Four essentials of a church: shepherding

Thriving is usually traced to nurture. Whether it’s through healthy parenting, husbandry, or guardianship, things well-cared-for tend to flourish.

This is especially true of spiritual development. Since it is personal, less tangible, and takes greater determination to cultivate, spiritual well-being can’t be homogenized or mass-produced. People need to be personally invested in.

Which sets up a consequential challenge for the determined church. Skillful shepherding is a central reason why followers of Jesus gather, and anonymity doesn’t breed thriving.

The Apostle Paul signals this in his letter to the church at Colossae, where he describes toiling with all his energy to present everyone mature in Christ. The Apostle John also reveals such an interest in his third letter: I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. Jesus, preparing Peter for his future work with the church, repeated it three times.  Feed  my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

The writer of Hebrews adds the element of accountability to church leaders for the well-being of those under their care: for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Accountability to a higher authority lends weight to any endeavor, and it makes sense here. God loves His children and wants them to thrive. So, He entrusts them to us.

What does it look like to “shepherd” each of God’s children? The two best biblical descriptions come from Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34. The first boasts of God’s shepherding, and the second describes healthy shepherding inversely by citing its absence. Here are highlights:

A good shepherd looks after the flock, meets their needs, provides rest and good pasture, strengthens the weak, heals the sick, binds the wounds of the injured, searches for the lost, rescues the strays when they scatter during dark times, deals with bullies and abusers, protects them from predators, and blesses them. (Click here for a more complete list.)

The idea of shepherding is central to “church.” It’s how we love one another toward thriving, which is why Jesus felt compassion for those who were missing out.

The obvious tension here is how one person (or three or eight . . . ) can possibly shepherd a church full of people. I don’t believe it’s possible, and especially not when the only gathering point is a group meeting. That’s why the second element I’d look for in a church is a shared investment in the group.

Training in reality

What Christians believe can be viewed as quaint.

Eugene Peterson refers to this in his book, The Contemplative Pastor, and he doesn’t like it. When some business person shakes his hand after church and says, “This was wonderful, Pastor, but now we have to get back to the real world,” Peterson bristles. He isn’t taking this seriously, he thinks.

Continuing, he observes:

If he realized that I actually believe the American way of life is doomed to destruction, and that another kingdom is right now being formed in secret to take its place, he wouldn’t be at all pleased.

Yes, I believe that. I believe that the kingdoms of this world, American and Venezuelan and Chinese, will become the kingdom of our God and Christ, and I believe this new kingdom is already among us. That is why I’m a pastor, to introduce people to the real world and train them to live in it (page 28).

This merits consideration. As we serve in the local church (or mix with business colleagues), are we reinforcing reality? Here’s how the Apostle Paul described reality to the Ephesians:

All this energy issues from Christ: God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence (Ephesians 1:20-23; The Message).

Revealing reality is hard work. It requires ingenuity, prayerful experimentation . . . and humility. Peterson calls it subversive. I can’t think of anything more significant.

Patrick O’Brian for pastors

My pastor friends inspire me. Their work is redemptive — and rigorous. I see them straining at the oars for months at a time, and I see God’s grace in their wake.

When we talk books, this is what I hear: commentaries, theology, and reference. Also, books about the church, leadership, spiritual life, and social issues. Plus business, history, biography. Books that strengthen souls and sharpen skills.

winedarkseaCuriously, only once have I found a pastor who reads Patrick O’Brian. Why is that? Vivid, witty, and keenly insightful, few books better convey the nuances of human nature and relationship than O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.

For example, here’s an episode that helped me, and I think should be part of every pastor’s mental imagery. It features a season of storm. We’ve all weathered the tempest, and we’ve walked with others through their storms as well. In The Wine-Dark Sea, O’Brian captures the four cycles of difficult seasons in just three pages.

1. All is well. The story begins in the Pacific as the Surprise and her crew chart a course for Cape Horn. They all know tough times are coming, but these are days for covering ground and gaining strength . . .

“I do not like the prospect of this Horn,” said Stephen in a low voice, “or all this haste to reach it. I will need weeks of calm to prepare.”

“Well, Doctor,” said Jack, “some weeks I think I can promise you. The trade [winds] are blowing as sweetly as ever our best friends could wish.”

The promised weeks they had, weeks of pure sailing, with the Surprise slanting cross the prevailing wind and often logging two hundred sea-miles between one noon observation and the next. Weeks of close, satisfying work for Stephen, and weeks of ardent sailoring for Jack, with evenings full of music: fresh fish over the side, and penguins in constant attendance. And when at last the trade winds faltered and left them, within a day the even more favorable westerlies took over.

2. The winds increase. Difficulties are on the horizon, so you order your life and make preparations . . .

Those were idyllic weeks; but how difficult it was to remember them, to call them vividly to mind as an experienced reality, a fortnight after the ship had sailed into the true antarctic — had sailed into that green water at fourteen knots under topsails, fore-courses and a jib, impelled by an almighty quartering wind.

The change was not unexpected. Well before this ominous parallel the frigates’s people had been engaged in shifting, packing and storing her light sails and replacing them with much heavier cloth, with storm-canvas trysails and the like for emergency. Many a watch had been spent in sending up preventer backstays, braces, shrouds and stays and in attending to new rings, robands, reef-points, reef-tackles for the courses and spilling-lines for the topsails, to say nothing of new sheets and clew lines fore and aft. Then again all the hands had rounded the Horn at least once, some many times, and they took their long woolen drawers, their mittens and their Magellan jackets very seriously when they were served out, while most of those who had had any foresight dug into their chests for Monmouth caps, Welsh wigs or padded domes with flaps to protect the wearer’s ears and strings to tie beneath his chin.

3. Hold on! Once the elements let loose you lose track of time, and it’s your deep convictions and wise preparations that make the difference . . .

This serving-out happened on a Tuesday in fine clear weather, a pleasant topgallant breeze blowing from the north-west, and it seemed almost assured: on Friday the ship was tearing eastwards with four men at the wheel, snow blurring both binnacles, hatches battened down, and the muffled watch on deck sheltering in the waist, dreading a call to grapple with the frozen rigging and board-stiff sails.

Presently, in this incessant roar of sea and wind, and in this continual tension, the vision of the warm and mild Pacific faded completely. And after a few days of the first icy blow, when the deathly chill had worked right into the whole ship from keelson to cabin, all hands began to eat with far more than usual eagerness. The roaring westerly storm had sent the ship a great way, at great speed, south and east into the high fifties, a cold region even without a wind: frequent rain; even more frequent sleet and snow; most hands wet most of the time; all of them always cold.

In such very thick weather observation was impossible for days on end, and in spite of his chronometers and well-worn sextant, and of the presence of three other expert navigators aboard, Jack could not be sure of his longitude or latitude, dead-reckoning in such wind and seas being wonderfully uncertain. He therefore reduced sail, and the frigate moved eastwards at an average of no more than three knots, sometimes under bare piles or with a mere scrap of sail right forward to give her steerage-way when the wind blew a full gale from the west.

4. Through the storm. Often without warning, you wake up one morning and realize you’ve made it through . . .

And then there was calm.  The sky cleared and Jack had a series of perfect observations of first the sun, then Achernar, and later Mars himself, positions that were confirmed by the other officers and that showed that in spite of this dawdling their initial zeal had brought them almost to the rendezvous far too soon.

Weathering a storm is a milestone experience. It makes you a different person. Stronger, leaner, wiser. Toughened, yet gentler. Children know you’re safe. Others respect you. They realize you’re less tied to this world.

It also helps to know what to expect, which is why I’ve dog-eared my copy of The Wine-Dark Sea.

And what are those preparations that bring you through the blinding gale? Each of us has our own list. Learning to trust God, investing in genuine relationships, dwelling in the Word, taking care of your soul, casting off entanglements, eliminating distractions, and so on. As Scripture often says, deep roots bear fruit.

You can read about such things in leadership books, but it’s tough to assimilate them without experience — or story. Thank you, Patrick O’Brian.

Keep a safe distance

Following a mentor is like following a truck. Leave enough distance to see where he’s going — and to swerve if he hits a pothole.

If you’re the mentor, encourage those who watch you to learn from your mistakes as well as your strengths. You don’t want them to be like you. You want them to be wiser than you.

We’re all walking in the same direction. Mentors help others go farther and get there faster.

Humility in writing and pastoring

The greatest challenge with wielding influence is getting out of the way. Whether I’m writing, teaching, or praying, my focus often drifts back to me — and I am not the point. Brett Lott references this theme in Letters & Life, his slim volume on being a writer:

I saw, suddenly and fully, that a story was about the people involved. I saw that embellishment brought to the table an unwanted intruder: the author. . . . [that] I had to be the last one heard from in this pile of words I was arranging, and that humility was the most valuable tool I could have, because the people about whom I wanted to write mattered so very much more than the paltry desires of the writer himself. . . . To be a writer is to be humble. To be a writer means to get oneself out of the way” (pgs. 105, 108).

Moving others toward their Lord requires stepping back. Making room. As it turns out, spiritual renewal is preceded by receding.

You see, the only life that pleases God and that can be victorious, is His life — never our life, no matter how hard we try. But inasmuch as our self-centered life is the exact opposite of His, we can never be filled with His life, unless we are prepared for God to bring our life constantly to death. And in that we must co-operate by our moral choice” (pgs. 25-26, The Calvary Road, by Roy Hession).


Jane Austen on being a pastor

These two excerpts, drawn from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, reflect the honor and importance of local pastoring. There’s much to be said about shepherd and sheep knowing each other.

A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the tone in dress. [Rather, he] has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally, which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence. . . .”

A fine preacher is followed and admired; but it is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and his neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct, which in London can rarely be the case. The clergy are lost there in the crowds of their parishioners. They are known to the largest part only as preachers. And with regard to their influencing public manners . . . the manners I speak of might rather be called conduct, perhaps, the result of good principles; the effect, in short, of those doctrines which it is their duty to teach and recommend; and it will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.”

– – – –

“But a parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident, and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. Edmund might . . . read prayers and preach, without giving up Mansfield Park: he might ride over every Sunday, to a house nominally inhabited, and go through divine service; he might be the clergyman of Thornton Lacey every seventh day, for three or four hours, if that would content him. But it will not. He knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey; and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself, by constant attention, their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.”

(Excerpted from Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, chapters 9 and 25.)

What “Christian living” means

Walton is the last bus stop on Michigan Avenue before Lake Shore Drive. When the 147 stops at Walton, every northbound Chicagoan is already packed on that bus. And all twenty people waiting at Walton intend to get on board. When the door opens, the frenzy begins.

But if you read the “Arrivals” sign on the bus shelter, you’ll see the next bus is due in one minute. It will be half empty and its riders relaxed.

To see what’s coming next is to live an entirely different life.

We who read Scripture see what’s coming next. We know there’s more than meets the eye. That Jesus is not merely an idealistic sage who ran afoul of the Romans. That when He appears, we will see Him just as He is (Matthew 17:2; 1 John 3:2). We know that the Apostle Paul was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak (2 Corinthians 12:4), and what he witnessed there informed his writings.  We know that the angels and the elders and the four living creatures and the multitudes are at this very moment surrounding the throne of God and worshiping Him (Revelation 7:11; 19:4-6). We know this life is about doing good, being generous, and blessing others because our real lives are yet to come, with Him, for eternity (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

Scripture is a stadium full of friends who are pointing at the second bus. And we’re at the bus stop, doing our best to help people get on board.