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!

Leading The Flock Or Just Tending The Flock?

shepherdWe pastors are to be under-shepherds for Jesus, the Great Shepherd. I think the sheep we’re called to tend often have a different idea of our job description from what we believe it to be.

Our flock wants us to tend to their needs: preach, marry, bury, and visit the sick and shut-in. In addition to these roles of the shepherd most pastors believe there’s also the role of leading the flock. I’ve watched shepherds do their job of shepherding and though the sheep may wander during grazing it’s the shepherd who leads them to where they’re to go. The sheep of our pasture often don’t get this.

I’ve been the pastor of the same church for over 37 years and I still sense people resisting my leadership on many an occasion. I suspect that in churches where there’s a history of pastoral change every few years the pastor can express very little true leadership. Do they see the pastoral role as plug ‘n play? Probably. It’s less about being a shepherd who leads the flock and more about being a chaplain to an institution.

“Behold, there go my people! I must hasten after them, for I am their leader!” 

My church’s constitution gives the pastor almost no authority, and I’m OK with that. After all, the best authority is that which is gained through influence and respect. This takes time, lots of time, a reason I’ve always believed in the benefit of long-term pastorates.

What to do? Perhaps you have some suggestions. I remind myself that Jesus Himself didn’t have the respect of everyone, not by a long ways. To some degree we’re all Rev. Rodney Dangerfields. Our God also reminds us that it is in weakness and humility that somehow, someway God is able to use us and expand His kingdom. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (James 3:13)

In the end, we do what we can. And we remember we do our task of shepherding as best as we can because our calling is from our Great Shepherd and that it is not dependent on how His sheep act. “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” (1 Peter 5:2-4)

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.)

The Busy Pastor

A neighbor of our daughter and her family
in Mexico shepherding his flock

I have had to learn again and again that to be about my Heavenly Father’s business means I must not be too busy. My busyness and His business are often not the same work!

Eugene Peterson writes, “A sense of hurry in pastoral work disqualifies one for the work of conversation and prayer that develops relationships that meet personal needs. There are heavy demands put upon pastoral work, true; there is difficult work to be engaged in, yes. But the pastor must not be ‘busy.’… there must be a wide margin of leisure.”

Peterson then quotes Henri Nouwen. “Without the solitude of heart, our relationships with others easily become needy and greedy, sticky and clinging, dependent and sentimental, exploitative and parasitic, because without the solitude of heart we cannot experience the others as different from ourselves but only as people who can be used for the fulfillment of our own, often hidden, needs.” (Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Eugene Peterson, pp. 61-62, Eerdmans, 1980)

I have had the opportunity on various occasions to watch a shepherd tend his flock of sheep. I don’t ever recall seeing shepherds rush about. They tend to walk slowly; mostly they just stand. Why, as the shepherd of God’s flock of people, do I feel prompted to always be rushing, giving the impression I must be somewhere else other than where I am? Lord, wherever you have me be today, help me to be all there for as long as you want.

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