In 2016, Mercy Me released the single “Dear Younger Me.” The popular song is birthed from lead singer Bart Millard’s reflections on a troublesome childhood. The message considers the advice he might offer were he afforded the opportunity to speak to the 8-year-old version of himself. That idea is most intriguing. Consider the possibility of giving counsel to your younger self, especially in light of pastoral ministry. What advice might a seasoned pastor offer the younger version of himself as he begins pastoral ministry?
In my case, I would impress on that young man the importance of intentionally learning to relate to God’s people as a shepherd. Scripture often describes God’s people as a “flock” and “His sheep.” Coupled with the charge given to “shepherd the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3), it seems fitting for the pastor to grasp some important shepherding principles as he leads his congregation. While the list of such principles could be lengthy, I would suggest these five “musts” to my younger self beginning to shepherd the people of God.
1. A good shepherd must be compassionate.
Sheep are sensitive, fragile creatures that require a measure of gentleness. They can become distraught, easily disoriented, and filled with despair. A good shepherd must be mindful of their fragility in order to lead and care for his flock well. There is a clear and present danger of callousness in pastoral ministry. The regularity with which you are exposed to people in vulnerable stages of life can lead to a hardened heart, losing sensitivity to the dangers surrounding the sheep. The antidote for callousness is compassion. A good shepherd must be compassionate toward his sheep if he is to serve them and lead them effectively in Kingdom ministry for the glory of God.
2. A good shepherd must be patient.
Sheep are senseless, frustrating creatures that can try the patience of the most caring and disciplined shepherd. A casual reading of Exodus and Numbers reveals how easily Israel was deceived by either themselves or others. The people quickly turned to idolatry while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Law from God. They constantly complained about circumstances, consistently questioned leadership, and refused to enter Canaan even though they possessed the presence of God and the promise of His deliverance. Scripture recounts that they reasoned among themselves to return to Egypt as slaves. It is hard to imagine a level of senselessness greater than when one desires slavery over following God in faith.
Moses’ relationship with the people highlights the need for patience in a shepherd. For the most part, Moses sets the example well, but even he grew weary beneath the load of senseless behavior. In one act of anger and frustration, Moses disobeyed the Lord, and it cost him dearly. After shepherding Israel for 40 years in the wilderness, he would not join the sheep in the grazing fields of Canaan. Instead, he would die and be buried on Mount Nebo. Learn from Moses’ shepherding example. There are times in pastoral ministry when frustration with the sheep you serve will be overwhelming. You must learn to be patient. Failure to do so will only serve to bury you on Nebo and keep you from ever entering Canaan.
3. A good shepherd must be firm.
Sheep are stubborn, foolish creatures. Rarely, if ever, do sheep discern the presence of a dangerous predator. Often, one will wander from the flock and hardly seem to be aware of its vulnerability. Indeed, much of the history of Israel seems to be one bad decision after another. Refusal to heed Joshua and Caleb’s counsel to enter Canaan, the desire for a king like the surrounding nations, and compromise with pagan peoples within their borders are just a few of the plethora of the poor decisions of God’s people.
Pastoral ministry is one of the most difficult tasks known to man. It is the nature of humanity to rebel. This stubborn streak in God’s sheep often emerges as the shepherd attempts to guide them along the Lord’s path. A good shepherd must learn to balance his compassion with strong leadership, and his gentleness with firmness. Ultimately, the responsibility and accountability of a good shepherd is to the Great Shepherd who commands our loyalty and obedience, whether popular or not. Be gentle, because sheep are fragile; but also be firm, because sheep are stubborn.
4. A good shepherd must be loyal.
Sheep are relational, familial creatures. The bond between a shepherd and sheep can be quite strong. Such a relationship demands loyalty. Sheep need a shepherd who is intentionally committed to them. Pastor, be careful to guard your heart. The temptation to be envious and covet a flock other than your own can be immense. It is easy to desire another flock when they appear to be more appealing and healthy than yours. Do not be so easily fooled. Every flock has sensitive, senseless, stubborn, and sick sheep; and every shepherd faces the same issues. Be loyal to the Great Shepherd and to the flock over which He has made you an overseer. Certainly, He can move you wherever He desires, but unless/until He does, remain loyal to sheep He has given you to serve.
5. A good shepherd must be diligent.
Sheep are treasured, favored creatures. The Great Shepherd loves His sheep. Such royal devotion demands a resolute diligence from those who serve the sheep. Pastor, no one loves your church more than God, and because God loves your church, she deserves your diligence. Study well. Invest deeply. Serve all. Work hard. Do all of this unto the people of God, but for the glory of God.
God has made you an overseer of His flock. He treasures them. They are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation”; they are “a people for God’s own possession” (1 Peter 2:9). Your church is His church, your flock is His flock, and both God and His people demand your diligence, loyalty, leadership, patience, and compassion. Listen carefully, young man: Start well and finish strong, faithfully shepherding the sheep of God!