It’s tricky teaching pastoral ministry. While students must be warned of the challenges and hardships of service, it’s not helpful to scare the daylights out of them, either. So, I’ve tried to balance the bitter with the sweet. All of you “veterans” out there know about the bitter, so I thought you’d appreciate some of the sweet.
Here are some thoughts I have shared in class over the years about the great wonder of being called to be a shepherd – whatever your job title, church or para-church, or living your faith in the marketplace. Rejoice in these three marks of privilege as you serve Him today.
The privilege of the call
To be called by God to serve as an under shepherd is an overwhelming concept to lay hold of, as seen in the lives of shepherds like Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Peter and Paul. At first, many resisted; mostly because of the enormous burden such a calling presented. At one point in his career, Martin Luther confided his reluctance to answer the call to ministry in conversations with his spiritual advisor, Johann von Staupitz. In his writings entitled Table Talk, Luther wrote of that exchange: “Under this pear tree I advanced more than fifteen arguments to Dr. Staupitz; with them I declined my call. But they did me no good. When I finally said: Dr. Staupitz, you are taking my life; I shall not live a quarter-year, he replied: In God's name! Our Lord God has many things to do; He is in need of wise people in heaven too.”
In retrospect, these and other leaders saw the wonderful privilege of receiving God's call. King David spoke of his amazement at God's hand of blessing upon his life in 2 Samuel 7:18 when he said "Who am I, O Sovereign LORD, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? (NIV). Paul's sentiments are expressed in several places, but none as eloquently and heartfelt as in Ephesians 3:7 and 8 where he writes, "I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ."
The privilege of the work itself
In the ancient world not everyone saw shepherding as an honorable profession. The Egyptians loathed them, considering them an "abomination'" (Gen. 46:33-34). Nogah Hareuveni, in his excellent book Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage, describes how concerns for agriculture in the Nile delta led to this assessment. Goshen was away from the more valuable fields, so Jacob and his family were allowed to settle there with their potentially destructive, voracious sheep. However, shepherding carried a high status in Israel from those days in Egypt until the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BC. As Hareuveni asserts, "the occupation of the shepherd was considered so important and honorable that it became the symbol of ideal leadership" (p. 19).
In addition to providing such a role model were the more practical, day-to-day reasons for seeing this task as a privilege. Shepherds provided the populace with meat, wool, leather and a vast array of raw materials for the good of the people. In the practice of their faith, the shepherd provided the sacrificial animals that, when offered up with a faithful heart, would symbolize the Lamb of God, who would take away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
The privilege of the perks
My childhood on the farm in Iowa included experience with only one sheep. It was a pet, and we kept it until we could no longer prevent it from raiding the garden. I suppose you could say that it lived up to Pharaoh’s assessment! But working with our numerous cattle gave me a taste of the wondrous variety and goodness of working with living things. I didn't know life was so good back then, but as time has passed, I realize now how blessed I was to be a farmer's son. Pastoral (shepherding) ministry rewards its participants with many a wonder, including:
1. There is the joy of experiencing the spiritual life cycle of believers.
In terms of being there when all the important events happen, there is nothing like pastoral ministry. All Christians can and should share in such joy, but the one called to leadership in the church has what I call a front row seat.
To illustrate, let me tell you about a young couple Rolane and I met at a "birthing" class a couple of months before our twin daughters were born. After one of the sessions we were invited to their home for coffee, and proceeded to embark on a new friendship. Asking me what I did for a living, I told him I was a pastor, wondering how he would respond. He then proceeded to tell me about his brother the Mormon, and so the evening got more interesting by the minute.
The outcome of the encounter is that this couple came to Christ two weeks later, joined our church and became youth sponsors in due time. The husband was added to our staff at a later date, sensed God's call to pastoral service a few years after that, and served over 20 years as a senior pastor. They remain dear friends as we all keep serving Christ in our different venues.
2. There is the joy of dealing with eternal things.
By this I do not imply that work outside the pastorate is a lesser calling. Indeed, all work is good, when done as unto the Lord (Col. 3:17). Yet, like the writer of Psalm 84:10 who penned "Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked", doing the work of God as a shepherd is touching the eternal on a daily basis. Richard Baxter, a renowned Episcopalian minister in 17th century England went so far as to assert in his classic work The Reformed Pastor, "… we have nothing else to devote our whole attention in study and talk than the contemplation of His sacred saving truth. We can keep a continual Sabbath. Whether we be alone or with others, our business is about the other world." (p. 88)
3. There is the joy of being with people and bringing the love of Jesus Christ to them.
David Hansen, in his delightful work The Art of Pastoring: Ministry Without All The Answers, sums up this privilege when he writes: "When I leave a church, it doesn't owe me anything. I'm not its employee; it doesn't owe me a gold watch. Looking back, I feel like I owe them. I owe them for giving me the opportunity to be their pastor. They provided for my family's needs so that I could wander around praying, visiting with people, studying the Bible, teaching it and preaching the Word of God. They allowed me to serve them in the deepest moments of their lives. I have become their friend" (p. 175). Even though not all pastoral experiences command such fond recollection, and we have personally tasted some bitter fruit during our labors, in the final analysis his words ring true.
4. There is joy in receiving the love of the sheep.
Though there have been times of heartache and betrayal, we have found the people God has given us to shepherd capable of deep, generous and abiding love. Through the years, aside from keeping our family fed and housed, the sheep have given us all kinds of wonderful gifts. Among them are:
- invitations to weddings and other family events
- a week in Hawaii
- a week in Newport
- several weeks’ free use of a motor home
- car repair, medical help and countless other expressions of love
Beyond all these wonderful perks, however, is the reward of just being a faithful servant of Jesus Christ, enjoying His unfathomable riches. Of these, and our tendency to be short-sighted, C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospel, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us. We are like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased." (The Weight of Glory, p. 26)
As your work of ministry continues and the challenges pile up, don’t forget the great honor we have as children of God and servants of the Lord Jesus. Hardship we know, but privileged we are!