What Pope Gregory Can Teach Us About Pastoral Ministry

When I teach my pastoral ministry class, I require students to read Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care. The first time I required it, one student said, “This guy sounds like a Catholic!” Yes, indeed. He was a pope!

Why would I have Protestant students read a Catholic pope on pastoral ministry? For one thing, our forebears thought this book a valuable source of wisdom. Gregory’s Pastoral Care was the single most influential book on pastoral ministry through the first millennium and a half of church history. It became widely popular in Gregory’s own lifetime, being used across Europe, in mission settings like Ireland, and into the Eastern Roman Empire. In 813, all bishops in Charlemagne’s realm were obliged to read it, and later King Alfred the Great (849–99) called for every English bishop to be given a copy. John Calvin called Gregory the last good pope, and he’s the second most cited patristic source in Calvin’s Institutes.

There are places we differ with Gregory. His allegorical hermeneutic is unrestrained, and the way he refers to human works in relation to salvation suggest he may have begun attributing merit to them. Still, there’s a reason his book was influential for so long. Here are four things we should learn from Gregory about pastoral ministry.

1. Gregory stresses the gravity of the pastoral role.

He published Pastoral Care to explain why he initially avoided the call to serve as Bishop of Rome, a position he assumed in 590. He wrote, “Now, lest these burdens might appear light to some, I am explaining . . . how onerous I regard them” (20). Why is the task of leading God’s church so difficult, and why would someone like Gregory shrink from ministry?

Gregory recognized his own sinfulness and his potential for harm as a leader: “For no one does more harm in the Church than he who, having the title or rank of holiness, acts evilly” (24). Gregory points out Jesus’s warning in Matthew 18:6 to those who lead God’s people astray.

The awesome responsibility of the pastoral role is missed by many who glibly take it on. As Gregory writes:

Although those who have no knowledge of the powers of drugs shrink from giving themselves out as physicians of the flesh, people who are utterly ignorant of spiritual precepts are often not afraid of professing themselves to be physicians of the heart. (22)

A bit of Gregory’s trembling is valuable and pushes us to recognize our need for training, help, and accountability as well as our sheer inability apart from God’s grace.

2. Gregory stresses the responsibility of teaching Scripture.

He says that since “the care of feeding is a testimony of love,” the one who fails to teach “the flock of God is convicted of having no love for the Supreme Shepherd” (30). Gregory calls for deep investment in studying the Bible: “Now, all this is duly fulfilled by the ruler [pastor] if . . . he meditates diligently and every day on the precepts of the Sacred Word” (86).

If you listen carefully to ministers today, it sounds like many assume Bible knowledge but stress instead leadership skills, marketing, and appearance. Aspiring pastors need to first immerse themselves deeply in the Word so their thinking, feeling, hoping, and acting are shaped by it.

This comes through powerfully in Gregory’s example. As one of my students wrote in a paper, “This book should challenge pastors to learn Scripture well enough that it flows out in every conversation.” Gregory quotes and alludes to Scripture with ease (about 400 references), including texts that we’d consider obscure. In a day without search engines or access to written helps, he knew much of the Word by heart.

3. Gregory stresses the importance of a pastor’s character.

A pastor’s life should support his teaching. “The ruler should be exemplary in his conduct, that by his manner of life he may show the way of life to his subjects, and that the flock, following the teaching and conduct of its shepherd, may proceed the better through example rather than words” (48). After all, “His voice penetrates the hearts of his hearers the more readily, if his way of life commends what he says.”

Pride is too often today the glaring sin of those in ministry leadership. Gregory says one is not fit for leadership until he’s learned humility at some level: “A man is quite incapable of learning humility in a position of superiority, if he did not refrain from acting proudly when he was in a position of subjection” (37). How readily that yearning for applause springs forth in our souls! Part of preparing for ministry involves killing our craving for the praise of people (John 5:44).

In fact, Gregory writes, “For that man is an enemy to his Redeemer who on the strength of the good works he performs, desires to be loved by the Church, rather than by Him” (75). For this reason, Gregory urges boldness amidst humility. He warns that the desire for people’s approval causes us to “fear to speak freely of what is right” and thus fail to “exercise the zeal of shepherds caring for the flock” (52).

4. Most significantly, Gregory stresses that pastoral ministry is about knowing people.

In my edition, Gregory’s text covers about 220 pages—and 150 are devoted to the importance of understanding people. Gregory describes at least 40 different personality types and considers the best way to approach and apply the Scripture most beneficially to each one. His attention to individuals and their varied experiences fits well with Paul’s concern to warn “every person” and teach “every person” so that he might present “every person” complete in Christ (Col. 1:28, NASB).

In an age more attentive to programs and systems, to production and assimilation of crowds, this is a healthy corrective. Pastoral ministry requires attention to individual people, not just communication to the masses. It’s certainly easier to stay at 50,000 feet, speaking biblical truths. In this way, you can become an accomplished speaker. But you cannot be a pastor without getting your hands dirty in the daily lives of people. Gregory’s careful and rich reflection on the challenges and cures in each situation is a wonderful place to begin learning personal pastoral care.

Pastoral ministry requires attention to individual people, not just communication to the masses.

Gregory’s old book is well worth reading for pastors. Precisely because of his distance from our day, he is a helpful voice who provides warning and encouragement young pastors need. It’s an old book, but as I tell my students, “Don’t talk to me about it being harder or less fun to read. We are not here to toy with trivialities but to wrestle with the weightiness of the oversight of souls.”

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