WHOM DO WE SHEPHERD?
Whom do we pastor? We evangelize the community; we pastor the congregation.
WE PASTOR OURSELVES.
Paul in his farewell to the elders in Ephesus exhorts them to keep watch over themselves (Acts 20:28). That is to be their first priority, and then he adds, “and all the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God,” but the focus is first on the elders’ self-watch. What a tragedy to hear a man saying, “I watched the flock, but I failed to watch myself. I gave other people fine advice about problems. I even gave fellow ministers who called me for help wise counsels and yet I failed to exhort my own heart.”
What is the greatest need of the flock in Aberystwyth? That I keep watch over myself. If we have a loving, lingering attachment to some sins, not willing to mortify them or confess them to God then God will chastise us in various ways. There will be heartache in our lives or in the life of the church; there will be unanswered prayer. An echo of the troubles we are causing will be found in those in our own spheres. We may have truth on our lips, but unless the truth guards our hearts and lives we cannot enjoy the Lord’s enriching blessing. That blessing is God’s new covenant commitment to do what he has promised to do.
Does the blessing of God resting on us characterize our lives now? Is our delight and even amazement in seeing the promises of God fulfilled in our experience and in the life of the church again and again? Are we living in such a way that we are not afraid of man; the only thing we deeply fear is offending God? The one thing that matters is God’s blessing resting upon my life and the congregation, that I might decrease and the Lord might increase, that God be all in all. The first thing you must do in admiring a work of art, said C.S.Lewis, is to forget yourself. Step aside. Take yourself out of the picture and then begin to growingly appreciate what is actually in the statue, or painting. So it is with the work of the pastor. He is not the answer to the various needs of the congregation. Jesus Christ is the answer while the pastor is a mere channel to bring the reality of our great Prophet, Priest and King to the people. The pastor then wants God to be glorified in the midst of the flock by the means of grace through his own pastoral leadership. He wants this earthern pot to contain a healing and invigorating cordial that he can bring to them week by week. Pastor yourself! That desire will sometimes lead to resistance and rejection. In the process he may lose his Manse, his salary, his pulpit, his health and his friendships, but that is a price worth paying if the blessing of the Lord, and the smile of God, and the fellowship of the Spirit is retained.
I must take heed to myself. That is the number one priority to the pastor. Not correct exegesis; not seeing and using history of redemption insights, not higher experiences of God, not a grasp of the five points of Calvinism – crucially important though all those things may be – but your own close walk with God to heaven. Many of my own problems have come because of my failure to watch myself. Disaffection, weariness, boring, unapplied and unaffectionate sermons, shrinking congregations, failure to restore the lost, lack of evangelistic earnestness – such failures have all come not because I failed to attend the right church growth conference but because I failed to watch my own heart.
I believe that if you’ve had an utterly hectic week with extra pressures and demands, a number of them coming out of the blue so that you’ve had hardly any time to prepare your sermons, that if you’re a man of Go who keeps watch over himself then God will bless the mustard seed of preparation you’ve accomplished and will give you an excellent time in the pulpit on Sunday and fruit from that ministry. But if you’re not taking heed to yourself, even if you’ve spent hours in preparation, and technically it is a correct sermon, exegetically unfaultable, lively, with bracing illustrations, balanced in its ministry to sinner and saint, yet God’s blessing does not rest on it because you are not pastoring your own heart.
WE PASTOR OUR PARENTS.
There may be the complications caused by the legacy of their unbelief. They are perplexed at your Christian earnestness. You are getting ‘extreme’ in their eyes, the one thing they feared when you became religious. At first there were the arguments: “You mean to say you don’t think I’m a Christian,” says your angry, church-going father. You are not handling the fifth commandment well. Then you have natural love on your side. You have to show how much better a son the Lord Christ has made you. You keep in contact with Mam and Dad by letters, Emails, phone-calls, and visits. Your home is welcoming. Your children adore their grandparents. That feeling is mutual. Your wife treats them like her own parents. There are some Christmas arrangements; they are with you on Christmas and your wife’s parents with you over the New Year. You work out some scheme but they know they can come any time to stay with you.
Then they come to faith or to a more historic Christian grasp of the faith. They follow the Saviour; they attend a gospel church and you are a friend of their pastor. They grow in grace and in Christian usefulness. Finally they move to your town; they join the church; you pastor them. Finally they move into your house; they spend their final years under your roof. When they get senile it is with you. When they get dementia it is with you. When they get little strokes then you and your wife pastor them. Members of the congregation come and take them out for a morning. They are tough years, when they no longer recognize you, when your mother thinks you are her brother and calls you ‘Lyn’ not Geoff, and when she calls your wife ‘nurse’ or ‘teacher.’ Then you pastor them. If a thing is worth doing it is worth doing badly, and angrily, and sometimes full of shame and frustration. After you have answered the same question ten times in ten minutes – “No. There is no meeting tonight, Mam . . . This is your home Mam. You are at home already” – she hammers the front door you have locked to prevent her walking out into the darkness – then you pastor her with guilt at your anger with her and with a broken heart. You are glad that God veils your sin from the congregation and that your wife alone sees your wretched short temper. We pastor in weakness and failure, thankful for the precious blood of Christ that cleanses us from our sins against those who love us the most.
WE PASTOR OUR WIVES.
Your wife keeps you in the ministry. She especially keeps you in the pulpit. She takes so much from you so that you are able to devote your time to preaching and all that that entails. She raises the daughters God has given you; she organizes the hospitality and invites people to the Manse for Sunday lunch. She prays for you and the church constantly. Her regular private devotions put your fitful praying to shame.
You never take a major decision without her. In fact she makes the major decisions. When it comes time to retire she chooses where you are going to live because you can preach and write from anywhere. The home is her province; it is where she is the queen and where you want her to reign. She keeps the house and so she takes the final decisions about decoration and furniture. It is her home, and that is one way you nourish and cherish her. She takes a decision not to go back teaching but to be careful and survive on your salary, to raise the children and have vacations all on your salary. Or maybe if that is impossible so that she works you build your use of time around her. You pastor her by taking stress from her. Where does she want to go on vacation? Where doesn’t she want to go? Her taste is paramount in such matters When are you going to retire? How is her health? How is she coping?
Once a month you are preaching elsewhere and so you have no sermon preparation that week. You can go together to Chester or Llandudno or Cardiff or Wiltshire or London. You can encourage her in those ways so that she will learn to encourage you. Every pastor wishes his wife would encourage him more. He was told by an old preacher that his wife would be his best critic. It is a delusion. God is his best critic and he is himself his best critic. He knows the rare sermons that are good enough to be repeated and also those plodding efforts when you lost it. Those are the sermons when you long for some words of encouragement; “I had not seen that before . . . that was a helpful point . . .” Anything to relieve the silence in the car on the way home. She ought to sense that you are glum. You should not have to ask, “That wasn’t too bad was it?” But she will encourage you if only you encourage her, for example, in all her work in the home and kitchen, if you speak thoughtfully and appreciatively about her cooking and craftwork, her beauty and smartness. ‘You excel them all.”
If the Lord gives you girls then there will be that feminine mystique, a special relationship that mothers and daughters have. You stand outside of that circle and peer inside in wonder and affection. You will thank God that she is so close to her own mother, and her sister, and your daughters. That will help keep her content and sane. You don’t have an ounce of jealousy in that relationship which you cannot share being a mere man. In fact you encourage it for all your worth as you feel guilty for not being as caring and close as you should be. That is part of pastoring her.
You also encourage her in her pastoring the younger women in the congregation. If moral issues emerge, like some women wearing immodest dress (who wants to see cleavage in the congregation on Sundays?) then she and the women can speak of this privately or in their women’s meetings. She will have her vocation with her fellow Christian women and their heart-aches. She may be able to speak, to teach Sunday School, to lead women’s Bible Studies, but she would run a mile from Sunday preaching, or from being a ‘deacon’ or ‘deaconess.’ She can articulate the reasons from the Bible why this vocation is discouraged and she loves those reasons. The women love and respect her whether she has leadership gifts or not.
She is not always right. There are times when even she doesn’t understand why you do or don’t do certain things. She asks “Why? What’s wrong with that?” and so there will be others in the church who are also puzzled and you will need to explain your stance more clearly. She can be a touchstone to the need for clarification.
She is your biggest supporter. You see her there always taking notes of your sermons in her decorative sermon book. You hear her voice from the pulpit singing the hymns happily, the hymns you carefully choose. There are significant indications of her contentment with God’s lot in bringing her to marry a preacher. There is no happier life than to be married to a pastor, to be at the hub of life in the church of the living God.
WE PASTOR OUR CHIDLREN.
By the grace of God my three daughters are all members of 1689 Confession Baptist Churches. They live 90 miles away, 120 miles away, and 200 miles away from us. Their husbands all have office in their churches, one is a pastor and two are deacons. Now the girls can hear me on line. These daughters are awesome in their godliness and as wives, mothers and friends. I was their pastor as well as being their Dad especially during the first 18 years of their lives, until distant college began the loosening. I had been their constant reminder of Jesus Christ. They often saw me at my worse. They saw my blatant failures up close. They saw me behave as badly as a Christian can behave, a saint in the pulpit and a sinner in the kitchen. Yet in spite of everything bad in me they came to love the Lord Jesus Christ as their God and Saviour and they are now raising nine grandchildren to love him too. Now they often pastor me. It is quite remarkable being led so kindly by them in arrangements and observations, directing me firmly and meekly in ways of wisdom. Why should I be surprised when they have the same heavenly Father as I have?
We did the basics; we said grace; we read the Bible together, though a bit fitfully, as a family at a mealtime. There was catechism and a memory verse. There were notes taken of my sermons and the girls read them to me when we returned to the Manse on Sunday mornings but that also dropped off with the younger one. It was all easier when they were younger and then as they grew there was choir, and sport, and other activities and I chauffeured them around. They played quietly indoors, reading and crayoning, between the services on Sundays. We did not watch TV. They went to camps each summer. They went to conferences, Aberystwyth of course, and Carey. They came as often as possible to the USA to be confronted with American spirituality and that impacted them. Their mother put them to bed and prayed with them. I did the basics, I say.
But shepherding your children to come to Christ is more than basics. It is about taking interest in what they think is important and facilitating that in them. It is about having the opportunity out of season to buy them gifts, for example during the Leicester Banner of Truth conference or when you go off to preach overseas and can bring them back different things. I rarely bought them books on these occasions as the whole house still threatens to collapse with the weight of books. Books are son-in-laws’ gifts (I say, tongue in cheek) I bought my sweet daughters toys, clothes, nightdresses from Marks and Spencer, sweets like exploding moondust, Atari games and a video player. At Christmas and birthdays their mother bought them their gifts, but when I was by myself it was a private delight to get something for them to show them my love. The greatest Baptist preacher in Wales a century ago was R.B.Jones, admired by my parents and now the subject of a biography written by Noel Gibbard (Bryntirion Press). I was once talking to the son of Nantlais Williams of Ammanford, Rheinallt. Nantlais was the leading preacher with the Presbyterians and he and R.B.Jones were close friends and preached for one another. Once, at the end of preaching services in Ammanford, Rheinallt with his two sons took R.B. Jones to the railway station for his journey back to Porth. He showed the boys what he had bought his children, opening his coat ant taking out of the inside pocket two wriggling rabbits. My estimation of R.B. greatly increased when I learned of that.
WE PASTOR OUR ENTIRE CONGREGATION.
If your gift is evangelizing, in other words, if you have an awakening ministry then you are too limited in being the full-time pastor of a local church. Numbers of towns need men with church-planting gifts. But the number of men with such gifts are extremely rare today. It is part of the judgment of God under which we live our Christian lives. We have to do the work of an evangelist without wearying our congregation with vain repetitious preaching.
Most of us are called to be pastor-teachers and we have to bring the whole counsel of God in a pastorally responsible way with the whole congregation listening to us. In doctrinal preaching we bring the truth of God to bear on the intellect. In ethical preaching we bring the law of God to bear on the mind. In pastoral preaching we bring the word of God to bear on the affections. For pastoral preaching to be effective there has to be the balance and range which systematic expository preaching alone can accomplish as we go through all the verses and chapters of the entire Bible. So we ground a congregation into thinking of the issues they face in a scriptural way. That is why God has given us the Bible. Pastoral preaching requires certain approaches to the various groups in the congregation.
i] The unconverted. How does the word apply to them? If it is a doctrinal passage there will be an immediate connection with Christ. Go to Jesus as soon as you can. There is the closest link between doctrine and the Saviour. Predestination, election, regeneration, justification, saving faith, repentance, adoption, union, sanctification and glorification are all in Christ. So who is this Christ? How can his blessedness and his blessings become a sinner’s? If it is an ethical passage then you are speaking to the sinner’s conscience and they discover from God’s law that they are condemned for their defiance of God. Yet what good news to know that in Christ, joined to him by an act of entrustment alone, there is no condemnation. The Saviour was condemned in our room and stead. But it is not enough to show by exegesis and inference that this is the case. There is the problem of human obduracy and the sinner needs to be addressed, exhorted, pleaded with and besought with much earnestness to turn from his unbelief to Christ. All the time there is in the pastor a sense of helplessness and dependence on God to do what we are utterly incapable of doing, give a birth from above. So we work and pray, and pray and work.
ii] The converted. There seems to be as many kinds of Christians as Christians. There are the weak Christians. These are people who deem some things to be wrong that are not wrong at all. For example, they have brought a legacy of a Jehovah Witness past into the kingdom of God and they still think that blood transfusions are wrong. They are scrupulous about the food they eat and think that any kind of meat from a pig is unclean. They might be vegetarian. Or they think that the Lord’s Supper should be an evening occasion, a supper. Enormous patience is to be used with them. The elders do not meet, accept the church’s position and announce it to the congregation and exhort them all to change. That is insensitive to these weak people who have read and heard the majority’s position. Much patience is required in pastoring them; no provocation or repetition or anger but an awareness that they are now doing those thing to their Lord as you do them to the same Lord. You must go on loving and differing and you do not raise the issue except where it is there right before you in the assigned passage.
There are also the sensitive Christians. They are believers who are conscious of their frailty, their many falls, their bondage to a sin that easily bests them. Hiw can they be Christians when they live so inconsistently. I have found help for them in Precious Remedies from Satan’s Devices by Thomas Brooks (Banner of Truth). Addressing their conscience with the guilt of besetting sins is one of the devil’s ploys. Brooks deals with this and comforts our raw consciences; “Where in Scripture are we told that this will never happen if we were true Christians? Does God promise that he will keep us from this? Falls into sinful habits are different from falls into enormous wickedness. There are sins like assassinations and forgery and carjacking which you are not likely ever to commit, but the old familiar sins will ever trip you up. When you sin that familiar sin you grieve over it and hate yourself . . .” Those are some ways in which you can help the sensitive Christian. There is no high blessing, no baptism that guarantees a young believer that henceforth he will never be troubled by a series of such falls. Then preach Christ to them and the promise of forgiveness to those who confess their sins. This is the challenge of pastoral preaching, to declare the will of god without creating a congregation of floundering doubters, and to declare the promises of God without creating a congregation of presumptuous Pharisees.
There are also the strong Christians, and they have no trouble with doubts, guilt or sensitivity. They know what they believe and what you should believe. They know about the future, about the order of the application of redemption, about Israel, about Christian liberty, about the world, about compromise with modernists, about the Holy Spirit, about women’s dress, about worship, about Bible versions and they agitate about some or many or all of the above. They are the most difficult of all your members. If they have a history of being in a number of churches in the past then they might not last much longer with you if you cannot tick their boxes. God give you grace to love them.
iii] The children. I speak to the children every Sunday morning, and give them a verse from the Bible to learn. I wish I could give you a scripture verse to support my separating one group and addressing them outside the structure of covenantal worship with the sermon as its climax. “Why not a talk to the women or the elderly?” you may ask. I plead that the children are spoken to in the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, and then I have a break for a hymn and I continue to speak to all the church. It is one sermon with an introit, a break for a hymn and then the main body of the preaching. I also plead that I occasionally have Chinese students whose English is not good and they need a simple presentation of the gospel. I also find myself in this university town speaking to students who in spiritual things have minds as thick as two planks. Leaders in the Christian Union who are studying bio-chemistry or medieval history will yet say that they cannot understand me (can you believe it?), while my little old ladies who live in council houses and left school at 15 follow me easily. So the children’s talk addresses the overseas students and the British boy or girl who is biblically illiterate concerning the gospel.
It is simply easier to speak to children each week in an address separate from the sermon. It is more natural and I can tie it into a verse from Scripture for them to learn. They have not been to Sunday School before the service as is the practice in the USA. I have taken them through Pilgrim’s Progress and the life of Elijah but mainly get my stories from various incidents and children’s magazines linking it with the verse from Scripture that I want them to remember. I always tell them a story after my explanation of the text. So this is a mini-sermon. It warms the congregation up for the main sermon. It is saying to the kids, “Listen! You can understand what the man is talking about, and he wants you to understand him because you are important to him.” Then you chat to them after the service and find out how school is going etc. I think it is important to lean how to speak to children without being sentimental, patronizing or obscure. That comes only by doing it regularly.
WE PASTOR OUR ELDERS.
None of us has a congregation full of people who think we are “the most perfect pastors in the entire world.” There are such congregations; they are called ‘cults.’ All of us have as mixed a group as any New Testament church and they contain a few people who arise and change in their attitude to us and come to us oppose us, sometimes quite strongly. Opposition comes in waves. After the first battle is won then there can be peace for a time but there will be another wave. It is never over. Even after 45 years there will be critics, and it must be like that with our own imperfection and theirs. If you are being blessed then it will erupt again. The thorn in the flesh came into the life of the apostle Paul as a counterpoise to the most glorious experience imaginable. The promise is like a rock; God’s grace is sufficient for us to deal with that background provocation and do everything that God wants us to do. We can do it better with this pressure. It will make us more careful if we tend to be lax in preparation for business meetings; it will make us more restrained if we have a tendency to be motor-mouthed. The opposition is God’s means of sanctifying us and answering our prayers for humility and usefulness. The scorn will keep us looking to the Lord, trusting in him and more aware that this ministry is all about exalting him and not self-exaltation. God resists the proud, but he does give grace to the humble. So opposition is very useful though grievous; it is to be gloried in, and even taken pleasure in as Paul responded to his distresses and necessities.
This is all a build up to say this, that they worst of all oppositions comes from a man’s elders. I don’t know what I’d do if one of my elders became my opponent. I am talking from the perspective of a congregation that can reach a hundred during the university term, with just three ruling elders. It can be different ministering in a church which has twenty elders and one or two of them feel called to be the pastor’s noisome critics. Other elders will balance and silence them, but if it is in our typical small Reformed church structure in the UK then my deepest sympathies are with you if you face elders’ meetings with a heavy heart. I can only say that God has his way of working such situations out and that it is for your future usefulness, but how long you can stick it remains to be seen.
Your elders are your best friends in the congregation. They are not yes-men rubber stamping every suggestion you make. They are not obsequious Uriah Heaps. They are independent thinking spiritual men, prepared to disagree, to over-rule your own plans and purposes. Such times are not to be resignation issues. Are you infallible? Do you not believe in the equality of elders though a differentiation of gifts? You accept their well argued views though disagreeing and your grace in accepting them makes your link with them stronger.
Besides their main tasks of advising and seeing issues that need to be dealt with your elders meet the new candidates for membership and they answer any questions those people ask them. They lead in the admission into membership ceremony having their own roles to play. They take the Prayer Meeting when you have to be away. If you are ill they can take over the Sunday services. Your elders will have delegated functions, for example, one will be in charge of the students, another, of the home for those with learning difficulties, another the Book Shop, another the mission field responsibilities, another the church finances, and so on. Your elders become the target for books and cassettes and they will do the same for you, cutting out columns from newspapers and magazines passing them on to you. If you are involved in counseling issues by Email you can pass on the correspondence to them. If you are addressing questions sent to you by other pastors you can send copies to them so that they grow in wisdom and know your mind. You hang around and talk to them after the services and tell them what is happening in the Christian world. You treat them as your closest friends.
Your wives are also close, full of affection for one another, all having duties in the church, pulling their weight and your pastoring involves making sure that it remains like this, studying peace with all of them. This is the chief means the little bits of flack that occasionally fly your way are put into perspective. Did not he whom we serve meet constant opposition and hatred? Has he not promised us the blessedness of being reviled with men saying all sorts of things against you? Do you not covet, gingerly, that blessedness?
WE PASTOR OUR FELLOW PASTORS.
There is this advantage of attending a local seminary, that you get to know the region you believe you will be working in for the rest of your lives, and you make friends of men who become your ministerial colleagues and brethren, people of your own generation. I missed out somewhat on that, but three years at Cardiff University introduced me to a good group of Presbyterian and Baptist preachers whose careers I have watched while they have watched mine.
Ministerial affection and brotherhood is to be esteemed and nurtured. We have problems with the loner, the pastor who never attends conferences, or attends only those at whom he is speaking. Isn’t he saying, “You can learn from me but you have nothing to teach me”? Conferences are tremendous places to learn, if it is only how other men speak and what they preach. There is usually one message or one speaker or one new friendship or one incident in a conference that kindles a flame in your life. The messages are generally a bonus while the main business of a conference is the conversations and introductions to scenes near and far where strangers are working heroically for the Lord.
A pastor is by definition a people person, one who is involved with a flock, understanding them and helping them. It is not a good sign if he never meets with other shepherds. The shepherds in the hills around our town meet in the cattle market to buy and sell their sheep, yes, but also to talk together about problems and strategies. What of you, pastoral brother? Are you always on top of things? Do you never come across new situations? Do you never walk uncharted territory? To whom do you go for advice? Do you have Spurgeon as your pastor? Or Lloyd-Jones? Isn’t one reason you invest in their writings is to benefit from them pastorally? You begin your pastoring in reading definitively (and then regularly) Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers. It is a book destined never to go out of print until the last day. Do you call your old tutors at seminary for counsel? I found as a student the advice of Edmund P.Clowney very rewarding and he prayed for me every day until he became too feeble to pray any longer. One day he asked me to tell him what my current concerns were; “It gets very demoralizing Geoff just praying to the Lord to bless you each day.”
WE PASTOR OUR CHURCH MEMBERS IN THEIR HOMES.
Just to see that bold heading is to be crestfallen. In the early years with the new congregation it is essential. The pattern of mornings in the study while in the afternoons getting out to know your members is still useful. Yet it is not advisable to visit wives alone whose husbands are at work. You can hang around on Sundays and be like a father to the young women and a brother to those of your age and a son to the old folks. In the evenings they are all busy; there is homework, cooking, eating and the children are to be put to bed. Can you find a time? Saturdays you are preparing. What about Sunday nights after the service for a brief visit? What of vacations? Call them and arrange it. In effect you are saying that God loves his sheep and you bring his love in that visit. If you hear of a hurting time you call. A beloved parent has died and you go to sympathize with the young couple. A child has an accident and your call to find out how serious it is. One of them is in hospital and you must go to see her or him, sometimes each day. Be sensible and wise about that. Take their advice. The rule is whenever it suits them not you. They need not be long and involved visits, just an affectionate contact with them.
You go to read some verses or quote them and pray. You expose your own humanity to them. We are sheep before we are shepherds, and we who minister to them are men who are beset with weaknesses; we see no reason to hide that from our flock. They must see and hear us through the grid of our humanity each Sunday. You must be ready to respond and must also take the initiative patiently and steadily so that some deeper pains come to the service and help is asked for. Do not think that the most upright mature holy men in the congregation do not need or appreciate a visit and a word. I myself am convicted in writing those words! I would be a faithful pastor.
Given at the Banner of Truth Borders’ Conference, Carlisle, November 6, 2009