Dr Brian Harris; Vose Principal

When you say “Pastor”: What Images of Clergy tell us…

Don’t know if you have ever thought about the collective nouns for various professions. Some are perceptive, others tongue in cheek. Apparently one should speak of a “rash of dermatologists”, a “shower of meteorologists”, and a “boast of barristers”. When it comes to clergy the best I could find was “a rumble of clergy” – most were less flattering.

What do you think of when you hear the word “pastor”, or “priest”, or “minister”, or “clergy”? The images that spring to mind are likely to impact your attitude both to Christianity and to the Church. The rule of thumb is obvious – the warmer your response to those who are seen as leaders of the Christian faith, the greater your likelihood to be receptive to the faith. But here’s the rub… there are so many different images that spring to mind.

In a brief article in Christianity Today, Adam Marshall discusses six kinds of pastors you meet in fiction. His list is pastor as saint, zealot, liar, guide, failure and human being. Notably absent from his list is predator or paedophile – though perhaps he feels liar captures that distressingly common image.

Let’s think through Marshall’s list…

Saint is what one imagines most pastor strive to be, or what their congregation and the wider community expect them to be. Strictly, from a biblical point of view, every Christian is a saint, the term deriving from the Greek verb hagiazo which means to set apart, sanctify, or make holy. All Christians are supposed to be set apart for God, and as God’s set apart people, Christians are saints – the holy ones. Fair enough, but in common language we usually mean much more. A saintly person is one who seems to be without flaw. If they hit their thumb while hammering in a nail, they smile calmly. They are unselfish, humble, other centred and as near perfect as anyone can be. Their trust in God knows no limit, and the power of their prayer life is astounding. There is a sense of unreality about the concept, and even when proclaiming our own moral superiority, we will often disown saintship (“now I am no saint, but even I…”) When we assume our pastors or priests are saints, we set them up for failure. This is a standard you can only fall short of – and you will only believe your pastor is this kind of saint if you don’t know them very well. This can be part of the loneliness of being a pastor – for once know, you are likely to disappoint.

The pastor as zealot is popular in fiction and in many movie and TV portrayals. I sometimes indulge myself by watching the tongue in cheek British crime program, Midsomer Murders. Vicars often make an appearance, and are usually of the zealot variety, breathing hell fire and brimstone down on their essentially disinterested parish. While zealous, their zeal is usually linked to hypocrisy, and is used to divert attention away from some more distressing personal problems, most commonly of a sexual nature. While some pastors are undoubtedly zealots (in the sense portrayed in the movies), they are a very small percentage, so it is interesting that pastors are so commonly portrayed in this light. Clearly the pastor as zealot leaves a significant impression – one of such strong distaste that it is recalled over and over again. This is unfortunate, especially as in and of itself, zeal is no bad thing. To the contrary, it is commended in the Bible, Romans 12:11 reminding us to “never be lacking in zeal” and by definition is simply “passionate energy for a belief or purpose”. Clearly something has gone wrong with the way we think about zeal, and it is worth pondering what and why.

Liar is another of the disappointing images often linked to clergy. It is often associated with the need to appear a saint, the difference between our reality and the saintly expectations linked to the pastors role, being covered by lies. Sometimes there is a different cause. Pastors who want to impress people, or who think they will get a larger following if their claims exceed their reality, begin by exaggerating, and end up blurring the lines between truth and fiction. We live in an age where everyone wants to be extraordinary – and it can quickly makes liars out of us. Though it is not directly addressing this topic, can I commend an excellent award winning article by a friend of mine from New Zealand, Greg Liston, on living your best ordinary life. I think it addresses some of the issues that see pastors (and non- pastors) wander down this path.

Guide is one of the more helpful pastoral images, and when portrayed as a guide, the pastor is usually seen in a sympathetic light. Sometimes their guidance is too difficult – too otherworldly, and clearly unattainable, and is therefore rejected by the one receiving it. At other times the portrayal is deeply appreciative, showing the pastor as one who cares for the other, and empathizes with their dilemma. Interestingly, women pastors are often portrayed as guides. Up until now, they have usually been spared being cast as liars, though occasionally have had the zealot label attached. However, a rule of thumb is that when on screen, women pastors are usually cast in a more sympathetic light than their male colleagues. I suspect society trusts female pastors more than men, and usually believes they will be more understanding of life’s trials and difficulties. Certainly that’s how the warm hearted female Vicar of Dibley is portrayed, so this image has been around for some time. How about this for a provocative question: Should we listen more closely to these portrayals of clergy, and be a little more open to employing female pastors?

failure is another very common depiction for clergy. Though well educated and often brilliantly intelligent, the pastor is seen as out of touch with the real world, unable to cope with rapid change, and struggling to make ends meet as the congregation dwindles in size, and clever sermons are preached to empty pews. Linked with their occupational failure, the pastor in fiction often faces a crisis of faith. They gave their life to serve others, but it seems to amount to so little. Older movies sometimes portray the pastor as failure slightly differently. Linked to the days when the youngest sons of nobility often when into the church (where else could they go?), this portrayal is of clergy who would be unemployable in another profession. The first version of the clergy as failure is often not without pathos. Many pastors have faced churches which have shrunk during their time. No matter how hard they have worked, or how hard they have tried, from a numerical point of view little has been accomplished. Whilst some are able to console themselves that Jesus called us to be faithful, not successful, we live at a time where mega church pastors are our heroes, and the pastor with a declining congregation often finds it hard to feel anything other than a failure… which is hauntingly sad.

The pastor as human being, whilst clearly true, is relatively rare. When pastors are portrayed as human beings, the portrayal is usually sympathetic. Why is it that people struggle to think of pastors as ordinary humans called to do a particular task? Perhaps it is because the task is not ordinary. Certainly the Bible warns that those called to be teachers will be judged more strictly than others – and it is clear from the context that James is thinking of the pastor as teacher (James 3:1). The dangers of being a religious leader are real. Matthew 23 arguably sees Jesus at his harshest – and his comments are directed to the religious leaders of his day – so there are real hazards in being a religious leader. For all that, ordinary people have always been called to serve God. 2 Corinthians 4 is one of my favourite chapters. Paul starts with a clear insight: Since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not loses heart. Note that the call to ministry is linked to God’s mercy. A little later in v 7 Paul reminds us, But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. That’s liberating… no, pastors aren’t perfect. Indeed, they are vulnerable and unimpressive clay pots – but pots that carry and point to the treasure of knowing God, as revealed in Jesus.

Why not think through the images that spring to your mind when you think of clergy? Actually, they are simply human beings. Perhaps you are a pastor – or perhaps you could help a pastor to fulfil their calling to be fully human, fully alive, and open to the way God wants to work through them…


To read more from Dr. Brian Harris, see what he has posted from his blog onto our website.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash