By Eric Reed
When I was in seminary in the early Bronze age, there was a lot of talk about how pastoral ministry was changing. The church growth movement had taken hold, and many aspiring pastors seemed called to build great seeker-sensitive churches like one of the two model megachurches in suburban Chicago and near Los Angeles.
The motivational leaders of the day told us how these pastors weren’t shepherds any longer; they were ranchers. In order to build a great church, the lead pastor (also a new term at the time) must give to others the time-consuming work of congregational care while focusing their own attention on leadership, prayer, and preparation of the Word.
That sounded biblical to me.
The first deacons were called so the apostles would be freed for their preaching and teaching ministries (Acts 6:3-4). And Paul was clear in his teaching to the leaders at Ephesus about setting up their ministry: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:11-12).
It’s time to recover the lost art of pastoral care.
That message found a ready audience among seminary students who envisioned fielding a team of highly skilled deacons or elders to visit the hospitals and console the shut-ins. The saints would do the work; the pastors would prepare the saints and dispatch them. And when the budget allowed, we would all add one or two of those new degreed Christian counselors to the staff with expertise to handle the hard cases.
It was a beautiful picture of how it ought to work. Here’s the problem: It didn’t really work.
A philosophy of ministry that “frees” the pastor from contact with church members in their time of need ignores the model of Jesus himself, and it deprives the pastor of his best opportunity to bring meaningful spiritual help when people are hurting.
Jesus chose the word “shepherd” to describe himself. And in his teaching on “the good shepherd” delivered just before his death, the Lord’s heartfelt concern for his flock and his personal contact with them is clear. Jesus might have chosen other words, but he didn’t declare himself the chief steward or centurion or theologian. He didn’t call himself “lead” anything. He chose the simplest word and the humblest position to describe his personal work—and ours. The word often translated “pastor” is poimen in Greek; it means, literally, shepherd.
In separating the sheep from the goats, the outstanding characteristics of those closest to Jesus and most like him are these: They fed the hungry, clothed the naked, housed the stranger, and visited the sick and imprisoned.
Gone are the days when people stayed in the hospital for a week or two, and the pastor was expected to visit every day. Even major surgeries are outpatient or overnight events. And whether it’s in major metro areas or distant rural places, travel takes time—sometimes several hours roundtrip. People don’t have the same expectations for pastoral care today that they did a generation or two ago—until they really need it.
Even those who say they don’t want the attention will say afterward they were blessed by a visit from the pastor. These days, it’s one of those things you don’t know you need until you need it.
The recent news that Baby Boomers are returning to church is a two-edged sword. Hooray, they’re coming home! But there’s a lot of them, and they’re getting old. All these seniors will need spiritual care, and I think in a lot of cases, the pastorate is out of practice.
We’ve had the church-growth generation of ranchers—skilled in management and motivation. That has given way to a generation marked by a high view of theology, and their role as chief discipler and guardian of truth. What I hope we see next is the return of pastors, the men of God called to be shepherd, who enjoy caring for the sheep.
I remember during my first full-time ministry position, we got a call at the church office. A couple had suffered a miscarriage and they wanted the pastor to come to their house. The pastor was new at that church, a recent seminary graduate, and I was the youth minister. “Come, go with me,” he said. “I’m not sure what to do.”
When we got there, the couple cried. My new-to-ministry co-worker hunted for appropriate Bible verses and offered consoling prayers; I handed them Kleenex. Mostly we just sat there with our sorrowing friends. That’s all they wanted. Just be there.
Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist.