The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘pastoring

Weary shepherds

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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

Face to face

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We still hear a fair amount about incarnational ministry. Unfortunately, it too often refers to choosing the right T-shirt, identifying the right body piercing, listening to the right music, and so on. It too rarely refers to a readiness to put down your phone, pod, pad or whatever else you might be using, and give your undistracted attention as a physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual presence to the person or people who need it. That is what a pastor does.

@ Reformation21 Blog.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 8 June 2012 at 08:19

Posted in Pastoral theology

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Evidence of malevolence

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If you wanted evidence of the cruel intelligence and brutal vindictiveness of the Adversary, ask a preacher about the coincidence of his preparations and temptations. You will begin to understand why it was that Luther flung an inkpot at the devil while seeking to translate the Scriptures.

I attempt to explain why here.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 22 March 2012 at 22:04

Paper pastors

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Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 2 April 2011 at 08:05

Posted in Christian living

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The pastor, the pulpit and the potty

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Brian Croft had a phobia about cleaning toilets. I don’t know if I could say that I have a phobia about it, but I would readily acknowledge that it isn’t a pastime I would choose to pursue. When my family’s time comes round on the cleaning rota, I have no instinct to step forward on this particular duty, and there are times when, if the job does fall to me, there is an air of grimness about the whole affair.

When Brian first arrived at his church, he realised – painfully and then peacefully – that there was not such a great gap between the pulpit and the potty as he had imagined, much to his sanctification:

I no longer clean toilets as a pastoral weekly duty. I have a dear, faithful servant in our church who now takes on that task and many others like it to allow me to address other pastoral needs. But after doing so for 3 years, I am grateful I did and what I learned. I now manage my heart in such a way that I would be willing at any time to do it again if there was a need to do so. The lessons about pastoral ministry I learned from being on my hands and knees scrubbing toilets in the church restrooms although unexpected, have been immeasurable in value.

While you can read the whole thing here, it is a good reminder that only those who are ready to do the lowliest jobs qualify themselves for the highest. It may be the closest we get to kneeling at the feet of a disciple with a basin and a towel. It is a reminder to me that, next time the cleaning rota throws up my name, it may be time to step forward.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 15 March 2011 at 16:13

Posted in Pastoral theology

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Ready to go

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Conrad Mbewe has some stimulating challenges, directed primarily to missionaries but equally relevant to pastors on the home front, about the practical atheism that often cripples the would-be minister of the gospel:

What is it that is stopping them from laying both hands to the plough? The common answer to this question is something along these lines: “I need to build a house first before I can go.”

He points to the example of our Lord Christ:

My argument here is that the worthiness of a cause can be seen by how much people are willing to suffer for it. Look at the price that Jesus paid when he incarnated among us. He left the splendour of heaven knowing his destiny was not only the lonely hill of Golgotha but also years of hardship and tears. Why? It was because of the worthiness of the cause. His sacrifice was going to result in the salvation of billions and, above all, it was going to bring glory to our great God.

Here is his closing appeal:

Let me end with an appeal to all of us to bear in mind that the Lord will certainly reward us for any sacrifices we make on his behalf. He is no man’s debtor! When Peter said to Jesus that they had left everything to follow him, his reply was, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:28-30). Think on these things!

We are often concerned to establish a given level of comfort, security and stability before we make a decision to serve Christ.  We say, in effect, “I will serve you, as long as you do not make it too hard.”  Again, we need to remember that the crucified Christ called upon his disciples willingly to embrace a cross, to take up an instrument of death, and to follow him.  Perhaps today we are too inclined to take up our pillows.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 9 February 2010 at 16:52

John Murray on ministry

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My friend Martin has cleaned up the text of the pastoral charge given by Professor Murray to which I referred earlier.  Here it is in its restored glory:

“You have been called as minister in this congregation and you have been ordained in pursuance of that call. There are many functions which devolve upon you in that particular capacity, but I want to draw your attention particularly to two of these functions because I believe they are the two main functions which devolve upon the minister of the Gospel. And these two functions are the preaching of the Word and pastoral care.

“Now first of all there is this duty of preaching or teaching the Word. You are to labor in the Word and doctrine. And in connection with that function I want to mention three things.

“First, do not burden yourself and do not allow others to burden you with other business so that you are deprived of the time and energy necessary to prepare adequately for your preaching and teaching administration. The Word of God indeed, in all its richness and in all its sufficiency, is in your hands. It lies before you. But in order that you may discover the richness of that Word and bring forth from its inexhaustible treasure for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for the instruction which is in righteousness, there must be the blood and toil and sweat and tears, the earnest labor, and the searching of that Scripture, and in application to its proper understanding, so that you may be able to bring it forth in a way that is relevant in your particular responsibility.

“The second thing I want to impress upon you is that you realize deeply and increasingly, your complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit for understanding of the Word and for the effectual proclamation of it.

“Now that is not the counsel of sloth. That is not to be an alibi for your earnest labor and the study of the Word of God and your earnest application to effective proclamation, and neither is that a counsel of defeat. Your absolute dependence upon the Spirit of God – this is the counsel of encouragement and confidence. It is the Spirit and the Spirit alone who gives the demonstration and power by which the Word of God will be carried home with effectiveness, with conviction, and with fruitfulness to the hearts and the minds and lives of your hearers. It is He and He alone who produces that full assurance of conviction, and it is your reliance upon the Holy Spirit that in the last analysis is your comfort.

“The Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost. And do not be so God dishonoring as to pray for Pentecost. Pentecost is in the past. Pentecost was a pivotal event in the unfolding of God’s redemptive touch, when the Holy Spirit came. The Holy Spirit abides in the church. He came and He abides in order to perform those functions which Jesus himself foretold: ‘When He, the Spirit of Truth’ is come, He will convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment, and that He will also glorify Christ by taking of the things which are Christ’s and showing them unto us.’

“It is necessary, it is indispensable, however, that you earnestly pray for the unction and the power and the blessings of that Holy Spirit. Because it is only if there is that accompanying demonstration of the Holy Spirit and the power that men and women will be arrested and stunned with the conviction of sin. And it is then that they will give expression to the word of another, ‘What shall we do to be saved?’ Likewise, in that particular situation of overruling, overwhelming conviction produced by the demonstration and power of the Holy Spirit, that you will be able, by the understanding given by the Spirit, by the unction imparted by the Spirit, to bring into that conviction of need, that conviction of sin, that conviction of misery, the unsearchable riches of Christ.

“That is my second aspect of this charge. To realize more and more your complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit. It is as you will realize your complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit, that you will be more diligent in the discharge of all the duties that devolve upon you in the understanding of God’s Word and in its effective proclamation.

“Third, I wish to mention, in that precise connection, that you are to think much of the privilege. You are to think indeed of the responsibility, and I have said enough with respect to that responsibility already. I want particularly to impress upon you now the appreciation of your privilege.

“It is yours to be a fellow of the Gospel – of the glorious, the blessed Gospel. It is yours to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ. It is yours to be the ambassador of the King eternal, immortal, invincible. It is yours to be the ambassador of him who is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, of whom you have heard already that He walks among the candlesticks. There is no greater vocation on earth. There is no greater vocation that God has given to any than the vocation of proclaiming the whole counsel of God – proclaiming the gospel of the glory of the blessed God, and proclaiming the unsearchable riches of the Redeemer. Think much of your privilege.

“Now second, you have the pastoral care. That is an all important aspect of a minister’s responsibility and privilege.

“There are likewise three things that I want to mention in connection with that particular function, and the first is this: Shepherd the church of God. I personally cannot understand those men who have been called as pastors of churches who neglect the pastoral care of the people committed to their charge. I cannot understand it. And I’m not expected to understand it, because it is part of the mystery of that iniquity which too frequently has overtaken those who have been called into the ministry.

You do not get your sermons from your people, but you get your sermons with your people. You get your sermons from the Word of God, but you must remember that the sermons which you deliver from the Word of God must be relevant. They must be practical in the particular situation in which you are. It is when you move among your people and become acquainted with their needs, become acquainted with the situation in which they are, become acquainted· with their thoughts, become acquainted with their philosophy, become acquainted with their temptations, that the Word of God which you bring forth from this inexhaustible treasure of wisdom and truth will be relevant and will not be abstract and unrelated.

“Second, in connection with this very same subject of pastoral care I charge you to be ready always to give an audience to your people. I mean an audience to them as individuals, or an audience to them as families. Be in such a relation to them that they will make you their confidant, and take good care that you will be their confidant. And as you will be their confidant, they will pour out to you the bitter experiences of their heart, the bitter experiences of their souls, of their lives. I charge you, my very dear friend, to be the instrument of dispensing, I say the instrument of dispensing the ‘oil of joy for mourning and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness’ to those who are broken in heart and weary in the body.

“Now there is more, of course, involved in that ministration of comfort to the people of God in the temptations and the trials which necessarily overtake them in this life. You must also bring the counsel of God, the whole counsel of God, to bear upon them where they are. And it is just as you bring that whole counsel of God to bear upon them in your pastoral visitation, that you bring it to bear upon them precisely where they are. Remember that there are many who, in accordance with the address which you have heard already tonight, are going astray or are on the verge of going astray, or perhaps have always been astray. And remember the inestimable privilege that is yours, to convert the sinner from the error of his ways, to save a soul from death, and to hide a multitude of sins. ‘Reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and doctrine.’

Now thirdly and finally, I charge you to remember that you are the servant of Christ in this pastoral care which you will exercise. Oh, be friendly to your people, and be humble. Be clothed with humility for ‘God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble.’ Be clothed with humility in the pastoral visitations and the pastoral duties that you discharge because, if you are not humble, you will not only be offensive to God, but you will soon become offensive to all discerning people. Be friendly, be humble, realize your own limitations and be always ready to receive from those who are taught in the Word as they communicate unto you who teach. But remember that you are the servant of Christ and do not seek to please men, for if you should seek to please men, you are not the servant of Christ. And again, I repeat in that very same connection: Don’t be afraid to reprove, don’t be afraid to rebuke, just as you may not be afraid to exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine.

“I give you these charges, in the humble expectation and the hope that you will become an example, that you will be an undershepherd, realizing at all times, that you will one day give an account to the great Arch-shepherd who himself gave, as the Shepherd of his sheep, His life, ‘that they might have life and have it more abundantly.’

“And I charge you, in constant dependence upon the Holy Spirit to be the minister, the administrator in Christ’s name, of that life which is nothing other than life everlasting.”

– A charge to Wayne F. Brauning, DMin 1993, at his ordination and installation as pastor of the Fifth Reformed Presbyterian Church, Phila., PA on October 13, 1960 by John Murray, prof. of systematic theology at Westminster.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 31 August 2009 at 16:53

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