What’s the Point of a Pastor?

“One of the reasons that people need pastors is precisely because God is always present but usually not apparent.” – M. Craig Barnes

In my Presbyterian faith tradition most pastors wear black preaching robes. I promise we don’t do it for comfort. Or looks (obviously). These robes signify, in part, the relationship between the church and the academy. The unfitted black robes point away from the preacher’s particular sartorial choices—all black gowns, after all, pretty much look alike—and towards the pastor’s educational background and call to preach and teach the word of God.

Did I mention that most of the protestant reformers were professors? That historical connection has been part of my own vocational trajectory, and it came to mind again recently when I was exercising my weekly solemn duty to read the NY Times Sunday Review. There, I came across an op-ed by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein, who dared to ask the question, “What’s the Point of a Professor?” Bauerlein suggested, in part, that professors have become too focused on affirming students, rather than inspiring them.

Gone are the days, he wrote, when students lined up in droves outside of professors’ offices, eager to drink from the fount of professorial wisdom. Gone are the days when faculty emphasized the heart of liberal education and engaged with students, face-to-face, about life’s deep questions. According to Bauerlein, today’s professors write too much, are evaluated too often, and function largely as service providers. Higher education has become transactional, a delivery system to prepare students for the workplace instead of a haven for wisdom and deep thinking.

Bauerlein’s essay, as it turns out, sent the Internet think-o-crats to their keyboards in disgust. Faculty members were not amused. In a post acknowledging, among other points, Bauerlein’s privilege of teaching small classes at well-funded Emory, Kevin Gannon shot back, “I Will Not Be Lectured To. I’m Too Busy Teaching.” Daniel W. Drezner wondered aloud—as a Mother’s Day gift, no less—“What’s the Point of Op-Eds About Professors?” And, not to be outdone, Salon’s Scott Eric Kaufman gave Bauerlein a place to respond to the critics (though my guess is that the Salon interview angered them even more).

The pastor is in danger of becoming just another cog in a system of demanding religious consumers and spiritualized products.

All the fuss got me wondering about the other side of my own vocational connection with teaching. Despite Bauerlein’s wanting tone and rose-colored glasses—what do you expect from someone who wrote a book titled The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future—I do think he’s on to something, in light of which I couldn’t help but ask, “What’s the point of a pastor?”


Pastors today face a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. Because so many people approach institutions—and communities, for that matter—with the same sort of transactional mentality Bauerlein calls out in the professorate, the pastor is in danger of becoming just another cog in a system of demanding religious consumers and spiritualized products. Pastors provide “God in a box,” and consumer worshipers expect that box to fulfill all their spiritual cravings each—er, every other—Sunday. Transaction: done.

In a recent Bearings post, “Coming Clean on Bringing Millennials Back to Church,” Keith Anderson discussed the popularity of Rachel Held Evans’s work in Mainline pastoral circles today. If you’re not familiar with it, Evans’s latest book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, emphasizes the power and draw of mystery, sacraments, and traditional liturgy for some Millennials. While Anderson is of course all for good worship (who isn’t?), his Bearings piece rightly reminds us that worship isn’t enough.

Indeed, the call of 21st-century pastors must not include selling the fact that the church is offering something to prospective consumer members. Instead, the Gospel is about God’s love that is already and forever for us. The Gospel is about the claim that Jesus Christ puts on our lives. And that claim, it turns out, isn’t something we buy. Even more challenging, it is very often not something most of us want, for it’s a call to a different way of living that is quite distinct from what most of us are used to.

What good is a pastor if she’s going to be yammering on about that kind of life, instead of making us feel warm and fuzzy over God’s love for us and reassuring us that we’re good to go for the next fortnight in our generally comfortable lives?

William Willimon, a pastor and professor, writes in his book, Pastor: The Theology and Practice or Ordained Ministry:

My colleague Stanley Hauerwas has accused the contemporary pastor of being little more than “a quivering mass of availability.” Practicing what I have called “promiscuous ministry”—ministry with no internal, critical judgment about what care is worth giving—we become victims of a culture of insatiable need. We live in a capitalist, consumptive culture where there is no purpose to our society other than “meeting our needs.” . . . In this vast supermarket of desire, we pastors must do more than simply “meet people’s needs.” The church is also about giving people the critical means of assessing which needs give our lives meaning, about giving us needs we would not have had if we had not met Jesus.

The wise pastor, like Bauerlein’s wise professor, stretches beyond an unreflective practice of “giving the people what they want.” In fact, the point of a pastor is exactly the opposite: give the people what they need, which is very often not what they want.

If my pastor isn’t challenging me to see what I truly need—however uncomfortable that might make me sometimes—what’s the point?

In his book Open Secrets, Richard Lischer tells the story of serving in his first call as pastor of a rural parish in Iowa. When congregation members spoke of the previous pastor—who was from a different generation and possessed a style from a previous era—their reactions intrigued Lischer, who recalled, “Everyone respected him [the prior pastor], but if someone were to ask [congregants] ‘Did you like Pastor Martin?’ they would say ‘Like?’ then look quizzically at each other and reframe the question.”

With this context in mind, here’s a list of what I want need from my pastor:

  • A reframing of community that moves away from me and my wants as central
  • A constant reminder that my money, my possessions, and my very life belong not to myself, but to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
  • Someone to name the true, ugly, beautiful, painful reality of life together, and to cast a new vision of what the Kingdom of God looks like
  • A wise, honest soul who looks me in the eye and says, “You are a jerk and God forgives you anyway. Go and sin no more.”
  • A hope-filled, justice-seeking, cross-bearing, advocate for those on the margins
  • Consistent Spirit-filled testimony that my identity and accomplishments are not of my own creation, but are only made possible through God’s grace and faithful provision

In his (now infamous?) piece about teaching college students, Bauerlein explained that he requires his students to meet with him one-on-one to revise their papers. Now, it’s safe to say that many students do not approach this requirement with great joy. Even so, Bauerlein regularly pushes against students’ desires, because he believes that “You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it.”

I think that’s true for college students and would-be parishioners alike: along with comforting the afflicted, as the old saying goes, we must not forget to afflict the comfortable.

After all, if my pastor isn’t challenging me to see what I truly need—however uncomfortable that might make me sometimes—what’s the point?


Adam Copeland

Adam J. Copeland teaches at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota where he is director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders. An ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), he is editor of Kissing in the Chapel, Praying in the Frat House: Wrestling with Faith and College (2014) and author of several book chapters on ministry and culture. Follow him at @ajc123 and visit his blog http://adamjcopeland.com.

Photo credits:

Cover photo: “Homeless Minister Speaks at 2012 United Methodist General Conference,” by UMWomen, April 27, 2012. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Desaturated from original.

Inside photo:  “Clockwork,” by William Warby, December 7, 2013. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.