The word pastor literally means “shepherd.” A pastor cares for the flock God has given him, with the good shepherd, Jesus, as the ultimate role model.
For Jeremy Yong, pastor of First Baptist Church of Hacienda Heights, Calif., the idea of pastor as shepherd begins and ends with love of Christ and of one’s congregation.
“By successful shepherding, I mean loving Christ’s sheep the way that Christ desires them loved,” Yong told pastors at the 9Marks First Five Years conference in Fort Worth, Aug. 16. Speaking on John 21:15-19, Yong said Jesus’ instruction to Peter to “feed my sheep” was a sign of love for him.
The key to loving the sheep is loving the savior,” Yong said, adding, “Christ must be your love supreme. … This supreme love for Christ is what brings forth a love for his sheep.”
The way pastors practically love their congregations was also the topic of a series of interviews conducted by the TEXAN with five experienced Texas pastors, each in his present position for more than a decade and serving different size congregations, numbering 150 to more than 1,000.
Know your congregation
Effective shepherds know their sheep, Mike Lawson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Sherman, said. For Lawson, this includes learning people’s names; being present during major life events like weddings, funerals and hospitalizations; and “being willing to stay for the long haul.”
“If you want to know people, you have to be willing to invest in lives over an extended period of time,” Lawson said. “I have never gone to a [church] planning to leave that place.”
Manuel Martinez affirmed the value of longevity. Serving Primera Iglesia Bautista in Irving as associate pastor in the 1980s and later as interim created familiarity, which proved helpful when Martinez accepted the call as pastor in 2000.
“Since we have been at the church such a long time, people have come know us, love us and respect us,” Martinez said.
For Tim Skaggs, pastor of Brownwood’s Coggin Avenue Baptist Church, knowing the congregation started with making public his cell phone number. With Sunday morning worship attendance averaging 1,200, Skaggs recalled the advice of a pastor friend early in his time at Coggin Ave., who said, “Don’t be friends with your people.“
It was advice Skaggs found impossible to follow.
“I can’t do that,” Skaggs told his wife. To the church secretary who cautioned against publicizing his cell number, he replied, “I want to be found. I want to be accessible.”
Coggin Ave.’s weekly bulletin features contact information of all staff members, including Skaggs.
“People call and text me a lot. Every now and then, someone will call me at home at night and apologize. I jokingly tell them, ‘Look, if people stop calling me, I am out of a job,’” Skaggs added with a laugh.
What about the shepherd’s family?
Of course, caring for the flock and sacrificially loving a congregation should not mean sacrificing a shepherd’s family on the altar of duty.
Lawson told FBC Sherman that he would sacrifice neither family nor health. Doing so would render him “less effective.”
The church encourages Lawson to follow these principles. Early on, two ladies with whom he teamed for an evangelistic outreach insisted he be with his son at baseball practice instead.
“They called me on it,” Lawson said. “I am glad they did. From that point on, there was never a question that, except in an emergency, if something was going on with my family, the church knew that was where I was going to be.”
Balancing priorities can be especially challenging for younger pastors.
“For a young pastor just starting out, one of the hardest things [to] do is juggle church family and ‘real’ family,” Skaggs said. “Many times we have this messiah complex—we’re going to save the world. No doubt I put church before family early in my career.”
“I made mistakes my first few years,” Earl Duggins of Kilgore’s Forest Home Baptist Church admitted. “I thought I was the only one who could get anybody saved. When you put God first, you’ll have the right spot for your family. Do not neglect the wife and children.”
Advice for young pastors
Lawson recommended young pastors pray regularly for a “servant’s heart.” Referencing Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet, Lawson said, “[Pedestals] are not where pastors belong. Pastors really belong on their faces [in prayer, emulating] Christ as a servant leader.”
Duggins advised young pastors to “make sure” of their calling. Quoting Proverbs 3:5-6, he added “Then, enjoy the trip. Just let God lead you and guide you.”
Skaggs cautioned against being defined by the title of pastor, even though people often define themselves by their jobs. “Let the Word of God define who you are and how you live. … I had better make sure that Jesus defines me. … I answer to an audience of one. Hebrews 13:17 says I will give an account one day … to God, not to people or to the church.”
Skaggs said this philosophy of answering to God rather than man influences how he shepherds. “People will disappoint me and hurt me. I will disappoint and hurt people. We are not perfect (but) Jesus never changes. He is the solid rock. That is where I am going to put my hope.”
Spending “quality and quantity time with Jesus” is essential, Skaggs added, emphasizing personal Bible study in addition to sermon preparation. “If Satan can’t make you bad, he will make you busy,” Skaggs said.
“Remember, the pastoral ministry is not about you, it’s about God,” Martinez advised.
“Let your people know you love them,” Lawson added.