This past Sunday was my last Sunday as pastor of the English congregation at Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church. After over seven years of ministry here, it is time to move on. It was a difficult decision bathed in prayer and godly counsel. That being said, as I enter this time of transition, it is an opportunity to look at my time here with objectivity and reflection.
In many ways, being a pastor is comparable to being a farmer. It is a life of faith, trusting God to do His work in and through you to make an impact in the lives of the people God has entrusted into your care. It is a lot of hard work investing in helping people in order for them to discover Christ and to grow in faith. In the end, the fruit, the harvest is up to God. The pastor’s role is to be obedient and faithful.
Much of the effort required reminded me of when I went to school in Saskatchewan. I did my internship at a small rural church. Visitation consisted of going out to farmer’s homes and helping them with many of their farming tasks as we talked about life and faith. One of the jobs was going into the fields and picking rocks out of the fields in preparation for seeding. Most of the time the rocks were small and easy to gather and toss into a pile, but sometimes you would find rocks that required two hands or a machine to lift them out of the ground.
This task makes me think of our leadership responsibility as pastors. The load we carry takes two hands. On one hand, we carry a sense of sacred responsibility. What we do as pastors are heavy. It is serious and it matters. We have been entrusted with a precious congregation that God loves. We have been given a Great Commandment and Commission that impacts eternity. That is sobering.
On the other hand, we carry a sense of joy and adventure and honour. Ministry is a “get to”, not a “have to”. There is no higher honour than to be called to pastor the bride of Christ. We have the incredible joy of watching people’s lives get transformed by the gospel and we get to do it sharing life together.
It really does take holding both realities in tandem that keeps us healthy in ministry. So, how can you do such an important thing and yet not lose the sense of adventure and joy? Let me ask it another way. How do you not let the burden of ministry rob you of the blessing of ministry?
I believe 1 Peter 5 provides some insightful advice for all of us who serve in ministry. In 1 Peter 5:1-3, we read this: “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”
When I read these verses, the first thing I notice is that Peter’s advice is not theoretical. He says “I appeal as a fellow elder…”. He knows what it is like to be down in the trenches of leading in a local church. So Peter goes on to tell his readers to “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…” Leading as a pastor means caring for the flock God entrusts under your care.
Of all the metaphors God could have used for what we do, the primary metaphor he chose was that of “shepherd”. It is not CEO, leader, visionary, or executive. Rather, it is the image of a nurturing, personal, caring shepherd. Exodus 28:29 says, “Whenever Aaron enters the Holy Place, he will bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart on the breastpiece of decision as a continuing memorial before the Lord.”
Every single time Aaron went into the Holy Place he would wear a breastpiece that had 12 stones in it. Each stone represented every man, woman, boy and girl in the nation of Israel. It was a tangible reminder that as priests and pastors we are in the people business. I love those words “he will bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart”. This is what I will miss the most… the relationships.
It reminds me of the words of the apostle Paul in Philippians 1:7 when he says, “It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart.” True pastors love the sheep. Caring for the flock starts with loving the flock.
But the question comes up… why? It is because these are the people “that God has entrusted to you”. Being a shepherd means leading responsibly, not as managers, but as ones who truly care for their well-being. Like our own children, people are not entrusted to us to be lorded over. Firstly, it is unhealthy for us to start to think that our ministry belongs to us. We must be careful about the subtle use of personal pronouns…”my church”…”My people”… “My ministry”.
I have used these phrases myself, but I think it is good to regularly remind ourselves that ultimately our people and ministry belong to God. It is His church, not mine. I am really an under-shepherd serving on behalf of The Chief Shepherd. The church is not my own personal business. As a steward (pastor), I should lead the church in the way that the owner (Christ) wants me to lead on His behalf. It is most healthy to view our ministries as stewardship, not ownership.
Those words from Peter also remind me that I am responsible only for the flock that God has entrusted to me. I am not responsible or accountable for the flock that God has given you or any other church or in our church, any other congregation. It is easy as a pastor to sometimes look over the fence and wish we had somebody else’s flock or take on responsibilities that are not our own.
So let me jump back to the question I asked at the beginning. How do you carry the responsibility of being a pastor without losing your sense of adventure and joy? In other words, how do you not let the burden of ministry rob you of the joy of ministry?
Again, 1 Peter 5 gives us some insightful advice that can help us answer those questions. Peter goes on to address some of the challenges of shepherding the flock. The first is to “watch over it willingly, not grudgingly…” In other words, we are to lead with joy.
It is a privilege to look after a congregation. But when we are dealing with problems or “running on empty” or counselling that needy church member, pastoring can begin to feel like a “burden” rather than a “joy.” It reminds me of the rebuke that Malachi gives those who were leading in ministry in his day. We read in Malachi 1:13a, “And you say, ‘What a burden!’ and you sniff at it contemptuously,” says the Lord Almighty.”
Carrying out the duties and responsibilities of ministry had become a hassle for the priests. The result was that they began to disdain the very thing that was intended to draw them to the Father. The reality is, none of us are exempt from the danger of cynicism and turning ministry into nothing more than a job.
In my life and ministry, I have found that comparison is the enemy of serving “gladly”. I have been to many pastor’s gatherings and heard and seen pastors comparing flocks and ministries. It is easy to fall into the comparison trap. To be honest, I too have looked at other pastors and wished for their situation, their location, their congregation, or their gifts. Comparison always robs us of joy and is never helpful. It either leads to feelings of pride or inadequacy.
Peter moves on to encourage pastors to lead unselfishly. He says in verse 2, “…not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God.” Like all followers of Christ, pastors need to regularly die to self. They must keep showing up week after week caring more about the sheep than about your income, the house you live in, the size of your congregation, or how well known you are.
I read a story about a reporter who was interviewing a woman who played in an orchestra. She asked, “How does it feel to get a standing ovation from the crowd at the end of your performance and then wake up in the morning to a negative review in the newspaper?” Her response was even more insightful. She said over time she has learned not to pay attention to the applause of the crowd or the disapproval of the critics. She was only after the approval of her conductor. After all, he was the only person who really knew how she was supposed to perform. It sounds a lot like Galatians 1:10, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Peter goes on to say, “not lording it over those entrusted to you…” Pastors are to lead with humility. This is all about servant leadership. Pastors do not lead from position, power, or prominence. What gives us credibility as shepherds is not our vision casting ability, persuasive communication gifts, or strategic thinking… it is your willingness to pick up the towel and serve the people that God has assigned to your care. That is why pastors need to see themselves as a fellow sojourner.
Lastly, Peter says, “but being examples to the flock.” Pastors are called to live authentic lives. Leading by example is difficult. These words from Peter remind me of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:1 where he says, “follow my example as I follow the example of Christ…”
When I was a kid in school we used to have something called “Show and Tell.” The idea was that you were supposed to bring something from home that you could show your class. Actually being able to see the object was way more interesting than simply being told about it. The same is true with the Christian life. Beyond just preaching (telling) about the Christian life, when we model (show) what it looks like it is far more interesting and compelling.
But then we come to where I am at today. What has led me to resign from being the shepherd of these people whom I love and whom God has placed under my care? As I make this transition, I have asked myself this same question over and over. Whenever a pastor resigns, the answer to this question will often with a super-spiritualized comment like, “The Lord led me…” Although this is ultimately true, the answer is often more complex and difficult to address. In the end, one of the major things that led to my departure has been the effects of our current pandemic. Running on empty without a way of refilling it has left me exhausted and in need of a break.
In the end, let me say that I will miss the people of ECBC and the opportunities to make an impact for the kingdom of God in Edmonton and the world. But let me also say, as the church moves forward to finding a new shepherd, I would encourage you to ask any potential candidate, “Are the people that God has asked you to lead on your heart?”
If I am honest, I would have to admit that sometimes the people God has asked me to shepherd have been on my nerves than on my heart. The truth is, I know that relationships can be messy and people, pastors included, can be obstinate and frustrating. But in the end, what I take away is whatever I contributed to their lives pales in comparison to what they added to mine.
So to the people of ECBC, the flock who were under my care, “May the Lord continue to bless you. May He raise up a shepherd who will equip and empower you to fulfil the tasks which God has prepared for you. May you grow together in faith and as a family that demonstrates love for one another and a desire to reach the world for His kingdom and Glory.”