Caring for Everyone

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

The object of our pastoral care is all the flock, that is, the church and every member of it. We should know every person who belongs to our charge. For how can we take heed unto them if we do not know them? A careful shepherd looks after every individual sheep. A good schoolmaster looks to every individual student, both for instruction and correction. A good physician looks after every particular patient. And good commanders look after every individual solider. Why, then, should the teachers, the pastors, the physicians, the guides of the churches of Christ not take heed unto every individual member of their charge?

Christ himself is the great and good shepherd and master of the church, who has the whole church to look after and yet takes care of every individual in it. In Luke 15, he tells us that he is like the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to seek out the one who was lost; or like the woman who lights a candle, sweeps the house, and searches diligently to find the one coin that was lost, and having found it, she rejoices and calls her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. Christ tells us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7, 10). The prophets were often sent to single men. Ezekiel was made a watchman over individuals who must say to the wicked, “You shall surely die (Ezek. 3:18-19). Paul taught the people publicly and from house to house (Acts 20:20), which refers to his teaching particular families. The same Paul warned every man and taught every man, in all wisdom, that he might present every man perfect in Christ Jesus (Col. 1:28). Christ explained his public parables to twelve on their own (Mark 4:34). Every man must seek the law at the mouth of the priest (Mal. 2:7). As pastors, we must give an account of our watching over the souls of all who are bound to obey us (Heb. 13:17). Many more passages in Scripture assure us that it is our duty to take heed unto every person in our flock.

Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor [affiliate link], p. 48-49

Richard Baxter was writing in the 1600s. His words still hold. Pastors are to take heed unto every individual in their charge. Ministry should be personal as well as public. As Howard Hendricks would often say, “You can impress people from afar, but you can only impact them up close.”

I’ve made it a habit in ministry to keep lists of names before me, whether it be members of my youth group or families in my care, or students I’ve met attending classes on a nearby college campus, or congregational members that I’ve wanted to keep before me in prayer. As a teacher, I now keep my class rosters nearby. And I’ve made myself available for one-on-ones of the planned and the “pop-in” variety. Believe it or not, I set out about ten or so dates a semester where students can sign up for “Lunch with Brother Ben.” The majority of those dates do fill.

Baxter’s vision is active, more intentional, not only visiting pew by pew but house to house, coming to know people not only in congregation but where they dwell in the broader community. His notion of shepherding not only requires walking the distance from pulpit to church doorway, but down streets and across fields. He envisions parsons who go to the people, not wallflowers who wait for congregants to come for instruction and counsel. A good shepherd not only counts the sheep, but knows each by name. He lives where they live, sees what they see, and experiences what they experience, so that he can serve as is fitting for people and place.

This old vision for pastoral work needs to be cast yet again, for, as Baxter notes, this mode of ministry is scriptural and, therefore, does not go out of style. Our moment is replete with influencers but sparse of shepherds. We scroll past hundreds of peddlers of inspiration or advice each day, but scarcely come face to face with a person who, having come to know our name and needs, can counsel us in the way of wisdom, who can help us walk by the Spirit, who can instruct us in the Scriptures, and who can comfort us with the gospel of Christ.

God is still calling forth people to serve as shepherds. But if more such servants are to be found in our midst, that call must be answered.

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.