Times Are Tough and So Is Pastoring

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The work of a pastor can be tough. When you’re facing a global crisis, it gets tougher. Normal patterns are disrupted. Pressures increase, and as they do, cracks become more pronounced.

Reverend Jakob Topper, pastor of NorthHaven Baptist Church in Norman, Oklahoma, tells several disturbing and sad stories emerging as a result of the pressure of pastoring during a global pandemic in an opinion piece at Baptist News Global. Topper writes:

I was on a Zoom call recently with 10 pastors across three denominations, when one of the participants shared a struggle with suicidal thoughts in these challenging days. By the time the meeting concluded, four of the 10 had found the courage to admit their own suicidal ideations.

He goes on to chronicle the troubles. One congregation opened early and shortly thereafter a member died from COVID. Other pastors were threatened by congregants from each extreme, who said they’d leave or withhold their tithes if the church didn’t reopen/remain closed. Another pastor was fired because the church was unhappy with her leadership, one had to lay off half their staff, and another was a victim of assault by a congregant–who came to the building and kicked the pastor’s door off its hinges, attempting to provoke a fight in response to the previous Sunday’s sermon, which addressed the topic of race in America.

Rev. Topper notes other factors that make church work tough right now. There is vast economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety, hyper-partisanship, a contentious and ongoing civil rights debate, and to make matters worse, it’s an election season.

We’ve got to get through this. And it will be much better if we’re able to get through this together. We’re bruised, battered, and beaten. Devouring one another from within won’t do us–or the world, or the kingdom of God–any good.

Rev. Topper offers advice to churches and congregants. For congregants, it is important to remember that the church and Christ are united, but not one and the same. Jesus is our Savior and Lord, and his goodness is not in doubt. But God has called together human beings who are still on the way, who are still in the process of being sanctified, who are yet to be glorified. We will fail one another, but Christ will not fail us. Rev. Topper also calls us to remember that pastors are undershepherds who serve the Good Shepherd, that we should pray for our pastors, to commit to being encouraging and faithful church members during a time of trial, and to advocate for your pastor’s mental health.

Rev. Topper then gives advice to pastors. He encourages pastors to see a counselor, talk to their primary care physician about their mental health, to slow down and reset expectations, to actively cultivate friendships via wise and available channels, and to lean on peers, other co-laborers in ministry. Excellent guidance, all.

The only thing strange about Rev. Topper’s framing of this crisis is his choice to draw upon the biblical story of Saul falling on his sword. He states, “There’s a story in the Old Testament about King Saul being defeated in battle. Instead of waiting on the opposing army to torture and ridicule him before killing him, he chooses to take his own life by falling on his sword.”

Rev. Topper writes that “pastors are already facing ridicule not just from their adversaries but from many of their own congregants. They’re being tortured by their own inability to lead their churches out of a pandemic, out of hyper-partisanship and out of racism. Falling on their swords is starting to look pretty attractive.” He adds, “this is a new level of hell that pastors are living.”

The problem is that Saul’s choice to fall on his sword is neither condemned nor praised in 1 Samuel 31. This particular text is silent on the subject of suicide. It most certainly is not an endorsement of this option, however. The arc of the Saul narrative offers us more of a picture of an example to avoid rather than one to follow.

Rev. Topper’s connection with Saul could be read as an out for ministers, one with biblical precedent. The overall thrust of his article argues that we do not want to see ministers choose this avenue even though some are considering it and that we can do a better job, together, of caring for one another. But the Saul example seems to suggest it is an available or at least an understandable avenue, even if it is not a preferable outcome.

I would think that better analogies could have been drawn from Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, or any of the other apostles. There are multitudes of New Testament examples of the early church facing immense suffering and trying times, and yet because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, these early disciples were able to both name the reality of the sufferings they faced while also praising God because of the reason for their hope: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some were glad to suffer for the name. Others recognized quite quickly that suffering is unpleasant, yes, but it also holds transformative potential, a signal that God, in some way, may yield something precious as the result of passing through the refiner’s fire.

The New Testament also gives us every reason to believe that the church consists of both enemies and friends, and that persecution and intense hostilities can arise from within the body as well as from without. That’s a sad reality, one that I’ve experienced firsthand. Pastoring is tough work. It always has been. Being the church is tough work. It always has been. The wheat grows up with the chaff.

Rev. Topper’s evidence is anecdotal–another sampling of pastors may reveal churches and leaders who are thriving. But there is no doubt that these are challenging times. We need to care for our pastors, and for one another. And we would all do well to tend to these troubling signs of the church’s spiritual health.

If our pastors–and our congregants–are responding to this crisis in ways that are destructive, then perhaps we are not as healthy as we thought we were before the pandemic. That’s a discipleship problem, one that can only be addressed if congregants and their pastors, together, commit to honest self-evaluation and renewed commitment to following Jesus wherever he leads. Whatever we were doing, this is the result. Changes may be in order. If so, make them.

I want every pastor to be mentally healthy, resilient, buoyed by hope, steadfast, and strengthened so that they can persevere. I do not want our churches to be places that crush their pastors. And for anyone who does have suicidal ideation, that can happen. Pastoring is tough. Get help. You are loved. There are people who will walk with you through the dark valley and help you see your way to the other side, who will do so as friends of God. You may not see them right now, but they are out there, maybe not in your context, but in the wider world and, hopefully, in the wider body of Christ.

This season has been tough on everyone. Times are tough. We’ll make it through. Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus. He went through worse–some might say he went through hell–and he did it for us, not only to inspire us, but to flood the world with his redeeming grace.

A House of Prayer

First Methodist Church, Waco, Texas

I serve in a seminary. How and where we teach is often conducted with methods and in settings very similar to other, more familiar educational settings. The teacher or professor delivers content, and we sit and listen, much like in a public school or a college lecture hall. We know answers to test questions are being given, and tests must be passed to move on to the next level. We take notes. We study. We produce those answers. And we move on.

This is all fine and good. We do a lot of good work. But the church is a different kind of setting, with different educational modalities and formational aims.

We have a problem when we get our wires crossed and begin thinking that the church is identical with the seminary, and how we’re led and taught effectively in one place is identical with the way we’ll lead and teach in the other. In the seminary, we’re taught all kinds of facts about the Bible, history, theology, and the practice of ministry. Those things are important. But we mistakenly assume that it is these facts, and these points of emphasis, that we’re supposed to stress while with the congregation. When we do this, there is something more central, more important, and more essential that we miss. What are we missing?

In The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes about his discovery that his educational outlook for pastoral ministry was very different than that of a previous generation of pastors, who throughout church history had learned “on the job” within the life of a parish. Seminaries, either as independent institutions or embedded within university systems, are more recent innovations. How we learn now, and how we teach, isn’t the only way to do it, nor is it the only way it has been done.

Peterson discovered both our problem and a different way to approach the pastoral task as a Christian educator. He writes:

My secularized schooling had shaped my educational outlook into something with hardly any recognizable continuities with most of the church’s history. I had come into the parish seeing its great potential as a learning center, a kind of mini-university in which I was the resident professor.

And then one day, in a kind of shock of recognition, I saw that it was in fact a worship center. I wasn’t prepared for this. Nearly all my preparation for being a pastor had taken place in a classroom, with chapels and sanctuaries ancillary to it. But these people I was now living with were coming, with centuries of validating presence, not to get facts on the Philistines and Pharisees but to pray. They were hungering to grow in Christ, not bone up for an examination in dogmatics. I began to comprehend the obvious: that the central and shaping language of the church’s life has always been its prayer language.

Out of that recognition a conviction grew: that my primary educational task as pastor was to teach people how to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical backgrounds of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. I have no patience with and will not knowingly give comfort to obscurantist or anti-intellectual tendencies in the church. But there is an educational task entrusted to pastors that is very different from that assigned to professors. The educational approaches in all the schools I attended conspired to ignore the wisdom of the ancient spiritual leaders who trained people in the disciplines of attending to God, forming the inner life so that it was adequate to the reception of truth, not just the acquisition of facts. The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did.

The educational task of the pastor is to teach, or to invite, people to be in relationship with God. It is to invite, model, instruct, and encourage them in the life of prayer. There are other facets to teaching, of course. But prayer is central.

R. S. Thomas: “I was vicar of large things in a small parish.”

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St Hywyn’s Church, where Thomas served, by mike keel, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

I subscribe to Alan Jacobs’ newsletter and his last edition contained several items I enjoyed, including this piece of artwork by Pawel Kuczynski and this post on the different interfaces in the LEGO universe and what they teach us about console design. He also shared a poem by R. S. Thomas offered in his collection The Echoes Return Slow:

I was vicar of large things
in a small parish. Small-minded
I will not say, there were depths
in some of them I shrank back
from, wells that the word “God”
fell into and died away,
and for all I know is still
falling. Who goes for water
to such must prepare for a long
wait. Their eyes looked at me
and were the remains of flowers
on an old grave. I was there,
I felt, to blow on ashes
that were too long cold. Often,
when I thought they were about
to unbar to me, the draught
out of their empty places
came whistling so that I wrapped
myself in the heavier clothing
of my calling, speaking of light and love
in the thickening shadows of their kitchens.

In digging around for more information about Thomas, a Welsh poet, Anglican priest, and none-too-cheery-looking fellow, I found a prose piece that accompanied the poem above:

What had been blue shadows on a longed-for horizon, traced on an inherited background, were shown in time to contain this valley, this village and a church built with stones from the river, where the rectory stood, plangent as a mahogany piano. The stream was a bright tuning-fork in the moonlight. The hay-fields ran with a dark current. The young man was sent unprepared to expose his ignorance of life in a leafless pulpit.

What an image.

The pulpit does expose you, and service in ministry reveals to you how little you actually know. Indeed, you do represent “large things” even in small places–which really turn out to not be so small–and the people there contain depths profound and unfathomable. There are surprising moments, and unanticipated exchanges of words filled with tremendous meaning, not only about everyday moments, but about God, not only in the light, but in the shadows of life.

Creech: To Those Pastoring

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Dr. Robert Creech serves as Hubert H. & Gladys S. Raborn Professor of Pastoral Leadership and as Director of Pastoral Ministries at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. There are several things I like about Dr. Creech. He’s always been friendly to me. He encourages his students to read Wendell Berry and Dallas Willard. He and his wife, Melinda, are restoring an eighty-eight acre portion of their family farm in Floresville, Texas to native prairie. He’s a Master Naturalist. He and his wife also serve as Faculty-in-Residence at Baylor in the North Village Residential Community, and I very much like it that my university has people like Dr. Creech living alongside students. I find this to be a really neat aspect of campus life.

Several weeks ago Dr. Creech published an open letter on his blog addressing those who are pastoring. His exhortations and encouragements are apt, grounded in the witness of Scripture. To summarize, he urges pastors to preach, connect, adjust, practice self-care, share the work, face reality, and to serve in hope (which is distinct from optimism or despair).

He closes with these words:

Pastors, what you men and women are doing has never been more important. Your people need your love, your leadership, and your faithful ministry. The church will need to think carefully about how we do our work in such days as this. How do we preach Christ? How do we demonstrate love for neighbor? How do we serve with compassion? How do we bear witness to a frightened, lonely, world? You, pastors, are called to this. You have been prepared for this. You, with the Spirit’s power, can do this. Be encouraged.

Indeed. Be encouraged.

Communion Online?

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For Religion News Service, Jack Jenkins writes, “with churchgoers still holed up in their homes to avoid infection for weeks and even months to come, Christian leaders are starting to ask: Is Communion appropriate for cyberspace?”

Jenkins’ report includes quotations from Christian leaders from a diversity of denominations, and I’ll summarize several of his findings. For Catholics, the doctrine of transubstantiation presents a substantial hurdle. The ELCA discouraged online communion, and is viewing this as a teaching moment about the Lord’s Meal. The PCUSA said no to online communion, and then reversed course, saying yes, since we’re in an “emergency” situation. The United Methodist Church is citing conclusions reached by a 2014 task force who studied this question and recommended communion be observed among a physical, gathered assembly, while now making allowances for regional conferences and their Bishops to observe communion online. Bishop Ken Carter of Florida called this “an extreme situation,” and granted the clergy in his region latitude in meeting pastoral needs.

This weekend my local fellowship, First Methodist Church Waco, is observing communion Sunday. We’ve encouraged our people to prepare, to think forward to Sunday and to gather bread and juice, so that in our homes we might observe the Lord’s Meal together while physically dispersed. As crises tend to do, theological convictions are laid bare. And yet, there is a great deal of framing left. There is a grammar that is yet to be established. We have to explain what we are doing, and why it isn’t ideal, even though it might be the right idea.

When we observe the Lord’s Supper, we do so as the gathered communion of Jesus Christ, remembering the first observance of this ritual on the night that Jesus was betrayed. In that room, there was sorrow and grief and confusion, there was closeness and love and fellowship, there was adoration and reverence and, sadly, betrayal and misunderstanding. There was, we might observe, a crisis. The immediate crisis was that of Jesus’ impending betrayal and death. But the greater crisis, the one preceding the immediate crisis, was that of broken fellowship between God and humanity. God, using a surprising and unconventional means, took on the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and bridged the gap in the breaking of his body and in the pouring out of his blood, all in fulfillment of the Scriptures.

I argue strongly in favor of the Lord’s Supper as an observance that is to be conducted with persons gathered physically as a local fellowship. This belief is grounded in convictions concerning the nature of the church, embodiment, and the importance of public witness. But I also recognize that each time a local fellowship celebrates the meal that Jesus gave us, we also recall that we are gathered as part of a wider fellowship–the company of the called that gives praise and glory to our king across the boundaries of time and space–the church universal.

In “normal times,” whatever those are, I think churches should celebrate the Supper as a gathered local fellowship. That is the ideal. But seeing that the gap between the real and the ideal has widened, we’ll do the best we can with what we have. It should not be lost on us that the fact that many churches are seeking ways to observe communion online is an expression of the reality that we are together seeking God. Perhaps this crisis is revealing to us that the world isn’t quite as disenchanted as we thought, and that God can still be encountered in the breaking of bread and in the sharing of a common cup.

Crisis: It Reveals Theology

I like this analogy by Cory Wilson:

A theologically uninformed pastor seeking to navigate these choppy waters is comparable to a first-year medical student being placed in charge of the COVID-19 response for Cleveland Clinic. Theological training and formation for pastoral ministry matters. Especially in days like these. There is a wealth of truth reaped among the disciplines of pastoral training that provide strength as pastors hold their hands to the helm.

Wilson explains ways biblical theology, systematic theology, church history, global theology, and missiology all have importance for pastoral ministry in a time of crisis. I would add spiritual theology as well. Wilson states (in the quote I pulled) that formation for pastoral ministry matters. Yes it does. Formation in congregational ministry matters, too.

The best time to prepare for a crisis is when there isn’t one. How well has the church  been prepared? Equipped? How mature are we? That point of reflection is vital not only for congregants, but for pastors. There is a virtuous circle here, I think: healthy churches are shepherded by healthy pastors, and healthy pastors are fostered by healthy churches, with all dependent on the Lord, foremost, as the Great Physician and healer of all. Richard Baxter, in The Reformed Pastor, writes:

See that the work of saving grace be thoroughly wrought in your own souls. Take heed to yourselves, lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others, and be strangers to the effectual working of that gospel which you preach; and lest, while you proclaim to the world the necessity of a Savior, your own hearts should neglect him, and you should miss of an interest in him and his saving benefits. Take heed to yourselves, lest you perish, while you call upon others to take heed of perishing; and lest you famish yourselves while you prepare food for them. Though there is a promise of shining as the stars, to those ‘who turn many to  righteousness,’ that is but on supposition that they are first turned to it themselves. Their own sincerity in the faith is the condition of their glory, simply considered, though their great ministerial labors may be a condition of the promise of their greater glory. Many have warned others that they come not to that place of torment, while yet they hastened to it themselves: many a preacher is now in hell, who hath a hundred times called upon his hearers to use the utmost care and diligence to escape it. Can any reasonable man imagine that God should save men for offering salvation to others, while they refuse it themselves; and for telling others those truths which they themselves neglect and abuse? Many a tailor goes in rags, that maketh costly clothes for others; and many a cook scarcely licks his fingers, when he hath dressed for others the most costly dishes. Believe it, brethren, God never saved any man for being a preacher, nor because he was an able preacher; but because he was a justified, sanctified man, and consequently faithful in his Master’s work. Take heed, therefore, to ourselves first, that you be that which you persuade your hearers to be, and believe that which you persuade them to believe, and heartily entertain that Savior whom you offer to them. He that bade you love your neighbors as yourselves, did imply that you should love yourselves, and not hate and destroy yourselves and them.

Bad theology does harm. Good theology gives life. Pastors must not only be theologically informed, but spiritually formed, taking “heed…that you be that which you persuade your hearers to be, and believe that which you persuade them to believe, and heartily entertain that Savior whom you offer to them. He that bade you love your neighbors as yourselves, did imply that you should love yourselves, and not hate and destroy yourselves and them.”

Cory Wilson writes, “How you shepherd during these days will force reveal your theology. As the curtain is pulled back, may you not be caught standing naked.” Let us take heed, then, first of ourselves.

Resolutions for Each Day

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Jonathan Edwards is one of the greatest minds in American history. He is most well known as a Puritan minister, particularly for his role in the First Great Awakening, and is still read in literature and history courses for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Though known as “America’s Greatest Theologian,” his theological work also has significance for philosophy, particularly metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory.

Edwards is someone I have read, but not as closely and carefully to this point as I one day aspire to. But one document I have read is his “Resolutions,” which begins, “Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.” He sets a guideline for himself, “Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week.”

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • 1. Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.
  • 5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
  • 9. Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
  • 13. Resolved, to be endeavoring to find out fit objects of charity and liberality.
  • 17. Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.
  • 24. Resolved, whenever I do any conspicuously evil action, to trace it back, till I come to the original cause; and then both carefully endeavor to do so no more, and to fight and pray with all my might against the original of it.
  • 25. Resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it.
  • 28. Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.
  • 34. Resolved, in narrations never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity.
  • 37. Resolved, to inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent, what sin I have committed, and wherein I have denied myself: also at the end of every week, month and year.
  • 42. Resolved, frequently to renew the dedication of myself to God,
    which was made at my baptism; which I solemnly renewed, when I was received into the communion of the church; and which I have solemnly re-made this 12th day of January, 1722—23.
  • 47. Resolved, to endeavor to my utmost to deny whatever is not most agreeable to a good, and universally sweet and benevolent, quiet, peaceable, contented, easy, compassionate, generous, humble, meek, modest, submissive, obliging, diligent and industrious, charitable, even, patient, moderate, forgiving, sincere temper; and to do at all times what such a temper would lead me to. Examine strictly every week, whether I have done so.
  • 52. I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again: resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.
  • 56. Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.
  • 67. Resolved, after afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them, what good I have got by them, and what I might have got by them.
  • 70. Let there be something of benevolence, in all that I speak.

A close examination of the document shows that Edwards added to his list over time. His first list of resolutions was not his final list. He found room to grow, new resolutions, new matters of focus for his life with God.

Such a list clarifies convictions. It offers a helpful guide, a standard, and a rule for living.

These are not resolutions for a year, but for a lifetime.

Do you have such a list?

In Plain English

A free confession is a condition of full remission and when the sin is public the confession must be public. If the minsters of England had sinned only in Latin, I would have made shift here to admonish them in Latin, or else have said nothing to them. But if they sin in English, they must hear of it in English.

– Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 15

Richard Baxter was an Englishman, churchman, and minister who lived from 1615 to 1691. The Reformed Pastor, an instructive treatise on the ministerial vocation, was written in 1655.

In it, Baxter advocated for clerical reform. He believed ministers should be faithful and diligent in service. He believed many were not and should be called to account. He felt it was his responsibility to rebuke his fellow clergymen and to call for change.

In Baxter’s preface, we discover that other ministers objected to his instructions, particularly when he named their failings in the common tongue–English. His opponents preferred Latin so that only the clergy could read it. But Baxter thought publishing in English was necessary and of the greatest possible help. By writing in English, congregants would remember their clergy were like them and find assurance that their pastors would lead the way in repentance.

Clergy and congregation were together in the same boat.

Baxter writes:

If thousands of you were in a leaking ship, and those that should pump out the water and stop the leaks should be sporting or asleep, yea, or but favour themselves in their labours, to the hazarding of you all, would you not awake them to their work, and call out on them to labour as for your life? And if you used some sharpness and importunity with the slothful, would you think that man were well in his wits that would take it ill of you, and accuse you of pride, self-conceitedness, or unmannerliness to talk so saucily to your fellow workmen? or should tell you that you wrong them by diminishing their reputation? Would you not say: ‘The work must be done, or we are all dead men : is the ship ready to sink and do you talk of reputation? : or had you rather hazard yourself and us, than hear of your slothfulness?’ This is our case, brethren. The work of God must needs be done : souls must not perish while you mind your worldly business, and take your ease, or quarrel with your brethren : nor must we be silent while men are hastened by you to perdition, and the Church to greater danger and confusion.

– Baxter, 16

Baxter calls on his fellow pastors to get to work, for it was not only their lives that depended on it but the lives of all those in their care. He wanted other ministers to hear his message and also wanted congregants to be aware so that they too could see the need for the whole church to enter a season of repentance and a time of dedicated prayer for renewal.

He adds, “I speak all this to none but the guilty; and thus I have given you those reasons which forced me, even in plain English, to publish so much of the sins of the ministry, as in the following treatise I have done.”

It has been said the church is more of a hospital for sinners than a mausoleum for saints, though it is in fact a place of formation, care, exhortation, and responsibility for both. All, in this respect, will be accountable for their fervor, dedication, and obedience to the calling of Christ. Imperfect clergy are part of an imperfect church; both are counting on a perfect salvation offered by a perfect Messiah. And we need one another in order to be faithful.

Yet the pastoral vocation does bring with it the responsibility to direct the hearts and minds of the people toward God and to walk with the people in holiness. Ministers should bear that weight and own that facet of their calling.

Baxter understood that if the church is in trouble, the first people called to repent are her ministers. This demonstrates the clergy have understood several essential and related truths: that salvation is by grace, that the power of God transforms, that forgiveness is ours in abundance, and that service in the kingdom of God is a great privilege. These truths are for the whole church, not the minsters only. But by leading the way in repentance, there is greater possibility for new direction and new life for the body as a whole.

The Practice of the Shepherd

In our examples of Christian leadership, we too often emphasize getting others merely to do as they are told. In this way the church largely conforms to the leadership structures of the world. Indeed, leadership is normally an empty euphemism when applied to our standard communal efforts, whether in a church or outside it.

To manipulate, drive or manage people is not the same thing as to lead them. The sheepdog forcibly maneuvers the sheep, whereas the biblical shepherd simply calls as he calmly walks ahead of the sheep. This distinction between sheepdog and the shepherd is profoundly significant for how leaders of Christ’s people think of their work. We must ask ourselves frequently which role we are fulfilling and constantly return ourselves, if necessary, to the practice of the shepherd.

– Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 107

This passage from Willard has long been one of my favorites because he captures the essential nature of the pastoral task, which is to lead others in the “manner and spirit” demonstrated by Jesus, described here as the practice of the shepherd.

Too often, pastors think they are responsible for enforcing behavioral conformity, minimizing conflict by correctly navigating congregational power dynamics, or for successfully executing a strategic plan or vision. And while faithful shepherding may involve correcting and rebuking those who err, protecting the flock from danger, creating an environment where all brothers and sisters in the fellowship relate peaceably with one another, and discerning God’s leading for the congregation and leading all to walk according to God’s prescribed path, the manner and spirit in which these things are done, when they are done in the way of Jesus, differs markedly from the ways of leadership we commonly find in the world.

Jesus claimed he was the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). In doing so, Christ pulled together threads found across the Old Testament that speak of God as the true and loving shepherd of a people God has claimed as his own. Christ remains our Good Shepherd. Those who serve him, both men and women, are called to lead in a way that reflects his person and character. Willard writes, “When we lead as shepherds, our confidence is in only one thing: the word of the Great Shepherd, coming through us or, otherwise, to his sheep.”

How is this possible? We are reminded that Jesus knows his sheep, and they know him, and they know and listen to his voice (John 10:1-16). This is the way we should want it. Willard says, “We do not want them to follow another, even if we ourselves are that ‘other.'” We trust that God has called the congregation together, that the Spirit has been given to them, that we have limited responsibilities as servants and shepherds, and that Christ is the head of the church.

This understanding of the pastoral task, of course, is congregational. That is another reason I think it is so helpful, and so needed. It is a way of leading not only for pastors, but for the body, who respond together to the leading of Christ. Willard states, “Following the practice of the shepherd, we would never stoop to drive, manipulate or manage, relying only on the powers inherent in unassisted human nature (see 1 Peter 4:11). Not only that but the undershepherds (pastors of God) count on their flock to minister the word of God…to them. Ministry of the word is never a one-way street when it is functioning rightly in any group.”

Leading in this manner requires a quiet confidence in the power of God, a steady commitment to teaching the congregation the Scriptures, and demonstration of holiness in heart and life.

This also requires the rejection of all other ways of leadership and a form of servitude that can only be learned by putting aside oneself and putting on Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, that is both the hardest part, and, in the end, the easiest way, for while trusting in Jesus requires the abandonment of all that we are and all that we have, it brings to us the return of eternal and abundant life.

The Principle Agent

Let spiritual directors of this kind remember that the Holy Ghost is the principal agent here, and the real guide of souls; that he never ceases to take care of them and never neglects any means by which they may profit and draw near unto God as quickly as possible, and in the best way. Let them remember that they are not the agents, but instruments only to guide souls by the rule of faith and the law of God, according to the spirit which God gives to everyone. Their aim therefore should be not to guide souls by a way of their own suitable to themselves, but to ascertain, if they can, the way by which God himself is guiding them. If they cannot ascertain it, let them leave these souls alone and not disquiet them. Let them adapt their instruction to the direction of God, and endeavor to lead their penitents into greater solitude, liberty and tranquility, and not fetter them when God is leading them on.
– John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love (1585)

God has called us to shepherd and care for others,
But God remains the principle and primary shepherd,
The one to whom those who mind flocks and fields must ultimately give account.

Therefore, remember to always point others to God and to listen with a discerning ear, Paying mind to ways God may be leading the other,
Redirecting attention hither and yon to the coming kingdom,
Setting aside preferences suitable to yourself,
And instead seeking the calling and guidance of the Holy Spirit,
Who knows the hearts of women and men and works out God’s ways
Which are higher than our own.