A Lament for the Hard Things: The Joy of Pastoral Ministry; A Follow-Up…
When I sat down to write the previous post, “A Lament for the Hard Things,” my goal was to share a tangible illustration of what I had preached a few days before on Easter Sunday morning. The main point being that we should cling, white-knuckled, to Jesus’ teaching: Seeking the food that endures to eternal life because earthly satisfaction fades so quickly.
Tuesday was such a vivid example of the King’s teaching, and pastors are uniquely positioned to see those things in so many lives all at once.
I wasn’t prepared, however, for the outpouring of love, support, and gratitude of so many from my own Church family, and extended church family. I am overwhelmed and thankful for your words of encouragement and support. I didn’t write the post looking for sympathy or support; my aim was to further highlight and explain Sunday’s sermon. But, my own faith family took it upon themselves to demonstrate their love, care, and support for this Pastor-Shepherd, and I confess myself humbled by it all. From the bottom of my heart, thank you and I love you.
I do want to make a clarification. As heavy as this calling it at times, I am not overwhelmed by the job. I noted in the previous post that this job is too big for me. And, it is. I ought never be so foolish and prideful to think that I am sufficiently skilled to be all the spiritual help my people need. Any good, godly, and somewhat mature Pastor is going to confess that his job is just too big for him alone. He needs Jesus as much as the members of his flock; and it is Jesus that he brings to the members of his flock. That is his ministry; that is his joy; that is his burden; and that is his calling.
Pastoring is a job too big for Pastors, but it's not a job that has to be overwhelming. When approached the right way, Pastors find life in leading, guiding, caring for, and bearing the burdens of their flock.
Several members of my flock have apologized at times for unloading their burdens on me, or will often make apologetic comments about occupying my time, or something to that effect. But, I want to clarify, that’s what I am here for. That’s what Pastors are for. I am here to be unburdened upon. A Pastor’s time is for his people (within reason of course).
One of the chief roles of the Pastor is to be a Priest among his people. He is there to meet them in their times of need, suffering, pain, sorrow, and loss. He is there to pray with them and for them; he is there to usher them into the presence of God; he is there to make intercession on their behalf. And as heavy as the pastoral role gets—and any Pastor will tell, it gets heavy—it is a burden undertaken with joy. One of the affirmations that God has indeed called a man into the Pastor-Shepherd role is his personal willingness to enter into the suffering of his people, and to do so with the joy of the Lord.
After all, our Lord Jesus went to cross with a heart full of joy. Happiness was nowhere to be found, but for the joy set before Him, He endured the cross. He willingly embraced His suffering with joy because He knew what God was doing.
No Pastor-Shepherd enjoys the sufferings of his people; no Pastor-Shepherd is happy about the Priestly work of ministering to people in times of need. But, every good Pastor-Shepherd enters those moments of heartaches and sorrow with a deep-seated, profound sense of joy in Christ. Pastor’s know that God is redeeming the world, even in the midst of heartache and suffering. Every Pastor-Shepherd knows the beautiful truths of Psalm 16:10-11, “The Lord makes known to us the path of life, and in His presence there is fullness of joy, pleasure forevermore.”
So, when a Pastor-Shepherd enters into the suffering of his people, whether it's showing up for the death of a saint, praying with a family in crisis, bearing with the saint in a season of long-suffering, or sharing a conversation in the hallway, he comes with the divine help of God's eternal life in Christ, the path of everlasting joy. And it is his joy to be there, in the suffering, with his people, bringing Jesus in helpful ways.
The Hard Things of Life are the Arenas of Pastoral Oversight.
In 1 Timothy 3, Paul notes that if a man aspires to the office of Overseer, he desires a noble task. That word, Overseer (one of the 3 titles used for Pastors in the New Testament), means that the job of the Pastor-Shepherd is to oversee his people. He must watch them, know them, and attend to them. A Pastor-Shepherd's oversight happens in general and specific ways, broadly and personally.
Richard Baxter, a well-known Puritan Pastor from the 1600’s rightly describes oversight like this: “What is the content of oversight? It is public preaching; the sacraments of baptism and communion; public prayer, praise, and benediction; and it is oversight of the members directly, ministry focused on individuals and families.”
Speaking about the personal nature of pastoral oversight, Baxter writes, “If [Pastor-Shepherds] do not exercise the special care of oversight of each member, which involves knowing them individually and personally, Pastors will not know the [struggles] or diseases that plague our people, and we are likely to prove unsuccessful physicians.”
Pastor-Shepherds who do not know their people and who do not enter into their sufferings and sorrows are like doctors who prescribe treatment without observing and studying symptoms. Pastor-Shepherds are physicians of the soul, and in order to rightly administer the medicine of the gospel, we must observe the lives of our people. We must enter the sufferings and bear the burdens in order to rightly and helpfully apply Christ.
How Does This Observation Happen?
Generally, Pastor-Shepherds oversee their congregations through preaching the Word of God on the weekly Lord’s Day gatherings. He opens the Word of God and speaks authoritatively to the people. By God’s grace, the Pastor-Shepherd becomes the mouthpiece of God for his people in those moments as he reads Scripture, prays, and preaches. It is a heavy task that no Pastor-Shepherd takes lightly. But, the best of sermons are still general; one-size-fits-all. They are addressed to the congregation, not individuals.
But the Pastor-Shepherd is also afforded the opportunity to teach the Word of God to his people on an individual basis, person-to-person. This affords him the opportunity to make his teaching person specific and situation specific. As he preaches 1-2 corporate sermons each week, he also preaches 20-30 privates sermons.
Through regular and personal interactions and conversations, the Pastor-Shepherd studies his people and the situations of their lives, meeting them where they are and bringing them to the Word of life. In these private sermons, he bends his people to the Word. Throughout his week, the Pastor-Shepherd enters a multitude of situations where he must learn to bend and shape every situation to the Word of God. He comes bearing the help of Christ through the Bible.
Thomas Oden, a helpful Pastor-Theologian, notes that the Pastor-Shepherd has the unique and distinct responsibility of reinterpreting his people’s situations and sufferings according to the Word of God. This is where the Pastor-Shepherd’s ministry of the Word moves from general to specific. As he meets his people on the ground, in the real details of their lives, the places where their sufferings press down on them most specifically…that’s where Pastor-Shepherds do some of their most important and most helpful work: Reinterpreting life’s struggles according to the Word of God and the hope of Jesus Christ.
A faithful Pastor-Shepherd once told me that a man is never ready to preach a sermon to the crowds until he is ready to preach it 100 times in private.
Tell Your Pastor-Shepherds about Your Lives!
So, the members of a Pastor’s congregation should never try to withhold their burdens from him. To do so would prevent him from exercising his ministry and authority in their lives. No doubt there are times when Churches do overwhelm their Pastors. As I noted in the previous post, Pastors can only do so much, especially if they are limited in number (all the more reason for plural Elder leadership). But, it is the Pastor-Shepherd’s distinct privilege and calling to know his people, hear their problems, sit with them in their suffering, and bring them to Jesus.
Call or text him when times are hard; when suffering hits; when that loved one is sick or about to die. Call or text when things are difficult and your faith is weak. Reach out to him when you’re at the end of your rope. He’s already deeply involved in many situations and he will gladly join you in yours. At the same time, be gracious with him, and recognize that, like you, he is but a human. Pastor-Shepherds need grace, and they also need Pastor-Shepherds of their own.
This is the joy of the Pastor-Shepherd. The Lord God has uniquely positioned these men in the life of His Church so they may share in the many life situations of his people: The joys, the sorrows, sufferings, and the losses. God puts these Shepherds there so that His Word is preached and taught in general and specific ways.
The Lord has seen to it that His people are fed a steady diet of weekly preaching through His Pastor-Shepherds. A diet of truth that gives life and causes good growth.
And the Lord has also seen to it that His people be helped specifically in life’s hard moments as these same Pastor-Shepherds show up personally, Bible in hand and heart, to give them specific teaching that brings God’s help in tough moments.
For the joy of the Lord that is set before the Pastor-Shepherd, he endures the sufferings of his congregation with joy in the paths of the Lord, bringing his people to King Jesus.
A Word on the Pastor’s Personal Life
Paul notes that before a man is installed into the Pastoral office, his home life must be evaluated. The way a man stewards his personal life is a direct reflection of how he will steward his Shepherding life. And while this is important for entry into the Pastoral office, it should also be an ongoing metric for his pastoral health. Pastor-Shepherd’s can only operate out of what they have, and if their personal lives are healthy and well-balanced, their churches can be sure that these Pastor-Shepherds have deep wells of spiritual health from which to draw.
As a man, the Pastor-Shepherd’s first accountability to the Lord is for his wife and children (Paul assumes most Pastors will be married children, but this is nowhere required), and also for his personal health. Pastor-Shepherds should see their personal lives and their families as their first priority: Guarding the health and well-being of his marriage, his parenting, and his own well-being. These are his first priorities. They are first because, if these relationships are problematic in his life, every other relationship will be as well.
The Pastor-Shepherd must also watch after the health and well being of his own body and soul. His calling and duties demand it.
He must take great effort to care for his soul, feeding himself from the Word of life, finding his identity in Christ alone, hoping in the gospel of salvation above all else. He must steward his body and personal health, because if he is unhealthy in his body, his abilities to shepherd his flock will be greatly diminished. Pastor-Shepherds will do well for themselves by cultivating habits of personal holiness and intimacy with the Lord, watching over their diet and eating, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep.
When Pastor-Shepherds are healthy in soul and body, they are well-equipped to carry out their duties to their flock, bearing up strongly under heavy burdens. And Churches will flourish as they make sure their Pastor-Shepherds are well cared for.
The Lord’s designs truly are good and life-giving.
Philippians 1:25-26 - “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.”