By Pastor Kelly Larson (Bishop Creek Community Church, CA)
In my office upon the wall, near the door hangs a picture; it is a gift I received from a friend shortly after entering the pastorate. It serves as a sober reminder of the privileged call which God has placed upon my life. It is a reminder as I leave for the day, and as I return from the battle in which I am engaged – a battle which is consuming, in time and energy, and at times, in casualties.
You see it is a simple picture, perhaps from the early 1920’s of a sheepdog, perched upon a rock formation intently monitoring a flock of sheep, perhaps thirty or so in number, in the dell below. The sheep are intently gazing to the north, the setting sun falling behind the outcropping of trees in the distance. It is a picture by R.A. Fox entitled “A Reliable Guardian.” So, why would a picture like this affect me so?
It is a reminder of the calling God has placed upon me to be an under-shepherd to the flock of Christ. It is a sober alert of the ever-present threat upon the body of Christ in our post-Christian culture, to protect the flock, from the outside, from the inside, and even from themselves.
When God called me to be a shepherd, I believe he was not looking simply for a “leader”; he was looking for a shepherd. He was not looking for a great communicator, speaker, or an orator, catalyst, strategist, CEO type who has been a part of Fortune 500, or facilitator; or even a teacher. He was looking for a pastor who could effectively handle the word of God in his communication, and walk alongside the sheep for the journey. He was not looking for a “strategist to conceptualize, implement and assign analytically synthesized congregational components conducive to systematic holiness paradigms” – once again, he was looking for a shepherd to foster a love of God and others. I am not saying those gifts aren’t useful, or that they may not eventually translate into effective shepherding, but they are not in themselves, shepherding. A shepherd shepherds.
Congregants are not simply components of a church equation, they are people whom God has placed under our care, custody and authority – to love, nurture, and grow into the image of Christ. I think of a Shepherd dog, Lydia, here in Bishop. As a shepherding dog with shepherding in her DNA, and being around livestock it was her routine to surround and motivate all able parties in her scope of influence to move toward the shepherd of the home, my friend Laura. As Laura would walk, or even when she sat Lydia herded chickens, pheasants, cattle, other dogs and yes, even toddlers closer and closer to her master. I remember she even tried to herd me closer to Laura. That was her task, and she took it seriously. Half of the time, I don’t think all those creatures even realized she was very intentional to bring everything around closer to the shepherd of the home, but she did. I have been reminded of that commission more than once, that it is my privilege as under-shepherd to move God’s sheep, a little closer to the Chief Shepherd.
“Tend my lambs,” “Shepherd my sheep,” “Tend my sheep.” Taken to heart, these are some of the most sobering words of pastoral commission to fall upon any shepherd’s ears. These words of Christ to Peter in John 21:15-18 are still an unfathomable conundrum to me. The difficulty is not solely in understanding their content, but in understanding their desired conduct to affect that obedience; how I am to obey them – feeding and shepherding the sheep in God’s flock.
Somehow, I’m guessing that I am not alone; an understanding of our own great deficiencies hits us all too often. You don’t have to be in pastoral ministry too long before you become keenly sympathetic to those who have pioneered before you and decided that teaching is more the preferred calling. Or that writing is more in line with leading a serene and peaceful life. It comes as no surprise the discouraging statistics of pastoral “wreckage” strewn alongside the highway of ministry that cause some to find employment in a more secular vocation. If we were to rely on statistics alone, they are certainly against us. Suffice it to say that the career lifespan of a pastor is a challenge.
Coming out of Bible college, or the Academy, I felt that if I could just exposit the word with authority; if I could rightly divide God’s word, people would flock into the church and willfully surrender to the transformational truths of biblical teaching. Coming out of the Academy, we are naively ready to launch into virtually anything shepherding has for us.
I loved seminary, yet one thing it often fails to identify is that the sheep in the Kingdom are a very specialized hybrid-highly intelligent, at times carnivorous, and have an incredible desire to exercise their free wills. I have been lied to, lied about, maligned, ignored, gossiped about, slandered, and threatened, and that’s on a good day – what pastor hasn’t? Moses dealt with this. In Exodus, he is advocating for the sheep who God is desiring to terminate. Yet, only chapters later he is crying out to the Lord to deliver him from the stiff-neck people.
The truth is that, in our humanity, we sometimes minister to people daily who we may not particularly like so much, care for, or are drawn to. We are seeking to lead sheep who do not want to be led; to feed sheep who do not want to eat, and to tend those who by no means want to be tended to. I find it interesting how congregants want to hold pastors to some measure of biblical leadership, yet disallow themselves to be held to any measure of biblical discipleship or stewardship. So effectively, people who do not want to be taught or led, nor accountable. We are discouraged by the empty seats on Sunday rather than encouraged by the one which is filled. We have difficulty recognizing true transformational growth in the flock.
Like Moses, we ask, “Lord, why did you call me?” Sometimes we get to the point where we ask ourselves, “What am I doing?” “What am I doing here?” Or maybe, “What did I do wrong to get here?”
Like Peter we affirm our love for Christ, yet are ill-equipped to fulfill with complete integrity and faithfulness the mantle of service to the Lord and His flock.
Be that as it may, what an honor it is to be called to feed the sheep that come. Still, we know we have received a privileged call to shepherd his sheep, to walk alongside, to walk them home. But we can’t change the sheep – that is up to the Holy Spirit and the obedience of the sheep. We can’t change the culture of the church, at least overnight. So, we need to be content to change that which we can.
Maybe you are just beginning your sojourn of ministry. Maybe you’ve been on it a while, a little closer to the goal line. Maybe you’re in a time of blessing, or a time of challenge. Maybe you are in need of a little encouragement, well-intentioned souls to encourage you. Either way, The EFCA Network is intended to help you, even encourage you in your pastoral journey, and hopefully let you know that others have walked, and are walking the same terrain.
[Kelly Larson is an ordained minister with the Evangelical Free Church of America. He completed his PhD in Systematic Theology at South African Theological Seminary in 2015, and he holds an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. Kelly and his wife Suzanne live in Bishop, California where he is privileged to serve as the pastor to Bishop Creek Community Church. He blogs regularly at TheShepherdsPen.com.]