Recently a friend asked a question about ministry. Then I read an article that touched on a similar topic. As I considered both the question and the article, I realized that they intersected with a concern that I have.
At the outset I’ll confess that I am not the world’s greatest writer. I don’t want to be misunderstood, so I’ve toiled over this blog post more than any other I’ve written. But perhaps some, if not all, of us can stand a bit of self-examination. So here we go!
Let’s begin by looking at Scripture. Here is what David writes in Psalm 23:1-4 (ESV):
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
I referred above to a question and an article. The question I was asked had to do with challenging our people without beating them up. The article I read talks about how we come across to our people. These verses speak to both the question I was asked and the article I read.
I wonder if you’ve ever considered the relevance of Psalm 23 to pastoral ministry. There are several attitudes and behaviors exhibited by the shepherd that the New Testament says ought to describe elders/pastors/teachers. And that leads me to ask how well we emulate the model that the David sets before us.
In Psalm 23 I see tenderness. I see awareness of the needs of the flock and I see determination to provide for those needs. God, the Shepherd, is leading David to rest and refreshment. He is guiding David in the right path and protecting him from that which would bring him harm.
When it comes to motivating our people, we may need to be firm, yet we should always be gentle. We do not need to breathe fire, nor do we need to yell at them. Back in the day people might have been motivated that way, and in some circles maybe they still are. But that doesn’t make it right. Rather than venting at our people or trying to guilt then into some response, we are to follow Paul’s advice to Timothy: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2, ESV). That’s what the Shepherd would do.
What do people sense when we preach and when we lead? Do they sense anger? Disappointment? Disapproval? There are times when we need to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort.” But we should never be heavy-handed. We do not have the right to bear a whip that punishes when our Shepherd carries a rod and a staff that guides and protects.
To summarize so far, people should never feel that we are angry with them when we preach. Be firm. Be pointed. Be clear. But be gentle and loving. In addition, when we challenge our people as we must, we are to do so with “compete patience and teaching.” The New Living Translation puts it this way: “Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching.” So, when we speak to the flock we speak with the care of a shepherd for his sheep.
But this all leads to a rather important question: do you see your people as sheep, or have they become something else? Let me explain.
More and more I find churches describing themselves by a desire to be influential. That particular word is not used, but it summarizes what is often found in the mission statements or purpose statements on church websites. And while there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a light in the darkness, we are not thinking clearly if we trade our focus as shepherds for one that increasingly calls its people to more and more activity. In other words, to put it plainly, our people do not exist in order to accomplish our goals for our churches.
We exist for them, not them for us. Is it possible that some of us have forgotten that?
Have you ever heard a Christian author or speaker speak (disparagingly) about the so-called “holy huddle?” The “holy huddle” usually refers to the idea that Christians and churches are inward-focused at the expense of those who are outside of Christ. That certainly should not be true of any of us.
But let me suggest that those who raise what I think is often a straw man argument about this “holy huddle” kind of church forget that, unlike those of us in ministry, our people spend their days working in a messy world. They are immersed in an increasingly godless environment. They deal with far more “yuck” in the workplace than most of us in ministry have had to deal with for a long time.
Pastors are not required to sit through diversity seminars that promote a morality that is unbiblical. But our people have to do that. Pastors have the privilege of working on a daily basis with fellow-Christians. But the people in our churches work with those who can’t go a few sentences without using extreme profanity. If they are identified as Christians, they may be called Bible-thumpers. They are in a world that beats them down. They come to church on Sunday worn and weary. They are desperately in need of encouragement and sound teaching. They need a shepherd to lead them to where their souls can be restored. But do they find restoration or are they regularly being challenged and recruited for our next big thing?
Look, I get it. Buildings need building, parking lots need paving, and broken stuff needs fixing. There’s an ongoing need for workers. People need Christ. But we can never forget that our primary pastoral function is to feed, guide, and protect the flock. That takes precedence over whatever project we think needs to be done and whatever programs we come up with. And here’s why: God clearly wants your people to grow to be like Jesus. But it’s very possible that he doesn’t want your church to be larger and influential. He may want your church to be overwhelmingly ordinary. And the irony is that if we neglect the care of our people, or subordinate the task of building them up, we may end up failing to equip them to be lights in the darkness they live in five or six days a week.
In no way am I advocating that we abandon a godly desire for our church to accomplish much for the Lord. We don’t want to ignore lost people around us. But as pastors, if our dreams (or ambitions) – however noble – for impacting our world are the main driving force of our ministry, we will end up viewing our people more as the means to accomplishing our goals than as people who need quiet waters, green pastures, and restored souls. Our people will become beasts of burden, constantly called to work harder.
Where that happens our forgetfulness of our primary role will only come back to hurt us in time. And that’s because it’s going to lead to a church full of tired, discouraged sheep.
May God give us the grace to shepherd the flock that has been entrusted to us.