The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Weary shepherds

with one comment

As I speak with my fellow-servants, one of the comments that many make is of their sense of weariness during this season. Several of them have mentioned this in different ways at different points in their experience. Let me suggest several ways in which they are feeling particular pressures.

To begin with, we have our usual work to do. Much of it is hidden. That is always true. In some senses, we have advantages. There are parts of lockdown life that feel fairly normal to many of us. If we are to be properly equipped for the work of ministry, we will be often alone, praying and studying. We are used to being, under God, our own masters, organising our own schedules and filling our days with productive investments. Our lives tend to alternate between periods of intense isolation and periods of intense engagement with others (either individuals, or smaller or larger groups). There is a lot of pouring in and a lot of pouring out, and not always much in between. So, unlike some other workers, we are, in principle, able to continue those more isolated aspects of our normal routines and labours without much interruption. Most of us are still doing what we normally do, in that respect.

We also face many of the pressures that others are facing under these circumstances. Perhaps we have young families. Despite being classed as key workers, most pastors with school-age children who are not home-schooling already are now home-schooling, and they are often doing so in their working environment. There is an invasion of time and space into the periods and places in which we are perhaps accustomed to hours of undistracted labour. Or, we are now not able to go out to the places in which we were free of the distractions of younger children. Perhaps older overseers without children at home, or those with more gregarious personalities, appreciated the stimulation of social contact with other family and friends, and are now deprived of that, and find the extended distance from others oppressive. We all lack the relief of being able to spend time with our fellow church members and other friends. We may find that the church budget is strangled, and our salaries are cut; that brings its own fears. We may find we cannot easily get the exercise we need. In a season when it seems like our natural tendencies are being amplified and intensified, we are dealing with our own sins and weaknesses, with our own fears and concerns. We are concerned lest, in this way, we should sin against God and his people. We are often repenting to our families of our edginess and irritability as we find ourselves stripped down by the pressures of the moment. We become agitated, and we need constantly to remember that we are not intended to carry the church by our own strength.

We have all the normal business of the church upon us. People have not stopped being people just because they are stuck at home! God’s people are all wrestling with the unusual pressures of this season, and some of them are in danger of cracking. All the challenging situations and individuals are still there, some of them already growing worse, others just stewing and waiting until the lid is pulled off the pot again. There is church administration that still needs to be done, despite the limitations of the moment. There are other labours in which your pastors may be involved which continue to demand their time.

We have all the additional business of the church upon us. Much of the work above is needing to be done in novel ways. Not all of us are technophiles and some of us are technophobes and neophobes. Some brothers have been exhausted having to come to terms with radically new ways of doing even a little of what they before have done. For pastors with smaller churches, many have had to figure all this out for themselves, or in concert with a few equally ill-prepared friends. See that poor quality video where your pastor is brushing his hair and checking his teeth and talking to himself? Yup, it looks really bad, but he’s really stressed because he’s got little idea what he’s actually doing, and then he’s got to put up with the embarrassment, perhaps, of watching himself back and seeing his incompetence and awkwardness being broadcast to anyone who cares to see. Those first couple of weeks, in particular, he may have been in a flat spin for days on end, trying to work out how he was going to do something like feed the sheep under these circumstances. Many pastors are older men, and what is normal and natural for a younger guy feels like a strange new world to some. Some slept for no more than a few hours each day for days on end as we tried to adapt to this. Some of us had haranguing phone-calls or accusatory emails from church members (or other interested members of the wider community, including other believers) who thought we were doing too much, not enough, or everything wrong.

Some of us, in company with many others, are losing friends and family members to Covid-19 and other diseases. Some of us are taking funerals of people we knew and did not know. Some of us are desperately sick ourselves, or have family members who are struggling. Some of us are stepping in to help brothers who are laid aside during this season.

We have upon our hearts the care of the church for which we have, under God, a responsibility. The people of God are constantly upon our hearts. It is hard for us to communicate to someone who does not know this the sense of it. We have sheep who were already isolated because of sicknesses or sorrows, who are now even more cut off. We have sheep who are now more isolated or isolating themselves, men and women who do not, old shepherd 1cannot, perhaps will not engage with others by the limited means now available to us. We tremble for them. We see some of the sheep with weaknesses and sicknesses that are now advancing in the absence of the regular use of the regular means of grace. We may be caring for the sick and dying at a distance. We may be trying to work out how to buy or use masks and gloves and going into high-risk environments to care for those on the verge of death, and then wondering whether or not we can safely go home to our families, if we have them. We have people who are panicking and others who are wilting. We have sheep that have not yet been gathered who we cannot reach and to whom we cannot speak and with whom we cannot plead face to face. We have people who are complaining and questioning, becoming bewildered or frustrated. We are dealing with a number of people who, caught up in their own troubles and sorrows, act as if they are the only people with whom the pastors (or others) need to be concerned. Problems that were only bubbling are now boiling over as the heat is turned up. Yes, we see grace shining, too. We see saints who are stepping up and reaching out. We see gifts being exposed and employed that we might never have imagined. And we have to fight to keep our eyes on the pinpricks of light in what can, on some days, feel like a very dark night. We know we should be praying more, but we are struggling to find another hour in the day to set aside for more concentrated intercession. We do not begrudge these extra demands, but we do not always know how to respond to them. We may have wider responsibilities, too, caring for or counselling other ministers or investing in other spheres and congregations. Congregations without their own preachers are calling upon settled pastors for additional sermons, some pre-recorded, some live.

So we are adding to everything else our efforts to reach out to God’s people under these circumstances and hold together a scattered flock. We are calling round the congregation week after week and finding that just doing that can sometimes take a couple of days. We are finding that many people like the idea of web-conferencing, but if you say yes to every suggestion that you get together online, you can end up with whole mornings, afternoons or evenings just swallowed up with not very much, day after day. We are concerned that this might prove a sifting time, when fringe attendees and non-committal members just drift further and further away. We are concerned for the fragmentation of the congregation. We wonder what we will have to learn and re-learn when, by degrees, we start returning to something that will become normal, and may not be like the normal we had before. We are conscious that the house of feasting and the house of mourning may only be a step away from each other for the church at the end of this.

And we are trying to feed the flock. What means do we have available? How do we use them? Should we record sermons? From our church buildings or from our living rooms? Should we do live teaching? At the regular hours? How does this effect people with little or no internet access, little or no digital equipment, little or no technical aptitude, particular challenges or limitations, including physical disabilities? How easy will people find it to listen, or pray, or sing, at home, alone or with others? Should we preach shorter sermons? Should we continue with our regular series or preach something suited to the moment? What is suited to the moment? Do we need to be reminded more of God’s sovereignty, or justice, or mercy, or power? Do we need words of comfort, or prompts to self-examination, or calls to repentance, or just a more regular diet? Do we need all of the above?

And the preaching itself is hard work. We are speaking in a vacuum. Some are ministering through a lens, speaking to an invisible congregation, concentrating without external prompts and helps, trying to be engaged and engaging. Others have multiple faces on a fairly small screen, straining to gauge the mood and the responses of those to whom we are speaking without half the normal immediate feedback of seeing faces and bodies in their normal spaces and moving in normal time. We have few encouragements in ourselves or from others that anything actually hits home. We feel like we are casting our bread upon the waters, and we have no notion of whether or not we will find it again at any point in the near future. We cannot gauge whether or not the sheep are being well-fed. Even our normal encouragers may have their avenues of communication choked off. The people who normally give little in person are perhaps not even present on camera, or are even flatter there than usual, or—we fear—may not be engaging at all. Perhaps there are new faces on the web-conference, and we are striving to make the gospel clear. We hope that people from our communities are listening or watching, and we want them to hear of Christ and be saved. We go home exhausted, feeling flat and washed out. And what will happen when things begin to ease? Will we first be allowed to meet in smaller groups? What then for the more vulnerable who will still be kept away? How will we feed a flock that is half-gathered and half-scattered? How will we round up the ones who have wandered? How will we bind up the broken, bruised and battered from this season? How will we keep some people from overwhelming others when we come back together, and keep others from being overwhelmed? How will we mend any breaches? How will we foster a renewed and deeper sense of our commitment to God and to one another? What will we have lost? What will we have gained?

Why, then, do I say this? This is not a whinging article, written out of an overwhelming sense of self-importance and self-pity. It is not a denigration of the efforts of other workers, nor a dismissal of their weariness. It is not a backhanded plea for appreciation and applause. It is not a less-than-subtle way of talking about myself or a particular friend or friends. It is a genuine reflection of various conversations. It is a reminder of the reality of pastoral labour and a hint toward understanding. It is intended to prompt some genuine awareness and a proper sympathy. It is meant to be a help to us to understand our elders, so that we can properly pray for them and otherwise support them.

Your pastor is not after a medal. He is not seeking a certificate of commendation. There is a reason why the typical metaphors of pastoral ministry are military, agricultural and athletic. He signed up for a job of real work, and most of his rewards are deferred. But even soldiers and farmers and wrestlers get bruised and wearied in the work. I write because at the end of this period of lockdown, you might have a very weary, nearly broken pastor. Most of his labours are unseen. That is part of the calling. The parts you see are the tip of the pastoral iceberg. We do not know yet what will be the effects of the ending of lockdown on our humanity. I have seen suggestions that there might be some parallel in the experience of released hostages. Some have suggested that a brief season of euphoria might be followed by a period of crushing aimlessness and even despair. And your pastors will, God helping them, be there for you then as well. So, now and in days to come, do remember their labours. Remember that the treasure is in earthen vessels, dull and cracked. As you consider what has happened, is happening, and will yet happen, do not forget to pray for them. As you are able, support them. Heed their counsels and receive their investments. Encourage their hearts.

And brothers, do not over-isolate yourselves. Do not give yourselves something like an Elijah complex. If you have fellow-elders, make sure that you are in close touch with one another, taking time to care for and pray with one another. Reach out to friends, to brothers-in-arms. Find a friend, a counsellor and companion, if you do not have one. If need be, reach out to a man you know and trust in order to get what you need, humanly speaking. If all else fails, reach out to a trustworthy man that you do not yet know. Talk these things over, pray these things over. And that is the great remedy, in some senses. Take yourself to the throne of grace. Bring all these cares and concerns before the Lord your God, before the Great Shepherd of the sheep, before your Good Shepherd, who loves you with an unbreakable and unshakeable love. He upholds the weary. Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Take what burdens you to God, casting all your cares upon him, because he cares for you.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 9 May 2020 at 06:35

One Response

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  1. Thank you Jeremy, this is a word in season.

    Andrew

    Andrew Coats

    Saturday 9 May 2020 at 08:56


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