*This blog was originally posted on May 1st, 2018. It is republished here for its continued relevance.
I have pastored in Louisville, KY for nearly 30 years. Louisville, as many of you will know, has become something of the American Mecca for Reformed Theology. This is in large measure to the labors of Southern Seminary and Dr. Albert Mohler. Among the privileges that come from laboring in such a town is the opportunity to meet and, in some cases, pastor young men aspiring to the work of the ministry. Inevitably such young men display academic competence and theological acumen. There are, however, several aspects of life and training which are often lacking if a man is to pursue a faithful and beneficial ministry in the long term. In this post, I will deal with the matter of a shepherd’s heart. When I speak of ‘heart’ I am addressing the matter of one’s thinking, affections, and consequent actions. I have often found that theology students love theology and that they tend to delight in one another. What I am most keen to see in them is a love for their own flock in which they are members. As a pastor who is always on the lookout for men who can and will serve the Lord here or in other places, I am concerned that they be skilled in the truth and in the passionate, accurate, clear and practical application of that truth in teaching. I am interested to know that these are godly men who spend time with the Lord in the word and in prayer. I want to see men who are in the battle in regard to their sins. But what I am most interested in is this—are these men shepherds? How do you tell a shepherd from a non-shepherd? You watch him around sheep. Sheep are drawn to him and he is drawn to them. While I understand that men training for ministry are not yet shepherds, this is the work to which they aspire. Not to be theologians, not to be professors, not even to be preachers—to be pastors, shepherds who care for the souls of their sheep. To that end allow two exhortations towards those who aspire to ministry as well as those who are in ministry.
True shepherds know their flocks and are known by their flocks
This truth is laid out both implicitly and explicitly in the scriptures. This is an aspect of the shepherd/sheep relationship Jesus himself highlights in John 10:14, “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.”
To the casual observer, it may seem odd that a shepherd can actually know his sheep. Don’t they all look alike? Aren’t they all the same? Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, asserts that he knows his sheep individually and intimately.
While no earthly shepherd can fully know the sheep the way that the Lord does, nonetheless, there is something here that any shepherd after the Lord’s heart will embrace. The pastor must, in the words of Proverbs 27:23, be diligent to know the state of his flock.
The day is coming when every pastor will give an account of his stewardship. Every true-hearted pastor lives day by day with the reality of Hebrews 13:17 impressed upon his heart, “They watch over souls as those who must give an account.” How can any man do that if he has no knowledge of the people to whom he preaches? Ask any earthly shepherd about his flock and he is ready to answer. How many sheep does he have? Which are the strongest? Which are the weakest? What do they need to survive and thrive? The pastor knows these things because he lives and labors among his people. They matter to him.
He knows their weaknesses and their vulnerabilities. Pastors, likewise, are to live and labor among a people to whom they are attached with deep bonds of affection. Pastors are exhorted by Peter to shepherd the flock that is among them, exercising (putting into practice) the oversight (1 Peter 5:1ff). The phrase ‘exercising oversight,’ means to carefully look after. What is the state of the flock? Are they thriving? Struggling? Weary? Troubled? Worldly? Are they in the Word? Do they have a solid assurance? Are they benefiting from the ministry? Are they at peace with their brethren? How are things in their homes? What are their peculiar burdens? Do the shepherds know these things? Do the shepherds care? Pastors must see these things as being a part of their calling and stewardship for which they will give an account.
This knowledge goes both ways. Pastors are not to be enigmatic figures to their congregations. Paul commanded the believers in Thessalonica in reference to their elders, “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you.” (1 Thess 5:12) The word translated as ‘recognize’ in the NKJV is translated by others as respect, honor, or appreciate. The KJV gives the word as ‘know’. These various English words are attempts to translate the Greek word eido. The word means to know, to perceive, to pay close attention, to inspect or behold. The sheep know whether or not their pastor is qualified, not merely on the basis of his pulpit skills and theological acumen, but because they have some knowledge of his life. He is a man, after all, who is given to hospitality.
True shepherds love their flocks
“The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep.” (John 10:13) The actions of the shepherd differ from the actions of the hireling due, in large measure to his affection for the sheep.
What makes the earthly shepherd stand his ground when the wolf attacks? Is it simply a sense of duty and stewardship? Is it that he is fearful of his job or the wrath of the owner? Jesus tells what places him squarely in the way of danger—he cares for the sheep. His heart is towards them.
Love is the most essential element of the Christian faith. All believers are to experience a principled, Spirit wrought affection for one another. There is a special sense in which pastors are to love those entrusted to their care. The opening salvo of 1 Corinthians 13 has much to say to men in the ministry: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” What good is preaching, what profit or power is there in study and counseling if the pastor does not love those to whom he is preaching?
If a shepherd is to labor for any length of time it is essential to share the heart of Paul expressed in 1 Thessalonians 2:7, 8 “But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. 8 So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.”
There are men who, out of principle and force of will, strive to give their lives to the flock. They will preach to them and pray for them at the cost to self or health or family, but such an endeavor, if it is not steeped in love, will build resentment in the long haul, towards the brethren, towards ministry and ultimately towards God himself.
Jim has been with RBC since 1990. He was set aside by the church for full time ministry in November of 1991. Jim was brought to faith as a teenager and soon began to experience a desire to preach God’s Word. He trained for the ministry at Columbia Bible College in Columbia, SC (now Columbia International University) and at the Trinity Ministerial Academy in Montville, NJ. He married his wife, Becky in 1989 and they have been blessed with three daughters and one son.