I must admit that when I was in seminary, shepherding, or pastoral care, did not figure prominently in my understanding of the role of Senior Pastor. If I were asked to name the top qualities of a Senior Pastor, I would have said he had to be fervent in prayer and faithful in study, a gifted expositor, a dynamic leader, clear and sturdy in his doctrinal positions, and able to cast a vision for church health and growth. Sadly, being a compassionate counselor, a patient protector, and a servant to the suffering did not even make my list. My concept of the pastorate was grounded in seeing the church as an organization to be led rather than a flock to be shepherded.
I dare say that elements of this “Pastor as CEO” perspective are still too prevalent in our churches today. Some churches even hire a ministry staff member who is given specific responsibility for pastoral care so that the main preaching pastor is not burdened by such “distractions.” To be sure, some churches can demand so much pastoral care that it prevents their pastor from having adequate time to pray and prepare for the ministry of the Word. That is why a plurality of elders and deacons is so important to help meet those needs and to protect the senior pastor’s time in the study. But balance is key; we must prioritize without forsaking this critical element of shepherding.
Thankfully, the precious saints of my first pastorate helped me to see the immaturity of my earlier thinking and realize the beauties and benefits of compassionate pastoral care. By God’s grace, this is something I got right, and it remains a source of continued growth in my shepherding. What follows are four blessings I have personally realized through the ministry of pastoral care.
1. It fosters a reciprocating ministry of Christ’s love among Christ’s people. In Matthew 25:31-46, we have Jesus speaking of His final judgment. We are told there that the criteria by which He separates the sheep from the goats is how they treated His children who were in crisis. Providing for the hungry, homeless, and naked, and visiting the sick and the incarcerated are essential evidences of His love. We may speak with the tongues of men and angels, but if we do not have love, we are nothing but noisy gongs. Godly love moves us to meet needs. As pastors set the example in practical demonstrations of love, members reciprocate, and the entire body is built up in Christ. (Eph 4:15-16)
2. It is one of God’s means of sanctification. It is in the valleys of crisis, illness, and hardship that we learn greater dependence upon Christ. This is true not only for members of our congregations, but for us as well. It was a thorn in the flesh which brought Paul to realize that God’s power is perfected in weakness. And it was in his restoration from his denials where Peter learned that love for Christ is manifested by tending His sheep. Visiting at the bedside of a cancer patient, helping a weeping mother to release her lifeless child, and counseling a couple through the hardships of marriage are but some of the challenges that grow us, shaping us into better pastors. Charles Bridges, in his classic work The Christian Ministry, wisely said:
“The visitation of the sick also, in the exercise of Christian sympathy, is of the highest importance to the probationer for the Ministry. Lessons are learned here that could never be learned in the study. There the importance of the Gospel may be described or contemplated — here it is realized. . . How important is the observant study of the sick chamber! How fruitful are the instructions connected with it! How varied and direct their bearing upon every department of public and private Ministration! Many have been trained for important usefulness in the Church by frequent, and, in many instances, painful attendance upon this school of instruction.”
3. It builds credibility and accountability between pastors and their congregations. Pastors must remember that we do not preside over our congregations, we lead from among them. As Paul David Tripp said to pastors in Dangerous Calling, “Autonomous Christianity never works, because our spiritual life was designed by God to be a community project.” As pastors and congregants walk together through hardships, the shared experience of God’s proven truths and tender mercies builds a tangible sense of family connectedness and trust. This is a critical aspect of fellowship for us all. And the trust we develop through shepherding proves vital to leading effectively through seasons of change, difficult cases of church discipline, and periods of loss or suffering.
4. It significantly enhances the effectiveness of your pulpit ministry. Preaching is one of the aspects of our ministry in which we take our greatest joy. But we do not preach for preaching’s sake; pulpiteers do not belong in the pastorate. A dear fellow pastor once told me that every time we ascend to preach, we do so with two books in our possession: the Bible, and the book of the human soul. Our calling is to rightly divide the first, bringing it to bear with passion and love upon the second. We learn this second book as we walk the path of human need. As you know your congregation and are known by them, this relational knowledge gives true relevance to your preaching. It is then that your applications of gospel truth will be marked by compassion, depth, and poignancy.
Ultimately, what is ‘right’ in ministry is measured by the standard of Christ. In John 10:11-13, He said, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep.” What is ‘right’ is loving, protecting, and laying down our lives for our sheep, and we embody each of these as we rightly engage in pastoral care.
1. Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (Banner of Truth Trust, Reprinted 2009), 65.
2. Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling (Crossway, 2015), 38.
3. Tom Hicks, Jr. PhD., Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Clinton, Louisiana.