T.M. Moore is the editor of the Worldview Church and serves both as a writer and a theological conultant for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…” John 10:14
“I will set shepherds over them who will care for them…” Jeremiah 23:4
The sine qua non of shepherding
Jesus declared Himself the Good Shepherd of the flock of God, and He has appointed every minister of the Word to serve as a faithful shepherd with Him in building His Church (Jer. 23:1-4). Put another way, we might say that ministers are being faithful in their calling as they seek the Kingdom of God by building Christ’s Church through the work of shepherding (1 Pet. 5:1-3).
Sheep need faithful shepherds to follow as they travel the path of Kingdom righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17, 18). That minister will be effective in building the local church who, by the example of his own life, both seeks the Kingdom and shepherds the flock of God after the example of the Lord Jesus.
The key to effective shepherding – the sine qua non of true shepherding – is relationships of mutual trust and love. Jesus said He, the Good Shepherd, knows His sheep and allows them to know Him. He qualified the nature of that relationship by pointing to His own relationship of love with the Father. This is the way shepherds and their sheep must relate, and if this is to happen, it must begin with the shepherds. Pastors must provide the example of loving leadership and care if they expect the people of God to follow their lead in building the church and seeking the Kingdom.
Faithfulness in ministry begins in a life that exemplifies faithfulness to the calling of discipleship. This means diligence in seeking the Kingdom, loving God’s flock, and ministering to one’s full capacity and beyond. We have already considered what it means for pastors to exemplify in their own lives diligence in seeking the Kingdom. Here we want to investigate further what is required for pastors to “know” the Lord’s sheep and to love them as the Lord Himself.
The example of Christ
In John 13:15 Jesus declared that He had given His disciples an example of the kind of relationships the pastors of God’s flocks must have with those in their care. Speaking to the first pastors of the Christian movement, as their Pastor, Jesus said that they should do with the people entrusted to their care exactly what He did in showing selfless love for the people of God. They would be blessed, He insisted – and their ministries as well, we may assume – to the extent that they were faithful in replicating His approach to caring for the flock of God.
As we observe the Lord Jesus in that upper room we may note four defining attributes of the love shepherds must nurture for the flock which has been entrusted to their care.
Attention to needs. First, we know that we love the people of God when we are attentive to their needs. Jesus was probably not the only one in that upper room who noticed that His people needed to have their feet washed. But clearly that need moved Him more deeply and personally than any of the others present. He actually felt a burden to do something about that which He observed, to make their burden His own.
The more pastors are with their people in various settings, the better they will be able to discern their needs and to begin making those needs a focus of their ministries. Pastors cannot expect to nurture relationships of love if they hold themselves aloof from the people or spend all their time in their study. Of course, pastors can’t know everyone at the same level of intensity. Even Jesus had an inner circle of three close friends, then the other nine disciples, and beyond that the 120 who assembled in the upper room in Acts 1, and then the masses beyond that. Pastors will doubtless need to structure their own ministries along similar lines, spending more time with certain people in a series of concentric circles, beginning with their wives, families, and church leaders, and growing out from there. If pastors can teach their leaders to do the same, and the leaders teach this to those in their various ministries, soon enough the church will be held tightly in the unity of God’s Spirit by interlocking and overlapping concentric circles of relationships. Within such an environment it will be difficult for the needs of our fellow church members to go unnoticed. Indeed, it will be our natural inclination both to observe those needs and to be burdened about them so that we might desire to bear their burdens with them.
But achieving such an environment of “one-anothering” requires that the pastor model this way of relating to the flock of God, so that others may learn from his example, as Jesus intended the disciples to learn from His.
Self-denial without self-exaltation. Jesus made no fanfare about washing His disciples’ feet. He did not draw attention to Himself except to move quietly but deliberately to prepare for the task at hand. He did not berate His disciples for their failure to love one another, nor did He put forth a sign-up list for others to join Him. He simply did the job, and that was that.
Many pastors today are looked upon with suspicion, even by their own congregations, who have questions about their motives in just about everything they do. Pastors seem eager to put themselves forward – naming programs or ministries after themselves, making sure they get all the proper attention and focus in whatever they do, having the nicest office or best parking space, and so forth. Really, can we imagine Jesus as the senior pastor of one of today’s mega-churches?
We cannot love people we are not willing to serve, and serving requires humility, coming to people where they are and not fitting them into our busy schedules whenever it’s convenient for us, if it’s ever convenient at all.
Readiness. Jesus prepared Himself to wash His disciples’ feet. He took off His outer garment, wrapped a towel around Him, gathered up the tools and resources He would need, and set Himself to the task.
How do we prepare to love the people in our care? What tools or resources does loving people require? Pastors work hard to prepare for leading worship and preaching, or running a meeting or a building campaign, or launching a new program. Do we prepare as well as we should for the hard work of knowing God’s flock? Do we understand people and what it takes to love them, right where they are? Do we spend as much time preparing in prayer to be with people – on visitation, in counseling sessions, for discipleship – as the Lord spent in preparing Himself to serve His followers?
At the very least, here is a call for more time in prayer. What we do not prepare for in prayer we will not undertake on anything other than our own strength. If we want the Lord to use us, then we must divest ourselves of all our personal prowess and put on the strength of the Lord in prayer. And if we want the people we serve to be people of prayer, then they must see in us that this is the place to begin in learning to love others as Jesus loves us.
Perseverance on task. Finally, Jesus exemplified love for His disciples by seeing His chosen task through to completion. He didn’t allow Peter’s blustering to stop Him. He didn’t balk at having to wash the feet of Judas. He just kept at His task until it was finished.
How many of us have started something we believed was really important, only to abandon the effort when difficulties, distractions, criticism, or inconvenience showed up in the path? Love stays the course in the things that matter. It is not deterred from doing that which edifies others, even though they may object, protest, or criticize. Jesus loved His disciples “to the end,” and we must learn what it means for us to love the people in our charge in just this same way.
Seeking the Kingdom and loving the flock
Ministers must pay careful attention to the kind of example their lives set before the people in their care. The minister’s personal example is the foundational tool in his disciple-making and church-building kit. We must learn to wield this well by taking up a lifestyle of seeking the Kingdom and serving others with the love of Jesus Christ.
And, since the local church grows in unity and maturity as the saints do the works of ministry appointed to them (Eph. 4:11-16), pastors must also exemplify diligence in going the extra mile in this area of their lives as well. We’ll take up this matter in our next installment.
Next steps: Discuss with some of your church leaders what it means for you to know the people in your care. How do you and your church leaders try to achieve this foundational aspect of a shepherd’s ministry? How might you improve in this area?
For a good overview of the work of pastoral ministry, order a copy of "The Christian Ministry", by Charles Bridges, a classic in the field of pastoral studies. You can order it from our online by clicking here. You might also read the article, “Watch Yourself: The Discipline of the Self-watch,” by T. M. Moore.