God and Efficiency

TurtleTimeI’m not convinced God ever calls someone to be an efficiency expert as a profession. OK, maybe I can’t be sure about that, but it does seem to me that God has little interest in efficiency. I see proof of this in His creation.

Look at a maple tree, oak tree, or cottonwood tree and you’ll see seemingly gazillions of whirlybirds, acorns, and flying cottonwood seeds. Sure, there needs to be enough seeds to find the right conditions to produce new trees, but that many? God’s creation is filled with such examples of extravagance. Beauty and diversity are two such huge areas. Why didn’t God stick to making plants and animals with few variations and functionally mundane appearances?

I also see proof of God’s lack of interest in efficiency in the special revelation of the Bible. In all of my years of studying the Bible I can’t recall any passage that shows God to be interested in efficiency or calling His people to efficiency. In other words, if I had to deliver a speech to an audience of efficiency experts, I’d be hard pressed to find a Biblical passage to base it on!

I share all of this because it relates to my experience as a pastor in one place for 39 plus years; in retrospect it seems He called me to “waste time” on many occasions. I believe He frequently called me to spend significant time with people who would never, in my humble estimation, return the investment by being a more active contributor to the church’s life. This does not surprise me. Jesus spent much of His preciously short time of three years of public ministry healing and helping those who are never mentioned again in the New Testament, people who apparently didn’t make a big, measurable mark on the early church. One time Jesus healed a man who was then thrown out of the temple. The Gospel states, Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him…” (John 9:35) Time on earth was running out for Jesus, and here He goes and traipses after a nondescript guy treated badly by a few others.

Corporations make much of everyone in their employ being efficient. The Kingdom of God is not a corporation. An implication of this fact is that there’s a real danger in taking corporate principles and automatically applying them to the church. We are, after all, pastors, not CEOs. In many ways God’s kingdom is topsy-turvy to how the business world operates; the importance of efficiency is one such area.

Does this mean we’re never to ask ourselves if we’re making wise use of our time? Of course not. Balance is the key. If we can find someone else to move the tables and chairs then it’s probably wise to do so, leaving us time to do that which the movers and shakers of tables and chairs aren’t gifted or called to do. On the other hand, we might have some of our best conversations while we work with our parishioners at setting up a room for a meeting.

For decades I served coffee at our annual fish fries at the church. It offered me countless opportunities to connect with people, especially people who enjoyed the Friday night physical food at the church but didn’t show up for the spiritual food on Sunday. Would I have better served the church by staying in my church office, studying and strategizing during those hours? I don’t think so.

Efficiency may have a place in ministry, but it doesn’t hold the number one place. The top priority is to be open to God’s calling, and that may not always lend itself to efficiency.

“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor. And they rebuked her harshly. Leave her alone,said Jesus. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.‘” (Mark14:3-9)

Two Ways to View Our Shepherding Role

The image of shepherd helps us define our calling as pastors. Jesus is the Great Shepherd, but in His physical absence He has assigned us pastors to the task of shepherding a local flock of His. Images of sheep and a shepherd have always prompted my personal reflection on this amazing calling He’s placed upon me. I find myself probing the shepherd imagery even more in recent months since moving to rural Mexico where we have neighbors who shepherd a flock of a couple of hundred sheep. Whenever they lead them to greener pastures, if I’m aware of the flock’s movement, I’m there with my camera. Observing the flock and the shepherd neighbors has brought to mind two different ways we can see our role in pastoring a local flock of His.

The Younger Sibling Shepherd

ShepherdBrothersSmallI’ve noticed that often there are two shepherd boys taking care of the sheep, an older brother and a younger brother. I’m sure the older brother is in charge and that the younger brother is obedient to him and learns from him.

We sometimes identify Jesus as our “big brother” and that makes us the little brother or sister. As a pastor we can see ourselves as the younger brother shepherd or little sister shepherd. As we shepherd the flock we can know that our big brother shepherd is not far away and has His watchful eye on both us and the sheep He’s put under our care. He is there, always, always giving us His help and direction.

The Shepherd’s Dog

ShepherdDogSmallThe neighbors have a couple of sheep dogs, one is a German Shepherd mix, I’m not sure about the other. The dogs take their verbal orders from the shepherd (I’ve heard it many times). The dogs run and round up the stray sheep. They stand guard. Our own two Saint Bernard dogs have approached the sheep and the sheepdogs and have learned the hard way that this was not a wise move! The shepherd’s dogs guide and also protect the flock of their master, the shepherd.

I often made the comment during my years of pastoral ministry that I was the Lord’s sheepdog! It comes across to me as a self-deprecating title, but an accurate one, helping me to stay a bit more humble (I hope) and more useful to Him. The Lord is the Good Shepherd of the small flock He assigned to me, and I was but His sheepdog, seeking to obey His commands as to where to take the sheep and, yes, feeling protective of them.

Two Images to Hold in Mind and Heart

Images are powerful, and the images of the younger sibling to the big brother shepherd and of the sheepdog serving the master who is shepherd have helped me better grasp my role as a pastor. After all, there’s nothing I want more than to please the Good Shepherd!

Among the People

pastoralgracesbookHere’s another quote from Lee Eclov’s book Pastoral Graces. Again, a great book, from the heart of a pastor, about the heart of us pastors.

“When I was a young pastor, I was in a service where Dr. Warren Wiersbe was going to preach.  It was a conference and I assume he didn’t know most of the people there.  Yet in the moments before the service started, he worked his way up and down the aisles and into the rows greeting people and shaking hands.  I instinctively knew he was doing more than being friendly.  He was pastoring, and he was doing a kind of sermon preparation for the people and for himself.” (loc 679)

I, like many pastors, will pray with the others involved in leading worship (for some of you it will be with the elders or deacons) just before the service, but I don’t spend much time with them!  I feel inclined to be greeting the people, walking around in the narthex (lobby), up and down the aisle and in between the pews.  Sometimes I find that I’ve personally greeted almost everyone before I stand up front and say “Good morning!” to open the service.  I feel I can better connect with the people in leading worship and in the service if I have literally come from their midst just before the service starts.

Pastoral Qualifications?

pastoralgracesbookI recently concluded the book Pastoral Graces by Lee Eclov.  A great book for pastors to read! Here’s another excerpt…

“So far as I can tell, God did not single any of us [pastors] out for this work because He liked our resumes or found us in a talent search.  I suspect He chose us because, ever since creation, God finds special creative delight in making something from nothing, ex nihilo.” (loc. 207-213)

The Burden and Blessing of Pastoring

sheepbrushOf all the professions, it seems to me that the profession of being a pastor carries with it a unique burden, the burden of a unique love. It’s not that people of other professions don’t love the people they serve, they should. Everyone should love everyone in their sphere of influence. It’s just that we pastors are to love the people we shepherd as the Great Shepherd loves them. This strikes me as a unique and challenging call to love.

Lawyers, doctors, counselors, and other professionals have appointments, usually of an hour or less, with their clients or patients. Not so with pastors. Our parishioners may make an appointment to see us, but they also expect us to be available 24/7, nor do they want to feel they’re limited to an hour of our time. And we don’t bill them!

Most other professions see their clients or patients in rather narrow parameters of the professional setting. The pastoral setting is wide and expansive; we tend our flock without fences, and we find our sleep to be light at the entrance to the sheepfold. Our life with them includes worship, study, fellowship, serving together, working together in leadership, and sharing potlucks.

Most clients and patients of other professions see it as a professional relationship while our parishioners see it more as a friendship. Frequently those in my church will say to me, “You’re not just my pastor, you’re my friend.” I appreciate the intended compliment but I wonder, just how many friends can I have and still be a good friend to each?

Doctors see a patient for a few minutes, trying to stay objective about the patient’s condition. As pastors we’re the physician’s assistant to the Great Physician and ours is a doctoring of the soul. It is no easy task given the fact that we ourselves are sin-sick and also under the care of the Great Physician. Wounded healers we are.

Lawyers sit across the desk, turning papers 180 degrees for the client to sign below paragraphs of unintelligible legalese. We pastors represent the Divine Lawgiver, taking God’s laws and principles and seeking to make them clear to our people while at the same time humbled by our own inability to abide by them ourselves.

Counselors maintain a professional relationship requiring definite relationship boundaries with those who share their deepest, darkest secrets. We who do pastoral counseling on behalf of the Mighty Counselor do so without such boundaries, going with them from the counseling session to a worship service, a board meeting, or a church picnic.

The profession of pastoring calls us to the burden of loving in a unique way, but it also provides unique blessings. We represent Christ. He is the Good Shepherd of the flock and we are His undershepherd. We are a mini-incarnation of the presence of Christ in the midst of His people, laughably inadequate and many times inept but put there by none other than Christ Himself. The task is daunting, but we have the promise of His presence and help. Ours is a yoked ministry; we join Him in the task of caring for His people and He will always make the task doable because of His ever present help. I often cling to His promise: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30) I’m still working on the “learn from me” part of that promise! I’m learning that His blessings come from embracing His burdens, that His blessings make the burdens less burdensome, and that there is His joy in it all!

HeartCarvedInSandThere are times when the sheep we’re called to shepherd hurt us.  This statement by Spurgeon spoke to me.

“When others behave badly to us, it should only stir us up the more heartily to give thanks unto the Lord, because He is good; and when we ourselves are conscious that we are far from being good, we should only the more reverently bless Him that He is good.” (quoted from Attributes of God, A. W. Pink, eBook Loc 1116)

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:1 — and five other times in the Bible)

CEO or Shepherd?

shepherdhorseI recently read that Walt Disney was difficult to work with. Apparently he was very demanding and often assumed people knew what he wanted of them when he had not made it clear. I remember watching Walt Disney introduce his shows on TV. He seemed like a nice, congenial Uncle Walt! Apparently those who knew him knew differently. The late Steve Jobs was the brilliant head of Apple, but, again, he is reported as having been difficult to work for. The same article listed additional CEOs who have pushed their companies to greatness, but at great expense to the relationships with others in the company.

As a pastor I’ve often tried to glean insights on being a great leader from secular examples. I still believe there’s validity to this, but I am no longer as enthusiastic about such an approach. The Biblical model for a pastor of a church is not a king or a wealthy and powerful businessman. The model for the pastor is the shepherd. Jesus identified Himself as the Good Shepherd. He calls upon us to take care of His sheep. Aiming for success, casting vision, establishing measurable goals, and other methods used by secular leaders and managers are characteristics that are scarce in any Biblical references to leading the church.

Yes, I think there’s a place for such things in the pastor’s toolbox, but they don’t seem as though they should be the favorite tools of the pastor. There’s nine tools listed by the great church leader Paul in Galatians. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22)

We pastors are in a strange situation in that the people we are called to lead are the same people we are called to nurture in their walk with Christ. I’m coming to a greater peace about the fact that firm and stubbornly forward thinking leadership needs to take a back seat to nurturing the people I lead. I find the image of the shepherd to be a good balance. Yes, the shepherd leads the flock, but the shepherd also feeds, leads to calm waters, dresses wounds, and in all kinds of ways looks out for the best interest of the sheep. The Lord from whom we receive our call is the Good Shepherd. My goal is to be a “pretty good” shepherd for Him!

(The shepherd in the picture is a neighbor of our daughter and her family, where they live on a mountainside in Mexico.)

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