Patristic Wisdom on the Focus of Pastoral Ministry

I am working my way through Christopher Beeley’s recent book Leading God’s People: Wisdom from the Early Church for Today, and have enjoyed it immensely. One particular section was very good and I wanted to share it with you. Beeley discusses the focus of pastoral ministry. He highlights the others-centered nature of the pastoral vocation:

“At the end of the day and at the end of a lifetime of ministry, the only thing that matters is whether we have made the love of God and the spiritual growth of our people the top priority. What most excites a true pastor is not his or her reputation or advancement, but the growth and well-being of the church” (13).

This is exactly what Paul exhorts in Ephesian 4:12-13: Christ gives gifts for ministry “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Indeed, Peter was given the same exhortation when Christ told him to “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19).

The early church fathers understood this others-centered and sacrificial nature of the pastoral vocation. Beeley shows us many of the primary sources to prove this point. Gregory Nazianzen wrote that the entire purpose of leadership is to promote the good of the whole body (Oration 2.3). Augustine gave a sermon on the anniversary of his ordination in which he spoke about this flock-centered focus: “This burden of mine, about which I am now speaking- what else is it, after all, but you?” (Sermon 340.1).

Furthermore, the real success of a pastor’s ministry is tangibly seen in the spiritual health of his flock. Paul uses this same argument in 2 Corinthians 3:1-3 when he speak of the Corinthians has his letter of recommendation, rather than his own credentials or abilities (14). Similarly, Ambrose made the comment that the leaders of real distinction are those who “win their victories in the contests that their disciples undergo, rather than in their own,” (Duties of Leaders, 1.205). He goes on to exhort church leaders to “Show your virtue in your spiritual children.”

This understanding of pastoral ministry is merely the application of Christ’s call to pick up our cross and die. Jesus taught that in order to become great in the kingdom we must be willing to become the least. Pastors must model this in their own vocation and be willing to serve humbly, accepting the pain and trials that come with serving sheep that can bite. But, by doing so, we will be modeling the great shepherd, who served quietly and humbly, giving up His life so that those biting sheep we serve may be saved.