Soul Care Is Slow Care

Learning Patience as a Pastor

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Pastor, St. Louis, Missouri

I know I’m supposed to do a big thing famously as fast as I can. I’m supposed to think that momentum is the key. Momentum fuels movements. Movements need influencers. Influencers need platforms. Platforms provide leverage. Leverage creates buzz. Buzz enables us to mobilize people for mission. The mission is our calling and the great need of our generation.

When asked, “What is a pastor?” I’m supposed to answer something like this: a pastor is a gospel influencer who mobilizes people for mission by leveraging platforms capable of building a kingdom momentum that can fuel a gospel movement for God in our generation.

But then I think of Peter preaching. He preached one sermon, and three thousand people converted to Jesus. It never happened again. Did Peter view that sermon like a college football team who won the national championship years ago? Since then, the fans view a ten-win season as a failure in comparison. What went wrong? Why could Peter not keep up the momentum?

I think too of what discipling three thousand people would require. You and I know them as “the Three Thousand.” We slap Peter on the back and dream of the day that God might do the same big moment through us for our generation. But all big moments lead us back to small ones.

Pastors Need Time

Each of the three thousand would have brought wounds, patterns, and wreckage from having lived years without Jesus in the Roman empire. The way the Roman world understood male and female, sexual ethics and practice, politics and class, freeborn versus non-freeborn citizens would have countered the Jesus way. Those who ministered to them in Jesus’s name would get to know the names and individual stories of each one of the three thousand. For the three thousand to grow toward maturing faith, they would require small, mostly overlooked graces of discipleship, day by day, over a long period of time. The New Testament letters bear out the difficulty and the time needed.

“Growing in grace, even for pastors, takes time.”

The preacher himself needed time. Peter preached this sermon, but for three prior years, Peter barely preached at all. First, he had to be with Jesus, watch, listen, learn, make mistakes, grow. Gradually, he could help distribute fish and bread. Finally, with seventy-one others, he was sent out. But he couldn’t be creative. Not yet. Jesus gave detailed instructions on what to do and how to do it (Luke 10:1–16). Then the rooster crowed. It seemed that Peter’s dreams were over. The question, now, had nothing to do with gifts, and everything to do with love. Love had to come first. Love forged the platform. If you love, then feed (John 21:15–19).

Still, when Peter preached this famed message, his understanding of the gospel lagged behind his public gifts. Publicly, Peter heard global languages rising in praise to God. But personally, Peter was still prone to the nationalism and ethnocentrism of his culture. Years on the road with Jesus, and Peter still needs a confrontation from the apostle Paul (Galatians 2:11). And that won’t be enough. The Lord himself, through Cornelius (Acts 10), also must intervene before Peter will treat neighbors who differ ethnically from him as the Lord commands.

Growing in grace, even for pastors, takes time.

Congregations Need Time

Then I think of a woman in my church whom I’ll call Barb. You’ve never heard of her. I’m her pastor. So is Joe. We are called to pray for her and to know her. Over the last five years, her husband of four decades has been slowly taken captive by a disease that is gradually removing him from her, from his family, and from us. He just entered hospice. There is too much room in her bed now. I’m asking this question: What does it mean to mobilize Barb and her husband for mission?

Often, when mobilizing for kingdom work, we try to get the people in front of us to become someone other than who they are, so they can do something different than what they’re currently doing, someplace other than where they are. The faster, the better.

But what Barb and her husband must do as followers of Jesus cannot be done quickly, nor anywhere other than where they are. What Barb must be mobilized to do is to stay daily amid pill bottles, soiled underwear, and grandkids whose names are no longer remembered or faces recognized. To fulfill their gospel mission is to barefoot-walk across the broken-glass steps of grief. To learn how to watch a Cardinal’s baseball game or a Mizzou football game or a grandchild’s smile without the one you’ve most loved in the world. To pray with pain too deep for words.

Barb continues to serve those with needs in our congregation. She exudes the same unselfish graces and gifts we’ve always experienced from her. But sometimes, the tears surprise her while we talk. The tears remind us that learning to overcome death, and then to face life in a completely different way than what we’ve known before, takes time.

Cultivating a Patient Life

So many things take time:

  • pregnancy
  • parenting
  • a marriage rooted in abiding love
  • living as a single person
  • aging
  • overcoming temptation
  • practicing the presence and love of God
  • learning to forgive those whose sins have hurt or harmed us
  • untangling from our conservative and progressive cultural versions of Jesus, and reorienting toward Jesus as the Bible presents him
  • walking through honest questions and real doubts
  • learning how to love people rather than leverage them
  • living as if we are not the ones who hold all things together
  • learning to be quick to listen and slow to speak and slow to vent anger (James 1:19)
  • learning the Bible

Taking time takes a while. Gaining wisdom always does. Being able to both encourage and admonish is a slow business. What does a pastor’s encouragement or admonishment sound like, feel like? We admonish or encourage people with a pace recognizable to God as patient (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

“To stay with something takes long-term vision, the grace to stay put in order to get somewhere.”

After all, to begin a small group is one thing. To stay with the group is another. To begin something takes short-term vision, courage, planning, the energy to sprint, the ability to move in order to get somewhere.

In contrast, to stay with something requires a capacity for boredom, the ability to be with people who are harder to love, the power to notice and derive joy from small, repeated tasks. To stay with something takes long-term vision, the grace to stay put in order to get somewhere.

Isn’t this what shepherds do? Itinerants move about. Shepherds stay for a while, and that’s a kind thing. God has in mind that you’d experience people in his name who walk with you through what you’re going through. Our Good Shepherd takes his time to know your name, to care about your story, to remember details from your life. Shepherds like him weep when you weep, and rejoice when you rejoice. You are known. Being known takes time. God is in no hurry.

I’ve often thought that if Jesus were ambitious for big famous things as fast as possible, he and I never would have met.

serves as lead pastor of Riverside Church in Webster Groves, Missouri. He and his wife, Jessica, are cofounders of Sage Christianity. Zack’s books include Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Struggle with Depression and The Imperfect Pastor.