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Let’s Usher In A New Era of Pastoral Care

I’ve been slowly reading through Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly. The book is subtitled The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Using Scripture and the writings of the Puritans, Ortlund very effectively shows how Jesus does not look at his people with a disappointed frown, but with gentle, pursuing love. You can find the book at Amazon or at Westminster Books, and here is a review by David McLemore over at For the Church. (You’ll get a better price at Westminster for the physical edition, but Amazon has the Kindle edition for $8.)

Summing up in his review, McLemore writes:

The everlasting, all-sufficient love of Jesus is where the power of this book lies. If you need a love you don’t warrant but can’t stop longing for. If you need a love bigger than your sin. If you need a love that sits with you in the ashes of your burned-out life. If you need a love too great to be limited to what you deserve, this book is for you. It’s for all who will come. It’s for all who sin and suffer and reach for a savior that understands their need. It’s for all who are weary and need rest. It’s for all who mourn and long for comfort. It’s for all who feel worthless—of which I never seem to stop feeling—and wonder if God cares. This book will help you see he does. Oh, he does!

Have you ever felt that you’ve let Jesus down? That you’ve failed him? And has that led you to think that – if you could be in his presence – he’d be looking at you with arms folded, a bit of a grimace on his face? Because of our experience with other people in our lives, this kind of response is probably default for many of us. It is a book that I would recommend to you and one that I’d suggest you recommend to your people.

However . . .

As I was reading and thinking through what Dane Ortland writes, I was struck with the implications it had for pastoral ministry. Consider these verses:

He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. Isaiah 40:11 ESV)

“Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’ (Jeremiah 31:10 ESV)

As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. (Ezekiel 34:12 ESV)

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; (1 Peter 5:2 ESV)

So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; (Ezekiel 34:5 ESV)

I’ve quoted these passages to show three things: first, that God identifies himself as a tender shepherd; second, that pastors are called to be shepherds; third, that a failure to shepherd puts the flock at risk. There are many other places where these themes are found, but these will suffice.

If pastors are to shepherd God’s flock, then pastors are to emulate – and maybe more importantly – point to the tender nature of God.

I wonder how we are doing with that?

Over the last months of this pandemic I’ve read a good deal about pastors caring for their people. Numerous blog posts have shared ways in which this can be done and why it is so essential. But here’s my question – when we are able to gather again, will we gradually resume our programs and forget what we have learned about pastoral care?

Today I read this in an article by a Murray Campbell. I’d encourage you to read the whole article, not only because it’s really good, but to give the following quote some context:

By different, again I’m not arguing for anti-excellence, but rather I’m calling for simple faithfulness that is driven by core Gospel principles. These include making disciples, the centrality of reading and preaching the Word, preaching the whole counsel of God, permeating everything with prayer, and letting the congregation be heard when singing.

Shepherding needs to be personal, and while programs and events can be helpful, they cannot take the place of the pastor-to-individual-sheep connection. Shepherding also needs to be corporate, which means that sermons need to be more than religious Ted Talks. And when we preach, we must deal with sin but do so in a way that leads people to the Gentle Shepherd. He embraces his people. He does not hold them at arm’s length.

Maybe this pandemic will usher in a new season of pastoral care. Maybe when we are talking about what our congregations need, our thoughts and discussions will be more about people and less about programs. Maybe we will have learned to be better shepherds and put administration and programming back in their proper secondary place. Young pastor, if you are trying to find your way among the various “styles” of ministry out there, choose being a shepherd. Please, for the sake of the Gospel, and for the sake of your people. And older pastor – maybe it’s time to recalibrate.

Tools of the Trade For May 4, 2020

Several places are edging closer to opening, though we seem to be a ways from that here in eastern Pennsylvania. I hope you’re doing well through this process. Here is a list of helpful resources I found this week.

David Prince shares some quotes from Andrew Fuller on “Contemplating Your Audience in Sermon Preparation.”

Here’s an article on finding forgiveness after an abortion by Wayne Grudem that you might want to save to share with someone or guide your own counseling.

Douglas Wilson, writing in Credo Magazine, talks about “The Greatness of Insignificant Service.”

Tim Challies reviews Gavin Ortlund’s book about doctrinal differences called “Finding the Right Hills to Die On.” Looks like a worthwhile read.

If journaling is something you do in your quiet time, read “5 Prompts for Journaling through Scripture.”

The folks at 9Marks have posted a bunch of articles about ministry during the pandemic. Here’s one that should be universally helpful: “What If We Have to Cut Our Budget?”

I have suspected that churches where the teaching is “light” are going to find that people who were attending have found other ways to spend their Sunday mornings. In this article, Brett McCracken tells why “Coronavirus Could Kill Consumer Christianity.”

Regardless of what has changed during this time, the majority of pastors are still preaching. Derek Brown writes on “5 Real Ways to Improve Sermon Preparation This Week.”

And that’ll do it for this week. Some good reading in these articles. Remember Evernote as a way to file articles you want to hold on to. I

hope you have a great week! See you on Wednesday. To borrow from the words of one news anchor, we’re one week closer to the end of this pandemic.

What Comes Next? (Part 2)

I began a short series on Wednesday in which I shared thee answers to questions I asked some pastor friends. These are guys with a pastor’s heart. They are faithful men, having served in their church for a year to two to several decades.

I wanted to know their thoughts about how pastoral work during the pandemic might carry on after life is back to whatever life is going to be like. But I also asked about what they’ve been reading during this time.

One pastor said, “I’ve really been enjoying Tim Keller’s new trio of little books, On Birth, On Marriage, and On Death.”

Another said, “There are two Biblical Theology books I have been spending time reading. The first is one that my excellent friend purchased, The Story Retold by G.K. Beale and Benjamin L. Gladd. The second one is A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament, edited by Michael J. Kruger. These are excellent for getting back to the basis of the author’s intent to help me understand why the particular book was written.”

A third said, “Things have been busier than before, so not a lot of time for extra reading, but my daily reading through the New Testament this year has seemed more meaningful and deeper. And looking at some sermons that I had preached in previous years has proved beneficial. That’s something I rarely have had time to do before!”

Just commenting on the latter response, it’s helpful to review your sermons for several reasons. Regardless of how long you’ve been preaching you can see progress or pick out ways in which you need to improve.

The final question I asked was “What have you learned from this time that you’d like to share with other pastors?” Here are the responses:

One pastor wrote, “It has been meaningful to me to be home 4-5 nights a week. I’d love to figure out how to accomplish this once life gets back to “normal.” In this regard, I don’t want to go back to normal if that means being out 15 nights a month.”

(Me – Amen, brother!!)

He continues:

“Our people have a greater capacity for handling change than we thought- especially if the change is seen as necessary. We’ve seen a lot of people transition to on-line giving- something that we would not have expected prior to these events. We’ve had people share that they didn’t think that they would like having worship services online, but are appreciating them greatly.”

“Now that most of us are becoming “televangelists,” please LOOK AT THE CAMERA when you preach. Don’t be creepy about it by staring it down. But please stop relying on your notes. You don’t need them. They are a crutch. Go back and watch your last sermon. Count how many seconds you are looking up and how many you are looking down. Better, let someone else count. If you are looking down more than 10 seconds out of 60, you are missing a huge chance to connect. Know the medium. This is not radio. People see you- and only you. Let them know that you care enough about them to look at them. You may think that you are fooling people, but we know when you aren’t looking at us. By the way, this is advice that applies just as much when people are in the room. The difference is that now you can see for yourself what everyone else has been seeing for years.”

Good words! Another pastor shared the following: “The level of our importance must be wrapped around the words of encouragement and support. It is not so much of sharing how much we know of the Scriptures but instead sharing our love as we guide them into the Scriptures.”

A third pastor wrote this: “I am praying that God uses this virus to bring an awakening to our churches and our nation, but so far, it seems to me that most Christians have not been impacted, spiritually, by the new norm. For example, I thought believers would be hungry for fellowship and worship, via zoom, but that’s not been the case. I fear that too many church folks are just waiting out the storm instead of seizing the opportunities before them. I also would love to see local churches and especially pastors supporting one another, but everyone seems busy with their own congregations. So once again I am learning to be faithful; love the flock; draw close to the Lord; keep up my exercises and reaching out to others; and trust Him!”

One other pastor put it quite simply: “Never take the gathered church for granted!”

I appreciate each of the responses I received. I hope you can see the pastor’s heart I referred to in what they have said, and I hope that you will find some encouragement and challenge in their words.

What Comes Next?

Some places around the world are starting to open up. Hopefully it won’t be too long before pastoral life returns to normal. But what will that normal look like?

I asked several pastor friends to answer three questions about re-opening, what they’ve learned, etc. Here is the first one:

  1. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way pastors minister in some significant ways. Is there something you have started doing, or something you have started doing differently, that you plan to continue when things get back to normal?

One pastor shared this:

We started a weekly “Pastors Chat” where two of us do a 10 minute video just talking about what is happening at church. We also try to include a little bit of our lives in the conversation so people can connect with us better. We have been asked by multiple people to continue this mid-week video even after the crises ends.

Maybe the obvious answer for many congregations, including us, is that we finally got our worship service online. We’ve had great response from shut-ins asking that this continue. For that matter, others are excited that they will be able to stay connected with the church even when they are out of the area or sick. I already hoped to have this option for guests so that they can know what to expect before setting foot on our church property.

Another pastor wrote:

The pandemic has caused me to be more mindful of checking in on all our people more regularly than before. That feels like something I should have been better at before the crisis, but certainly ought to continue beyond.

A third pastor shared these thoughts:

I started several Zoom meetings, but the one, in particular, I am going to stay in is the Wednesday night Bible Study. Even when we return, while we are in the room together, I am going to have my laptop and log onto Zoom, so those unable to attend physically will be able to join. I also started Facebook live with my wife, and we will continue to do Bible studies each week. We started YouTube live-streaming on Sunday and will continue with that. We have simplified our ministry of which, I am pushing toward keeping it simple and take out the need for being out each night. We are looking at doing Zoom meetings with the Elders and deacons more frequently.

Finally, a fourth pastor answered this way:

Recording my sermons on You Tube has proved very helpful in people sharing it with others, including the unchurched, so that is worth looking into. I think zoom small group meetings could prove helpful is for some reason we couldn’t meet in person, like because of weather.

It seems pretty clear that the technology adopted during this time has some significant uses going forward. Whereas broadcasting live used to be quite an effort, options exist for it to be done much more simply, and as the fourth pastor said above, having services online – whether live or archived on YouTube or the church website – makes it possible for people to point friends to their church.

In addition, it appears that the ability to conduct meetings online will allow church leaders to spend more time at home and less time traveling to meetings. In order to fully participate all committee or board members will need to be technologically savvy enough to use these tools. But anything pastors can do to make their leaders lives a bit easier, considering they are already busy people, is worthwhile.

I also like the idea of allowing people who can’t come to a small group meeting to attend via Zoom or some other service.

On Friday I’ll share the responses of these good men to my second question, which is:

Is there anything you’ve read during this period where things might be a bit slower that has been meaningful to you?

If you’re a pastor, how would you answer these first two questions? Share your answers in the comments section. Thanks for stopping by.

Tools of the Trade For April 28, 2020

Before I share some links that may be helpful, let me point out a new blog called “Counseling From A Christian View.” My good friend, Cynthia Epply, has been counseling for a number of years, working out of various churches in the area where I used to serve as pastor. Cynthia is insightful, helpful, and biblical in her dealings with people. She has “retired” from regular counseling, but her blog will further her ministry. Thanks, Cynthia, for this resource! Her blog is under development, but she’s posting articles.

Here are some links to recommended reading:

“Jesus Walked.” He didn’t rush around. David Mathis has a helpful video and accompanying article, subtitled “The Selfless Pace of Christian Love.” Worthwhile!

From time to time Tim Challies posts a sample pastoral prayer that serves as a superb model for a kind of prayer that is a “must” for our worship services.

Voddie Baucham, Jr., maps out A Blueprint for Multigenerational Faithfulness.

We recognize doctrinal differences exist among believers. Gavin Ortlund writes on “4 Ways to Practice Theological Humility.”

Here’s a really helpful article by Aaron Earls on “What Your Church Must Know Before Reopening Your Building.”

Here’s one to share with your people. David Prince gives some help on “Simple Tips to Study the Bible”

Mark Dever is a fine preacher, and here is a video on how he goes about preparing a sermon.

Jeff Robinson explains “Why Our Sunday Sermons Should Center on Sermons.” I wholeheartedly agree!

If you read nothing else in this list, read Joy Allmond’s “10 Ministry Idols Being Exposed By Covid-19.” Superb, superb, superb.

Chris Larson writes one that you should share with your people: “Live By God’s Word, Not Your Feelings.”

David Platt gives us “Shepherd the Flock of God: Eight Questions for Pastors of God’s People.”

Have a really great week!! I’ll be back Wednesday with some questions and answers I posed to pastor friends regarding life after the pandemic.

8 Questions Worth Asking as the End (of the Pandemic) is in Sight

On Wednesday I wrote about the possibility that pastors and other Christian leaders/organizations have been scratching where few people are itching. It was not my intent to be critical, but I do feel it would be sad for pastors to emerge from this time being physically and emotionally spent because of unwise choices stemming from unwise expectations they placed on themselves. Every church situation is different. So if the shoe fit, fine. If not, that’s ok too.

One of the opportunities the pandemic has provided is time to think. With that in mind here are some questions that would be worth pastors taking time to ponder:

  1. What have I been doing differently during this period that needs to be continued when life returns to normal?
  2. Will there be events beyond my normal schedule that I need to prepare for how? (For example, it is possible that you may have several funerals or memorial services.)
  3. While this pandemic continues, are there ways I can better utilize the other leaders in my church to shepherd the flock? How might this continue after the pandemic is over?
  4. Are they’re activities or programs that this period of time has shown to be superfluous? Would it be worthwhile to streamline our ministries and the number of meetings we have for leaders so that busy people are not out at church activities quite so often?
  5. What have I learned during these weeks when life was so different that will help me pastor more effectively in the days ahead?
  6. Has this period brought to light any deficiencies in the content of what our people have been taught? Were they prepared to carry on with their own spiritual growth?
  7. Has this pandemic revealed that our people are equipped to minister to each other? How might we encourage forging relationships outside of public meetings so that people are better able to minister through the numerous “one another” commands in Scripture. (Here’s a list:
  8. Were any specific groups of people (older, younger, single, students, etc.) overlooked in our efforts to care for our church during this time?

Answering these questions may be helpful not only in assessing your own ministry, but planning what your church needs as you look to the future.

Have a great weekend!

Did Some of Us Miss the Sign?

Unless you’re on a desert island, you’re well aware of the Covid-19/Coronavirus pandemic. Depending on where you live and whether you’re working from home, you may be spending a whole lot of time inside your home with little to do.

Obviously we need to take this seriously. In the US, over forty thousand people have died. People are out of work, many others have had their hours scaled back. Several states are in stay-at-home mode (and in some of them the natives are getting restless). The impact on our day-to-day lives is enormous, and some of the “mitigations” may go on way past the return to whatever becomes normal.

When it comes to this pandemic, our seniors are the most vulnerable segment of society. I’m quite familiar with that group. Whether I like it or not (and I don’t), my having lived 66 years puts me in that category. And four days each week I work in senior citizens community. Our facilities are home to three kinds of seniors – people who live independently in their own apartments, people who need a bit of help with their daily lives, and people who are in skilled nursing. I interact with those who go out for doctor appointments, and often stop to talk with those who are out walking for exercise. While they’re concerned and cautious, I haven’t heard any of them express panic or fear. I’m sure there are some who are genuinely afraid, but from what I can tell they are in the minority.

In my email this morning I found a promotional for yet another resource on coping with anxiety due to this pandemic. And to be honest, I’m wondering why pastors, publishers, and various ministries are still beating that drum? No doubt there are people in our churches who are having a hard time. But to be honest, I’m not sure that there are many believers acting like the sky is falling. But you’d almost get that impression from the number of “How to Deal With It” resources out there.

Here’s a text between me and a fellow pastor from earlier this week:

Me: “I am reading a lot of bloggers who are writing from the perspective of trying to bring assurance to people who are afraid because of the coronavirus. I know people are concerned, cautious, aggravated, but I haven’t encountered anyone who feels afraid. Have you?”

Him: “No and at times I grow weary of pastors who keep stressing not to get stressed.“

Bingo. My sentiments exactly.

So what gives? Why are so many of us caught up in trying to put out a fire that might actually not be burning – at least to the degree we think?

Is it possible that our people are stronger than we think they are? Is it possible that the Holy Spirit has actually used the preaching and teaching they’ve heard to help them think through this in a biblical way? Is it possible that pastors, meaning nothing but the best, are ministering under the mistaken notion that their people are frightened and require lots of comfort at this time?

Please understand that I am not trying to start a fight. I have nothing but the highest regard for faithful pastors. But I’m going to probe just a touch because I’m also concerned about pastors. So here’s my $64,000 question1: Are we trying too hard to be good pastors during this pandemic? And if so why, and at what cost?

When we first went into shut-down mode, I wrote about the opportunity this pandemic presented for pastors to slow down. Some of the pastors I’ve talked to do have a lighter work load. But around the web I some who seem to be in overdrive. What about you? If you’ve been running your engine at full blast for the last month or so, how are you going to hold up when the normal demands of pastoral work resume?

The other day I came across this article which should be required reading while there’s still some time. Our work is important, brother pastor. There’s no question about that. People’s needs are great. There’s no disputing that either. But you have to put this period of time in the greater context of when life gets to the new normal.

I realize that each church situation is different, and I also realize that some people need extraordinary care in times of crisis. If you are not tending to your flock during this time, shame on you. If you’re tending it faithfully, great. But if you’re busier than you were before this time, please take a step back and ask yourself why.

This is going to end, and when it does you can’t afford to be running on empty.

Tools of the Trade For April 20, 2020

I trust you had a good weekend. Here in eastern Pennsylvania the pandemic is still not over. I doubt that we’re close to the point where we can begin to see churches open again. That may be another 6-8 weeks away. We watched our own pastor yesterday morning, and he’s a natural in front of the camera. Ben, if you read this, maybe you should have your own show.😃

I didn’t post on Friday because I had nothing polished enough to post. I’ve got a few ideas that are still marinating, but every time I try to put them down in writing I’m not happy with how it turns out. So excuse my absence. I do believe the Christian blog community will survive! Another 😃.

Before I list the links to articles that I believe are worth your while, let me recommend Dane Ortlund’s book Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. You can get the Kindle version for $8. I’m in the process of reading it and the short chapters make it a good tool for your devotions.

Here are some articles and resources that I hope you will find helpful:

Here’s a conversation with Dean Inserra on preventing moral failure. There have been enough stories in the press about this, and some of us have seen the disaster moral failure creates in lives and in churches.

In 2014 Garrett Kell wrote about The Pastor’s Second Most Important Book. Guess what it is.

Eschatology seems to be relegated to the fringes of “evangelicalism” but Michael Kruger argues that we need it more than ever.

Jason Allen talks about God’s gifting of pastors to preach and teach. Well worth reading.

Here’s a brief video by H.B. Charles on benedictions. I wish more churches used them.

David Prince writes about making sure your church misses the things it ought to miss. Part one is here, part two is here.

You can’t care for every issue that comes up. H.B. Charles writes about not trying to put out every brush fire. This is must reading!

Here’s one for you guys involved in student ministry. Sam Bierig talks about the Most Important Ingredient in Student Ministry.

H.B. Charles makes his third appearance on this list with a discussion of why expository preaching is so important.

This provocative title – “Saving Hermeneutics from Its Interpreters” is a podcast worth listening to. Thanks to the folks at Credo!

And with that I’ll bid you a good day! I hope to have something new on Wednesday. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Children and the Gospel

For several weeks now I’ve wanted to post some thoughts about teaching the Bible to children. Right now that post is marinating – I’m not sure it’s done yet so I’m going to wait. However, when I looked at the list of Kindle books that Tim Challies linked to this yesterday, I thought I would highlight one of his entries.

Several years ago Sally Lloyd Jones produced a children’s storybook called Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name. You can buy it for $2.99 today on Amazon.

I would suggest that you find a way to get this book into the hands of each of your children’s teachers – toddlers all the way up through elementary school. In fact, I’d give it to anyone who teaches because even adult teachers can benefit from it.

If you haven’t seen it, the Jesus Storybook Bible contains a broad selection of Bible stories, but does so in a way that the Gospel is a point of focus (rather than just point out behavior lessons) and yet explained well.

At some point I want to write about this issue, because it’s one that is close to my heart. But for now, let me suggest you hop on this deal for yourself – even if you have the hardcover – and that talk to whomever you need to talk to in order to get copies for your teachers. It will help them be better communicators of God’s truth.

If you want to check out some reviews, here are two I found online:

Reformation Theology’s review can be found here.

Tim Challies reviewed it here.

I received an email this morning from Christian Focus. They have a sale through Monday on Bible materials for kids. If you’re not doing something for your church kids during this time, here’s an opportunity to either provide the materials yourself or share this with parents.

Have a great week!

Tools of the Trade For April 13, 2020

I hope you had a blessed Easter. It certainly was weird not being together, both with church and family. Here are some articles for you and your people. I hope there’s something helpful on the list.

This article, posted yesterday, is one to share with your people. It’s written in a Screwtape Letter style, reflecting an angelic response to the Resurrection.

The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire site, has kept me amused for the past few weeks. A lot of their “news articles” are political in nature, but this one, written tongue in cheek, is also worth putting on the literature table: “10 Super Helpful Bible Reading Tips.”

On the Credo website, Jared Kennedy answers the question, “What’s the Best Way to Teach Preschoolers About the Resurrection?” Recommended for parents and for those who work with preschoolers in your church.

Dane Ortlund writes about “The Hidden Value of Pastoral Gentleness.”

Jonathan Leeman writes “Fighting the Temptations of Successful Leadership.”

Some years ago I read OT scholar and theologian Bruce Waltke’s book, “Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion?” Tim Challies linked to the Kindle edition a few days ago, and it’s still available for $1.99. Grab it while you can. It’s worth the read.

One of the things we watched yesterday was a lecture by R.C. Sproul on the Resurrection. It was good to hear his voice again. Here is an article that explains the doctrines of Expiation and Propitiation.

Here is one to add to your files, with the hopes that you never have to use it. Silverio Gonzalez talks about Christians who may be struggling with suicide.

Craig Bartholomew and Matthew Barrett have a video podcast on “Saving Hermeneutics from Its Interpreters.” I’m not familiar with Mr. Bartholomew, but Matthew Barrett has written some great stuff.

Two weeks ago I wrote about churches cooperating with government and staying closed during this pandemic. Andrew Walker says it better.

On a recent Crossway Podcast, Gavin Ortlund talks about “Gracefully Dealing With Doctrinal Disagreement.”

Jared Wilson, who pens so many good articles, writes about using the Lord’s Prayer. Good, good, good.

Finally, my friends Ron and Amy Smith minister as church planters in Milan, Italy. Ron and I worked together while he was in seminary, and it’s been interesting to follow their journey through these last years. Ron thought this would be helpful to us, so he sent me a link to a YouTube video that features Tim Keller (he joins the video about 4 minutes in). He thought it would be helpful. Thanks, Ron!