Invisible Pastors

Any church that includes questions to ministers-elect in their ordination or installation to service will, in some shape or form, ask a question about the candidate’s commitment to the pastoral care of his people. This is very much in keeping with the practice of caring for the needs of God’s people as described in the Bible. But it also reflects the pastoral care exercised by Christ himself as ‘the great Shepherd of the sheep’ (He 13.20). Strangely, however, this component of ministerial responsibility often seems to disappear in the way ministers fulfill their duties.

It may partly be due to an artificial distinction that has crept into the way ministry is perceived by ministers and, in some cases, taught by seminaries and training institutions. They contend that those who serve are called as ‘ministers of the word’ therefore their remit goes no further than their study of the word with a view to teaching/preaching it to their people. Add to this the growing trend towards ministry teams in churches – with duties divided into categories from Executive Pastor right through to Kindergarten Pastor – and direct care for people gets increasingly pushed to the edges.

One of the most insightful challenges to this drift is found in Paul’s charge to the elders at Ephesus during his brief layover on the beach at Miletus en route to Jerusalem. In a hyper-compact word of counsel to these men, he says,

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which [lit: ‘among which’] the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he has bought with his own blood. (Ac 20.28)

Their flock was in need. Indeed, as Paul warns them in the very next verse, ‘savage wolves will come in [or, ‘arise from’] among you and will not spare the flock’ (Ac 20.29). They needed their pastors to protect them.

The implication behind Paul’s statement about the Holy Spirit’s having placed these men ‘in’ or, better, ‘among’ the flock is that they should be visible to the sheep. In any agrarian culture, the idea of a flock of sheep being cared for and protected by an absentee shepherd was oxymoronic.

In church terms, this is even more true when we listen the archetypal Shepherd as he describes his own approach to pastoral care in John’s Gospel. There he says his sheep ‘listen to his voice’, that he ‘calls his own sheep by name’ (Jn 10.3) and ‘his sheep follow him because they know his voice’ (Jn 10.4). What he describes metaphorically, he displays personally in his own ministry. Jesus did not pastor his people remotely; he invested time in them. He got to know them with all their foibles, failures and needs. He cared for them. He often wore himself out through the sheer effort he devoted to healing the sick, comforting the fearful and looking out for them all – even the little children who his disciples saw as an unnecessary nuisance.

So how does this square with the approach to ministry presenting itself as the new norm? No one would argue with the contention that the minister’s primary calling is to be a servant [minister] of the word. His calling from beginning to end is to be under the word of God in thought, word and deed, as well as ‘in the word’ through his studies. All this in order that he might proclaim that word, not just verbally, but existentially through his life and example. Yes, the proclamation component of that task is crucial, but it is not the sum total of what it entails.

There will be many times when he is called to minister the same word he preaches from the pulpit in one-to-one contexts with people from the pew: at the bedsides of those who are sick, hospitalised, or nearing death. With young couples getting ready for marriage, parents struggling with the challenge of rearing children. He will be called to speak an ‘in season’ word to those whose lives are unravelling personally, relationally, professionally or whatever. So also to young Christians, new to the faith and in need of basic instruction and other believers who wrestle with doubts. The list of potential pastoral scenarios is almost endless. But they all have one thing in common. They need human contact in order to deal with them. Even if it only means ‘weeping with those who weep and mourning with those who mourn’, there is no substitute for personal involvement.

At another, but no less significant level, ministers of the word cannot fulfil their calling to preach the word effectively without having some meaningful and direct knowledge of their people and their needs. When this happens (and it happens all too often) sermons become academic and detached. They may well offer true expositions of God’s truth, but if preachers are disengaged from the lives of the people who hear them, that truth becomes null and void in their lives and experience.

Such ministerial knowledge of the members in a congregation can only come through ministers getting to know those members. And not just through a superficial handshake on their way out the door on a Sunday morning. In scriptural terms, those who minister the word are not merely preachers/teachers, their calling is to be ‘pastors and teachers’ – or, as Paul’s statement can also be rendered, ‘pastor-teachers’ (Eph 4.11).

When this is the case, pastors will no longer be invisible to their own people (let alone to the world). As they are seen and known, they will grow in the esteem and trust of their people and, significantly, they will be heard more eagerly in their 35 minutes of ‘pulpit glory’ week by week.

Mark Johnston