Living Closely Among The Sheep

Posted by Rural Missourian on Jun 25th, 2008

I want to thank my good friend Allen Shropshire at Promised Land for sending me a timely word of much needed encouragement along with a poignant article, So You Wanna Be a Shepherd, written by Christian film producer and author Bill Kinnon. It’s not often that I get such a kind affirmation from outside the small congregation I pastor, though I must say that the flock here in Rayville is a great encouragement to me, even with all my faults and weaknesses. Mr. Kinnon’s poignant article is both a breath of fresh air and a sober reality check, a reminder that some jobs are not always pleasant nor sought after in this world, unless of course they have been modified and “upgraded” to keep up with it. In these cases “pastoring” can be quite alluring and lucrative, for by covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words.

The true job of a biblical shepherd is to faithfully work closely in and among the sheep of his care and that within the sweaty fields of the real world where the offensive stench of the old man, both of the sheep and the shepherd, can be smelled by all. These less than idyllic realities shock many young pastors, which is why many leave the calling every year, as the meager pay and pain that often goes with such dirty work is simply not worth it. The statistics for pastors leaving the ministry are most grim. Likewise, the difficult earthly realities of living in regular, close fellowship is also why many sheep steer clear of close relationships with each other, as they prefer the independent life where others can be kept at a pleasant smelling, manageable arms length. Is it any wonder that American Christendom is as shallow as the world, if not worse? You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men (Mat. 5:13).

For a pastor or elder, therefore, to get truly close to his sheep—as a fellow sheep with blind spots, sins, and weaknesses—is to set himself and family up in a fragile glass house where stones inevitably land, because they can never please everyone, nor should they seek to, less they become mere manpleasers. I speak from years of painful experience, the glass house life is particularly difficult on the pastor’s family, and those that end up hurting you the most are usually those you get closest to from within the flock. A brother offended is harder to win than a strong city, and contentions are like the bars of a castle (Pro. 18:19). Get seriously hurt a couple of times and the desire to exit stage right or create thick walls of protection become overwhelming.

This is also perhaps why many pastors seek the anonymity of large churches where they can remain at a safe distance from the flock through various layers of relational and bureaucratic insulation. And since many sheep expect their leadership to live near flawless lives, according to their own exacting expectations, it becomes easier to live up to these ideals by maintaining a healthy distance from the sheep where many of their own human weaknesses and faults cannot be seen by them. Adding to the difficulty in this age of the “victim mentality” is the fact that one can be sued for just about anything. Sadly, it has come to the point where getting close to others means working with very real liabilities, which is why many pastors withdraw in calculated isolation so as to protect and bring a measure of peace to themselves and their families. And to be quite frank, I do not blame them at all. Living life in close relationship with the flock becomes a real quandary for the true shepherd, a most difficult tight rope to walk, where the stress can be most debilitating.

My thirteen years of experience as a pastor in serving the Lord in a small flock reminds me of a scene from the movie, To Kill A Mockingbird. Miss Maudie Atkinson, a neighbor of Atticus Finch, tries to explain to his son Jem the very painful difficulties and real world liabilities his father faces as an attorney in seeking justice for all whom he is called to defend . . . and this within a small town where certain folks vehemently hate others on the basis of race. Tom Robinson, a black man and client of Atticus Finch, has just been tried for the rape of a white woman and found guilty when it was quite obvious he was not. Tom is soon shot to death in a frantic escape attempt just after the verdict was read, as he knew that he likely faced certain death in prison at the hands of those so affronted by such a culturally repulsive crime. Not only has Jem witnessed the trial and verdict, which devastated him, but he also witnessed firsthand the many times his father was publicly accosted, slandered, spat in the face, and threatened for defending Tom Robinson. Many were the bad reports of his father that were spread and readily received throughout the community by foe and supposed friends alike, all of which developed his “bad reputation.” In this very powerful scene Miss Atkinson seeks to make sense of it all to a troubled Jem by telling him, “I don’t know if it will help saying this to you, some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us, your father is one of them.” Some aspects of biblical pastoring falls into this category.

The Apostle Paul had much to say concerning all he went through as a shepherd of the sheep (2 Cor 11:28). He was a common man called to take on a very difficult and, I am sure at times, unpleasant task. He had this to say about his experiences in living out the calling given him, But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things (2 Cor. 6:4-10). I believe he would have the same to say today had he served in our generation, as the nature of fallen man and sheep have not changed.

Much of what Paul suffered was at the hands of those that professed to be Christians, as a friend and fellow pastor recently reminded me, Ironic, is it not, that for us that love the Lord and have devoted ourselves to His church that often the greatest pain we endure is from those who profess Christ?! Hands on, close pastoring is hard enough as it is, which is why I believe the Scriptures have this to say to the sheep about the account their pastor and other elders must make before the Lord for thieir souls, Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you (Heb. 13:17). It would behoove all saints to walk in their pastor’s moccasins for a bit, so they might appreciate the difficulty of their calling.

Let me end this posting by making it clear that it is not the bemoaning of sour grapes that I write this. Pastoring has been and still remains highly rewarding for me, though it has its difficult, stressful times, and not only for me, but especially for my family, who have been most supportive and longsuffering with the calling. As hard and frustrating as it is at times, the Lord has enabled me to stay the course, but only by His abundant grace and mercy. Whether it always pleasant or not, it is His calling for me, which means that in serving Him in it I’ll find the greatest fulfillment and joy as a believer, trials and tribulations included. Until such time as He is pleased to relieve me from my duty, Lord willing I will remain at the post He has appointed for me.

I have never sought to make pastoring a career or means of advancing up the ladder of the corporate church. And in these days of rampant antinomianism, preaching the Word of God as the absolute, transcendent standard for the whole of man for the whole of life does not build large congregations, especially when the truth steps on the toes of those who serve and worship our sacred American, debt-based economy. Yes, I have made plenty of mistakes that have really hurt and not only myself but others around me. This painful awareness coupled with an acute knowledge of my own human shortcomings has tempted me on many occasions to leave the ministry altogether and for good, as moving out of the glass house of leadership into the more private sanctuary of civilian life, as just another sheep, can be most appealing.

This is why I personally thank all of you saints that have supported and stood beside me through thick and thin. I am sure all pastors worth their salt will agree with me that having members of their flock that are loyal and supportive of them, even having smelt their human weaknesses, is a treasure of great value and not all that common in these days of rampant church hopping and bad reports. For all of you faithful sheep that haven’t let your pastor know how much you stand behind him, do him a very encouraging act of appreciation, tell him, and then back it up by being there for him, consistently, giving him the benefit of the doubt knowing your own human tendencies, for he is just as much a sheep as you, only he must lead the charge up a very steep mountain in living out the true faith once delivered to the saints.  Besides, who knows when the Lord may call some of you men reading this to the office of a shepherd of the flock and some of you ladies to stand beside your husband as a helpmet to him in this difficult calling? — The Rural Missourian