his own in a rooming house in St Kilda. Yet more often than not, it is Eddy extending care to me, rather than me (from my position of power) to him. He encourages me when I am trying to facilitate prayers to a rowdy group in Credo Café on a Sunday night (“You’re doing a great job, Adriana!”), and calls to check in on me if we haven’t seen each other in a while. In some ways, he is more like a big brother than a ‘client’ that needs to be ‘served’. It is the mutual pastoral care of a brother and sister, in a big and colourful family.


For a church to operate at its fullest potential, it must empower all members to pastorally care for one another, as sisters and brothers. The role of the minister should be to facilitate ‘the priesthood of all believers’ in their pastoral care, as they visit, listen to, bake cakes and mow lawns for one another. The church should embrace its early egalitarianism, valuing its members as brothers and sisters, each with different gifts, with none above any other. The ‘servanthood’ model should be taken on to the extent that it reorders the power relations found in the prevailing social order. But, as my Seeds City example shows, ‘servanthood’ can be disempowering to those who already see themselves as servants. The tasks we do for one another are beyond the expectation of a servant and more diverse than a shepherd’s: they are no less than the tasks of brothers and sisters, contributing to the family of Christ.


Arichea, Daniel. 'The silence of women in the church: Theology and translation in 1 Cor.14.33b'. Bible Translator. Jan (1995): 101-112.

Burton, Keith. 'How does a woman prophecy and keep silent at the same time?'. Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 10.1 268-284.

Campbell, Alastair V. Paid to care? The limits of professionalism in pastoral care. London: Anchor Press, 1985.

Clark, Elizabeth. Women in the early church. Delaware: Michael Grazier, Inc, 1983.

Cloke, Gillian. 'This female man of God': Women and spiritual power in the patristic age. London: Routledge, 1995.

Collins, Raymond F. The many faces of the church: A study in New Testament ecclesiology. The Crossroad Publishing Company: New York, 2003.

Dunfee, Susan Nelson. Beyond servanthood: Christianity and the liberation of women. Lanham: University Press of America, 1989.

Emmett, Alanna M. 'An early fourth-century female monastic community in Egypt?' In Maistor: Classical, Byzantine and Renaissance studies for Robert Browning, ed. A. Moffatt. Canberra: The Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1984.

Grant, Jacquelyn. 'The sin of servanthood and the deliverance of discipleship.' In A troubling in my soul: Womanist perspectives on evil and suffering, ed. E. M. Townes. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993. 199-218.

Groothuis, Rebecca Merrill. Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997.

Kraybill, Donald B. The upside-down kingdom. Hants, UK: Marshall Morgan & Scott, 1978.

Küng, Hans. Why priests? Glasgow: Collins, 1977.

Kysar, Robert. Called to care: Biblical images for social ministry. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.

Neuger, Christie Cozad. 'Women and relationality.' In Feminist and womanist pastoral theology, ed. B. J. Miller-McLemore and B. L. Gill-Austern. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999. 113-132.

Okland, Jorunn. Women in their place: Paul and the Corinthian discourse of gender and sanctuary space. London: T & T Clark International, 2004.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Women-church: Theology and practice of feminist liturgical communities. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.

Stone, Howard. Theological context for pastoral caregiving: Word in deed. New York; London: The Haworth Pastoral Press, 1996.

Swan, Laura. The forgotten desert mothers: Sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women. New York: Paulist Press, 2001.

Witherington, Ben. Women in the earliest churches. Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1988.

Zaragoza, Edward. No longer servants but friends: A theology of ordained ministry. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.




[1] Hans Küng, Why priests? (Glasgow: Collins, 1977), p. 36.

[2] Rosemary Radford Ruether, Women-church: Theology and practice of feminist liturgical communities (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 12.

[3] Howard Stone, Theological context for pastoral caregiving: Word in deed (New York; London: The Haworth Pastoral Press, 1996), p. 161.

[4] Ibid., p. 161.

[5] Alastair V Campbell, Paid to care? The limits of professionalism in pastoral care (London: Anchor Press, 1985), p. 30.

[6] Ibid., p. 31.

[7] Ibid., p. 20.

[8] See Donald B Kraybill, The upside-down kingdom (Hants, UK: Marshall Morgan & Scott, 1978).

[9] Jacquelyn Grant, 'The sin of servanthood and the deliverance of discipleship', in A troubling in my soul: Womanist perspectives on evil and suffering, ed. Townes (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993). Described in Edward Zaragoza, No longer servants but friends: A theology of ordained ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999).

[10] Susan Nelson Dunfee, Beyond servanthood: Christianity and the liberation of women (Lanham: University Press of America, 1989).

[11] Raymond F Collins, The many faces of the church: A study in New Testament ecclesiology (The Crossroad Publishing Company: New York, 2003), p. 29.

[12] Ibid., p. 16.

[13] Ibid., p. 17.

[14] Ibid., p. 17. See also 1 Cor 4.15-16.

[15] Ruether, Women-church: Theology and practice of feminist liturgical communities , p. 11.

[16] Robert Kysar, Called to care: Biblical images for social ministry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), p. 74.

[17] Ruether, Women-church: Theology and practice of feminist liturgical communities, p. 11, Ben Witherington, Women in the earliest churches (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1988), pp. 78-90.

[18] The fact that Prisca’s name is generally mentioned first by both Luke and Paul – the reversal of the general trend – could indicate that she played a more prominent role in the church and ministry than did her husband – Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), p. 194.

[19] This discrepancy has been the source of much debate within the church and the seminary – see e.g. Keith Burton, 'How does a woman prophecy and keep silent at the same time?', Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 10.1 268-284, Daniel Arichea, 'The silence of women in the church: Theology and translation in 1 Cor.14.33b', Bible Translator. Jan (1995): 101-112, Jorunn Okland, Women in their place: Paul and the Corinthian discourse of gender and sanctuary space (London: T & T Clark International, 2004).

[20] Laura Swan, The forgotten desert mothers: Sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), p. 5-7.

[21] Stone, Theological context for pastoral caregiving: Word in deed , p. 113.

[22] Ibid., p. 113.

[23] Ibid., pp. 12-13.

[24] Ibid., p. 164.

[25] Larry Graham, 1996, cited in Christie Cozad Neuger, 'Women and relationality', in Feminist and womanist pastoral theology, ed. Miller-McLemore and Gill-Austern (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), p. 116.

[26] Neuger, ‘Women and relationality’, pp. 115-116.

[27] Ruether, Women-church: Theology and practice of feminist liturgical communities , p. 12.

[28] Ibid., p. 12.

[29] Alanna M Emmett, 'An early fourth-century female monastic community in Egypt?', in Maistor: Classical, Byzantine and Renaissance studies for Robert Browning, ed. Moffatt (Canberra: The Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1984), p. 78.

[30] Elizabeth Clark, Women in the early church (Delaware: Michael Grazier, Inc, 1983), p. 115.

[31] Although note the rank of ‘father’ and ‘mother superior’ in the Catholic church.

[32] Gillian Cloke, 'This female man of God': Women and spiritual power in the patristic age (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 168-169.