Feed the sheep

Jimmy Draper’s Don’t Quit Until You Finish is a rich resource on pastoral ministry. The book’s theme seems to be that we should love the people God has entrusted to us. Jimmy Draper has modeled that priority through his years as pastor and Baptist statesman. You can see that genuine love in a pastor who has it, and you miss it in a pastor who doesn’t. It is the bottom line in pastoral ministry. People forgive someone who is diligent but not naturally gifted in preaching, as long as he loves his flock. The two or three men in my life I consider to be my “pastors,” though they live in various states, are not so because they are excellent preachers but because they listen, they love, they expend themselves for others, they keep confidences—they are pastoral. 

The word “pastor” is a term related to the work of a shepherd. A “pastoral” scene is a rural one, perhaps a pasture. We have three churches in Texas called Iglesia Bautista El Buen Pastor (“Good Shepherd Baptist Church”), or some version of that. When Jesus restored Peter in John 21, he told Peter to feed his lambs, in response to the love Peter professed for the Good Shepherd. So I’m not particularly taken with the scholarly pastor who only, or prefers to only, fill the pulpit and study the deep things of God. It’s hard to be a good preacher or a pastoral leader if you don’t actually love the sheep enough to embroil yourself in messy lives that take away the time you’d otherwise spend on “more important” or “strategic” matters.

It is true that “pastor” is only one word used to describe the role of a church’s undershepherd. He is also the overseer (bishop) of the church, and sometimes called an “elder.” I recognize that there is significant overlap in these three titles; that’s one reason I believe they all three describe one who is simply the pastor. The role of the shepherd is indispensable, and perhaps the most difficult role for most of us to do well. 

There is a servant aspect—meekness and humility—that, while necessary in the life of a faithful bishop and effective elder, shines paramount in the shepherd as he visits and counsels and comforts and disciples and teaches the flock entrusted to him. Some roles of the pastor can be done pretty well without that servant spirit, shepherding will not be done at all without it. 

We know examples of men in large churches and small churches who are exemplars of pastoral ministry. You can tell what kind of pastor a man is by only a little association with him. Some pastors you’ve never heard of do a great job at pastoring their flocks in out of the way places. Although the CEO pastor seems to work best in the suburbs, the true pastor is at home in all places—anyplace where there are people of God really.    

W.A. Criswell, in his Guidebook for Pastors, explains that the other things a pastor does are enabled by his daily service to his people, his relationships with them. He says, “When the pastor has established personal religious relations with his hearers, to them, even the simplest sermons are clothed with sacred power.” 

The significance of this ministry seems a pretty good argument for pastoral internships. Forming “religious relations” with people is not so simple as being nice or having a gift of gab. Experienced pastors emphasize that pastoral contacts (including I suppose, email and phone calls) should have a spiritual focus. I remember being an associate pastor right out of seminary. My pastor told me where my office was located and that I shouldn’t do anything troublesome to the church. That was it. My first year of hospital visitation was a mess. I had no seminary preparation and no training in hospital visitation, so I learned it by trial and error. I visited rooms and homes with no clear idea of what I would say, or not say, except that I would pray with the people. Some of those visits were a waste. Later, I understood that I wasn’t anyone’s buddy showing up before or after a surgery, or in a bereaved home, or in the home of a discouraged church member. It was obvious to everyone else why I was there, so it was important that I was ready to be pastoral. Training and coaching could have been a head start on experience in my pastoral ministry. 

The bottom line is that we must do it. If we love people, we must do more than offer platitudes when we happen to see them in the hall. Pastoral ministry goes to find the lost or injured sheep entrusted to us by the Good Shepherd. That trust makes it a high priority indeed.   

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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