A few days ago I asked “Do We Care for the Sheep or Do We Use the Sheep?,” and expressed concern that pastors may be prone to neglect caring for the people in their churches in favor of using the people in their churches to fulfill personal ambition. The pastor’s calling is to care for God’s own church, to labor on behalf of God to care for what God loves most. But how? How does the pastor heed this call? Paul says in Acts 20:28 that pastors must “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock.” The pastor cares for the flock by paying careful attention to himself and to them.
The order matters. Before the pastor can do anything else, he has to keep watch over himself. He has to model everything he calls his church to, to be an exemplar of mature Christian character. He needs to be vigilant over his own heart, his own mind, his own life. When we see pastors fall away from the faith through false doctrine or shipwreck their ministries through immoral lives, we can have confidence that in every case it’s because they failed to keep a close watch over themselves.
The pastor who is keeping watch over himself is equipped and qualified to also keep watch over God’s people. In this passage Paul refers to the pastor as an “overseer.” A shepherd doesn’t only lead his sheep to pasture and water, but also watches them to guard them from all harm. In a similar way, a pastor doesn’t just offer his people spiritual sustenance, but also spiritual care and protection. This means the pastor is to keep alert, to serve as a watchman, to pay careful attention to the people in his charge.
Here is the question that has been challenging me: Can a shepherd care for his flock if he doesn’t know his flock? Can he be faithful to his charge if he doesn’t really know his sheep? Can he keep watch over all the flock if he is not familiar with the individual lives and challenges of the flock?
And this is where I wonder if in many Reformed churches, we may over-emphasize the pastor’s preaching ministry and under-emphasize the pastor’s one-to-one ministry (or counseling ministry or catechizing ministry, or whatever you wish to call it). Now, please don’t get me wrong: I love the emphasis on preaching within Reformed churches. I’m glad we are well-served by seminaries that emphasize the training of future preachers, by conferences and seminars that seek to sharpen existing preachers, and by shelves stuffed full of books about the task of preaching. I’ve got no doubt that preaching is one of the ways the pastor can keep watch over all his flock. But I do have doubts that it can be the only way or even the most significant way.
I’m often struck by what Paul says in verse 20: “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house.” It’s that house-to-house ministry that I keep thinking about. It seems that Paul was preaching to the assembled congregation, but also meeting with individuals or families.
I don’t think it’s possible for a pastor to keep watch over all the flock only from the front of the room on Sunday mornings. Neither do I think he can faithfully discharge his responsibility by ensuring the church has a counseling ministry to whom he can refer people who need care, or by telling people he is available to them if and when they need something, or by emphasizing the “one another” peer ministries in the church, as if Ephesians 4:12 allows the pastor to outsource pastoral care to the congregation. At the end of the day, I think he can only faithfully care for the sheep if he is consistently seeking out the sheep and being with the sheep. You might say that a faithful shepherd smells like his sheep!
I am challenging myself and everyone else who is an elder or pastor in a church to consider how we are “paying careful attention to the flock.” I am challenging us to ensure that just as we are faithfully preparing excellent expository sermons through which we are feeding the flock, that we are also faithfully pursuing the people in our churches so we are caring for the flock. We can only care for the flock by paying careful attention to the flock and I’d suggest we can only pay careful attention to the flock when we are seeking out each member of the flock, inquiring about the state of their souls, praying for their individuals concerns, encouraging them where we see evidences of God’s grace, counseling their unique needs, helping them gain knowledge where they are ignorant, and assisting them in obedience where they are disobedient. Just as we fulfill our ministry by ministering God’s Word to the assembled congregation on Sunday mornings, we fulfill our ministry by ministering God’s Word to individuals through the week.
Pastor, keep a close watch on yourself. Ensure that your life is free from sin and hypocrisy and that your doctrine is free from mischief and error. And then keep a close watch on every one of these precious people purchased by God’s own blood and entrusted to your care. Be prepared to give an account for each and every one of them—that you faithfully taught them when they assembled, and that you faithfully cared for them as individuals as long as God called you to oversee them.