In Footsteps of the Chief Shepherd

Pastoral work undoubtedly can be challenging on many levels. Long hours of studying with a goal of rightly interpreting God’s word, preparing sermons and bible studies, teaching and preaching, intercessory prayer, making and nurturing disciples, guarding against wrong doctrine, planning and strategising, counselling and discipling are what occupies a pastor’s heart, mind, schedule and energies constantly. All this pours out because of a deep-seated love for God and an incessant love for His people and a genuine desire and passion to see God’s kingdom established and grow in people’s hearts and lives. What ought to be a constant encouragement to the pastor and drive him forward is the reminder that pastoral ministry is not a job or a career, rather a divine high calling, empowered by the Spirit of God that compels him to do what he does.

The hurdles, trials and temptations in pastoral ministry, however, are enormous. Why? The enemy of our soul knows that if he can find the shepherd at a weak and vulnerable moment and strike him, then the sheep under his care will scatter and so that is exactly what he aims to do many times. Although pastors may give an aura of strength and stability, the reality is that they are still ordinary and fallen humans, saved by God’s grace alone and striving to follow in the footsteps of the Chief Shepherd.  Sadly, many have fallen because they’ve succumbed to greed, pride, immorality and other vices. By falling short of the standards God gives in the scriptures for pastors/elders, we not only dishonour God and embarrass ourselves and our loved ones but also become a poor witness to the watching world.

The enemy of our soul knows that if he can find the shepherd at a weak and vulnerable moment and strike him, then the sheep under his care will scatter and so that is exactly what he aims to do many times.

Despite my limited experience and brevity of pastoral ministry, I still humbly reflect on the challenges that those in pastoral ministry face more so within the Indian context. I hope this will be of some encouragement to those at a similar stage of life and ministry. This is also by no means an exhaustive list, neither are these issues unique to the Indian context but I hope the biblical principles gleaned can be applied universally. If anything, I desire to encourage pastors to surrender themselves wholly to Christ, depend on His grace and trust His provision as they serve Him faithfully and diligently.

Remain Humble: Pastors serving in an Indian context can often be elevated onto a pedestal. The Indian mindset is that of respecting and honouring God’s servants and showering them with love, gifts and hospitality. Whilst honouring the spiritual leaders that God has set over us is biblical and warranted (Rom 13:1–7, 1 Peter 2:13–17), it is also important to remember that pastors are not to be elevated to the extent that they become the only voice in a person’s life, sometimes even ejecting God from His rightful place in their life. God should retain the primary place in any believer’s life and the pastor’s role is solely to lead, guide and point to God. The inherent danger with such hero-worship is that pastors may begin to think that they are indomitable in life and that they are more deserving of honour than God is. This may cause unwanted attitudes to creep in and when the gates are left unguarded, and room is given for pride and haughtiness this can lead to the pastor’s downfall.

Reject Superficiality: There are many in pastoral ministry who lack depth, motivation and/or commitment, yet continue not because God has called them, but because ministry was either the only available option or the most convenient one to make a living. The aspect of seeing pastoral ministry as divinely ordained and the weight of such a lofty calling modelled upon Christ’s care for his people is grossly undermined. Core aspects of pastoral ministry such as shepherding, sacrificial love and a desire to saturate oneself in the word and allowing it to impact and transform one’s life and then be in a position to teach and exhort others becomes secondary. Their focus shifts to carnal things and how one can somehow benefit from ministry. A pastor needs to guard against superficiality and a ‘performance-mentality’ more so when they are caught up in the busyness of ministry. The sad reality is that such superficiality can go undetected for even a long time and many people are fooled, but ultimately, they cannot fool God or escape His judgement (Mt 7:21–23, Lk 13:27).

Guard from Materialism and Greed: A danger that a pastor could fall prey to is that of materialism and greed. As the congregation grows in number and their giving to the church increases, the tendency of the pastor is to choose to live luxurious and extravagant lives rather than have a stewardship mentality and adopt a sacrificial lifestyle. Many elevate their lifestyles to match with people’s expectations of them and sometime even live beyond their means in order to impress and attract others to themselves. Being a high-profile pastor or preacher can bring along some dangerous temptations to watch out for. An incessant desire for power and authority, greed for money or sex have distracted, disillusioned and toppled many great men of God. 1 Peter 5:2 urges us to willingly shepherd the flock, not pursuing dishonest gain, but with an eagerness to serve. A pastor should guard against materialism and love of money which can deter them from the work of God (Mt 6:24).

The inclination in the Indian context is to save face, and so unrepentant and ongoing sin is often swept under the carpet. Sin is allowed to fester in the individual and among the community of believers rather than confronted and uprooted.

Steer clear of Ethnocentrism and Church Politics: Many times, in pastoral ministry, with a growing trend of multiculturalism in churches, the tendency is to see others through the lens of one’s own biased cultural worldviews. This can give rise to feelings of prejudice, anger even hate. Love which should undergird all we do in pastoral ministry, can quickly disappear and our thoughts, ideas and feelings are tainted with feelings of superiority and intellectual or racial pride. Some even go to the extent of creating division among the flock to suit themselves or secure their own positions. Sadly, their feelings of ethnocentrism are only fully satisfied, when they see those they dislike, suffer. A pastor should not entangle himself in worldly affairs, be judgmental of people or get involved in politics in the church. Such things can hugely hinder pastoral ministry since as a pastor you are called to impartially and objectively shepherd God’s people regardless of who they are or what racial or cultural background they have come from. A pastor should be a good role model in loving, caring, shepherding and nurturing those under his care. Ultimately, your role as a pastor is to unite God’s people under the instruction of God’s word, but not to create unrest, division and a lack of peace (Gal 5:13–15).

Don’t evade Church Discipline: In an honour/shame culture such as is commonly prevalent in India, Church discipline is seldom heard of and practised. The inclination in the Indian context is to save face, and so unrepentant and ongoing sin is often swept under the carpet. Sin is allowed to fester in the individual and among the community of believers rather than confronted and uprooted. Just like a small amount of yeast can leaven the whole bunch (Gal 5:9), in the same way a festering sin that is not dealt with swiftly can cause lots of irreparable damage to everyone involved. This in turn can adversely affect the church community causing division, strife and hostility and prevent it from growing into maturity and gaining God’s favour. Pastors/elders are ultimately responsible for guarding the sheep and disciplining those that are in open, rebellious and unrepentant sin and deal with them firmly and biblically yet lovingly with a view of restoration. Silence or restrain from the pastor is unhelpful and may further damage the congregation. Pastors should not seek to please men rather to please God and have a clear conscience before Him (2 Tim 1:3a).

Strive for Better Engagement and Relevance: In a changing cultural and social context such as in India with many distractions, pastors continue to have the challenge of preaching and teaching the unchanging truth of God’s word without compromise yet in a manner that is relevant and applicable to their congregation with the goal of life transformation. With a plethora of attractive options to choose from nowadays such as consumer-centric churches, contemporary music, charismatic televangelists or online churches, the local church if not relevant and engaging may become unappealing to those in the church much less those on the outside. Those pastors who refuse to put in the effort to ensure that God’s word is communicated effectively and rightly understood and applied to people’s lives, will struggle to retain their congregation and draw them closer to God. Those members that are not fed well spiritually will prefer to be fed elsewhere or even feed themselves in the world and wander away from the church. The caution, however, is to keep the Gospel unadulterated and not resort to unethical and unbiblical methods to attract and retain people in the local church, rather the focus ought to remain on Gospel-centeredness in every approach and strategy in ministry.

Maintain a Healthy Ministry and Life Balance: Pastors sometimes struggle to demarcate ministry and family priorities. The mindset is that ministry always takes prominence and so they neglect the family with the very popular adage that ‘God will take care of my family’. The spouse may often be uncared for and the children may not receive the necessary parental input in their life which allows them to grow spiritually, mentally and emotionally. As a result of which, the ministry may flourish but the pastor’s family has suffered the brunt of his ministry commitment. Researches have shown that children of many pastors and missionaries have negative perceptions of church and ministry and may leave the church having undergone the trauma of the father not being there for them when they needed him most. It is important for the pastor to consider his family as his primary ministry and ensure that he maintains healthy boundaries between ministry and family so that his primary responsibility towards his family is not left undone (1 Tim 3:4). Leaving your family unguarded, gives the devil a foothold into your ministry.

Be Open to Receive Care: A pastor in the Indian context may erroneously think that he doesn’t need to pastorally care for himself. Many times, when personal, health or emotional struggles come up, the pastor refuses to deal with them or share them with others and seek support or help thinking that this may lower his image and perception before others. He forgets that he himself, like everyone else, also needs pastoral care, prayer and support. To this end, it is important for pastors to ensure that they actively invest in mutually edifying and pastorally strengthening relationships that help rejuvenate them on the inside. Only when they are open to receive care themselves and are spiritually mentored and encouraged by others then they can better fulfil their responsibilities towards others (Acts 20: 28a). Shutting themselves off from others, with a fear of appearing weak or vulnerable can give a false sense of ‘I can fix it all’ attitude which may result in pastoral burn-out in the long-term. Overloaded and burdened shepherds don’t make good caregivers.

Cultivate Patience and Trust: A young and inexperienced pastor is tempted to expect quick results from his efforts. They forget that pastoral ministry seldom bears fruits immediately. Ministry is often for the long-haul and even then, the results may not be immediately visible or forthcoming. We move ahead knowing and believing that even as we play our part, God will continue to accomplish His purposes. Patience is a virtue that every pastor needs. Patience to nurture the flock regularly. Patience to see lives transformed, patience to see unbelievers come to the Lord, patience to see families and communities transformed and so on. To aide patience, you need trust. You can truly be patient only when you grow in your trust of God. Ultimately you don’t and can’t bring about change in people. Only God can and so let’s strive in such a way that despite our shortcomings and weaknesses, God can show forth His glory in and through us for His name’s sake.

Intentionally Grow Capacity and Potential: In an Indian context, the perception is that the pastor needs to do and be involved in everything. Without the pastor (and his wife) at the helm, the ministry grinds to a standstill. It results in an unhealthy overdependence on the pastor and his family. The Bible is explicit when it talks about the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet 2:5). Whilst pastors have a certain role to play in shepherding the flock, everyone in the community of believers are called to be priests and minister to each other. So, pastors ought to intentionally encourage people to get involved and take ownership of ministry. Allow them to make mistakes but give them an opportunity to learn and grow. As a pastor, you don’t have to be a know-it-all and do-it-all. Build capacity and second-line leadership so that even if you drop dead today, the ministry can still go on. Ministry doesn’t depend upon you. It is God’s work and you are not indispensable. Pastors should carry on the work of encouraging, engaging and empowering others for ministry.

Ultimately, pastoring is beyond any of us. In and of ourselves we are weak and incapable to do what we’ve been called to do. We are fragile jars of clay that are pressed in on every side, yet God has chosen us in his divine wisdom and placed the treasure of the Gospel within us. This is to show that the power that works in us belongs to God and is for His glory (2 Cor 4:7–10, 15). So, let’s not lose heart (2 Cor 4:1, 16–17). We look to that never-fading crown of glory that He will give us at his appearing (1 Pet 5:4). Brothers, let’s move ahead in faith, trust and confidence as under-shepherds under the Good and Chief Shepherd, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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