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The Pastor We All Want

What Sets Good Shepherds Apart

Leadership has fallen on hard times. As a society, we are suspicious of our leaders, often assuming they will use their power for selfish gain, rather than our good. That makes these fearful days for taking and holding office, not just in business and politics, but also in the church.

Some of our suspicion is well-founded. Stories of use and abuse travel faster and further than ever on the rails of modern media. And Christians, of all people, know that, apart from Christ, “none is righteous; no, not one.” How surprised should we be to have it confirmed over and over again?

Yet it is right for us to have and hold higher standards in the church. We believe God changes hearts, and behavior. He gives his Spirit. He works in and through us to progressively conform us to the image of his Son. We expect more of officers in the church, and we should. And as officers in the church, we not only take up the mantle of leadership with sobriety, but with the ambition to show the church, and the world, that Christ calls for a different kind of leader.

Several New Testament texts give us snapshots of Christian leadership that are plainly distinct from prevailing paradigms in the world (among them Mark 10:42–45; Acts 20:18–35; 1 Timothy 3:1–13; 2 Timothy 2:22–26; Titus 1:5–9), but the place I turn most often, and enjoy inviting others into, is 1 Peter 5:1–5. Oh, may God be pleased in our day to raise up and sustain pastors like this, the kind of pastor we all want.

1. Men Who Are Present and Accessible

Peter begins, “I exhort the elders among you . . . : shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:1–2). He says it twice in just one sentence. The pastor-elders (two terms for the same office in the New Testament) are among the people, and the people are among the elders. Together they form one church, one flock.

Good pastors are first and foremost sheep, and they know it and embrace it. Pastors do not comprise a fundamentally different category of Christian. They need not be world-class in their intellect, oratory, and executive skills. They are average, normal, healthy Christians, serving as examples for the flock, while among the flock, as they lead through teaching of God’s word and making wise collective decisions. Their hearts swell to Jesus’s charge in Luke 10:20: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Their first and most fundamental joy is not what God does through them as pastors but what Christ has done (and does) for them as Christians.

Good pastors, therefore, are secure in soul and not blown left and right by the need to impress or to prove themselves. They are happy to be as normal a Christian as possible, modeling mature, healthy Christianity, not a cut above the congregation.

Another way to say it is that such pastors are manifestly humble. After all, Peter charges “all of you” — elders and congregants — “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5). Healthy churches are eager to clothe themselves in humility toward pastors who have led the way in dressing with humility.

Such pastors are not just humble in theory but practice. They are present in the life of the church and accessible. They invite and welcome and receive the flock. They don’t pretend to shepherd God’s flock in all the world, but focus on the one “that is among you” — those assigned to their charge — and they delight to be among that flock, not removed or distant.

2. Men Who Work Together

One of the most important truths to rehearse about pastoral ministry is that Christ means for it to be teamwork, not a one-man show. As in 1 Peter 5, so in every context in which local-church pastor-elders are mentioned in the New Testament, the title is plural. Christ alone sits atop the church as Lord. He means for his undershepherds to labor, and thrive, as a team.

Mature congregations don’t want an untouchable leader, perched high atop the church in his pulpit, safely removed from accountability and the rough-and-tumble exchanges of opinion that make for wisdom. The kind of pastors we long for in this age are good men with good friends — friends who love them enough to challenge their preferences, hold them to the fire, and make life both harder and better, both more uncomfortable and more fruitful.

3. Men Who Are Attentive and Engaged

Pastors also “exercise oversight” (1 Peter 5:2). However fragile modern humans have become, deep down we still do want leaders who don’t just listen and empower, but also initiate and lead. We still want leaders who speak to us the word of God (Hebrews 13:7) and actually do the hard and costly work of governing they have been called to do. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28).

However experienced and gifted good pastors may be, they are not men known for their extensive experience, or their administrative savvy. Rather, they are known as men of the Book. Men for whom having God’s word makes all the difference in leadership; men whose leadership style is Book-based. The Bible is not a supplement; the Bible is central. God has spoken; that changes everything.

We want men who wield great influence as teachers, not insist on control — “not domineering over those in your charge” (1 Peter 5:3). Men who manifestly serve others, not self, with their gifts and authority. Men who actually lead, not just occupy positions and offices of authority. Men who do not treat office as privilege, but as a call from God to die to personal comforts and convenience, and to embrace the harder roads. Men who win trust, rather than presuming it. Men who, as Peter says, “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2), which not only means guiding and feeding, casting vision and communicating, but also defending and protecting. Which leads to a fourth quality.

4. Men Who Lean into Hardship

The true colors come out, for leaders and congregations, when tough days arise. We want the kind of pastors who lean in — not with forcefulness, necessarily, though that may be needed on occasion, but with even greater attentiveness, careful questions, courageous counsel, and ongoing teaching. In conflict, “the servant of the Lord” must not only be kind and patient, and correct opponents with gentleness, but also “able to teach” (2 Timothy 2:24–25). God’s people don’t only need teaching in peacetime, but just as much when times are tough, and even more.

Good pastors rise to the occasion in hardship. Peter’s “So” in verse 1 refers to what he just said in the previous verse (1 Peter 4:19): “let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” The context of Peter’s charge to the elders is suffering. That’s why he turns next to the elders — when times are toughest, the weight falls especially to the elders. And it should.

Good pastors know this, and live this. When the going gets tough, they get more present, not less. When uncertainty emerges, they grow more attentive, not less. Not that they have to be certain, or feign it, but they lean in, and lead together, and lean on fellow brothers in the cause. They do not pretend their way is the best or the only one, but at least, with prayer and counsel, propose a way forward. When they don’t know what to do, they know what to do: look to God (2 Chronicles 20:12). They initiate. They take a risk and put themselves out there. They overcome their fear of being wrong in the hope of caring for others.

To embrace the calling to the pastoral office in the church is to embrace suffering. Pastors suffer in ways as pastors they would not otherwise. But they do so looking to the reward, the gain, the glory commensurate with the work, not shameful but pure: “when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). Which leads to a final quality.

5. Men Who Enjoy the Work

Churches want happy pastors. Not dutiful clergy. Not groaning ministers. The kind of pastor we all want is one who wants to do the work, and labors for us with joy. We want pastors who serve “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Peter 5:2).

God himself wants pastors who labor from the heart. He wants them to aspire to the work (1 Timothy 3:1), and do it with joy (Hebrews 13:17). Not dutifully, or under obligation, but willingly, eagerly, happily. And not just “as God would have you” but “as God himself does” — literally “according to God” (kata theon). It says something about God that he would have it this way. He is a God who acts from joy. He wants pastors to work with joy because he is this way toward us. He is a God most glorified not by raw duty, but by eagerness and enjoyment, and he himself cares for his people willingly, eagerly, happily.

Churches know this deep down — that happy pastors, not groaning elders, make for happy churches. Pastors who enjoy the work, and work with joy, are a benefit and an advantage, to their people (Hebrews 13:17).

Chief We All Want

Such are the pastors we all want. Of course, no man, and no team of men, will embody these dreams perfectly, but men of God learn to press through their temptations to paralysis because of their imperfections. They happily lean on Christ as the perfect and great Shepherd of the sheep, roll their burdens on his broad shoulders (1 Peter 5:7), remember that his Spirit lives and works in them, and then take the next courageous, humble step.

And as pastors learn to live up to these realistic dreams — albeit not perfectly, but making real progress by the Spirit — some aspects of our broken leadership culture will find healing. At least our churches, if not our world, will learn to lay down their suspicion and enjoy God’s gift of good pastor-teachers.