Effective preaching must be aimed at the head and the heart. A stale academic lecture is not savory on Sunday mornings. Likewise, an emotional appeal without any real substance is equally distasteful. A good pastor will work hard to connect to the minds and the souls of his hearers.
Without question, one of the most effective ways to penetrate the mind and heart of people is through the use of metaphor. As Timothy S. Laniak suggests in his book Shepherds After My Own Heart, the metaphor is a "meaning maker." Metaphors make intangible things tangible and allow the hearer to enter the sermon and to experience the message in a more profound way. The metaphor gives the message some "taste and see."
One of God's favorite metaphors in the Bible is that of a shepherd. All throughout the grand story of Scripture, the importance of leading the flock comes shining through. Abel kept flocks. Abraham amassed an enormous amount of sheep and goats. Moses and David were the two central, prototypical leaders of the Old Testament, and both were trained for leadership in the pasture with a flock. When the Old Testament prophets began speaking, they spoke against the negligent shepherds of their generation and predicted a time when a greater Shepherd would emerge.
The Old Testament is only half the material on the use of a shepherd metaphor. At the opening of the New Testament era, Jesus arrived on the scene and pitched His tent with human beings and joined the flock. Later, He declares His mission to seek and save the lost sheep (Luke 19:10) and reach out and claim the sheep that are not of this pen (John 10:16).
After the central events of the Bible take place—the death, burial, resurrection and ascension—Jesus called forth undershepherds, or pastors, to lead the flock of God. The vast portion of Scripture that we label the epistles is essentially instruction to equip the undershepherds as they seek to lead their respective flocks.
Finally, as the Bible came to a close in John's apocalypse as God's people are to be blessed and relieved as they finally are guided into a fold of rest: "The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; He will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Rev. 7:15-17). Clearly, God loves the idea of a good shepherd and a good flock.
The Pastor as Shepherd
In 2007, I began my journey as a pastor. While I had exercised spiritual leadership in other ways before—through parachurch and youth ministry—this was the beginning of the burden. Yes, as I see it, pastoral oversight is a beautiful burden, a constant challenge. In my view, there is no room for whining and complaining in the pastorate. While the calling comes with many challenges and pressures, the blessings of being a spiritual guide for others in the end will outweigh the costs. The rewards are rich.
After reading Timothy Laniak's book, I have become convinced the role of a shepherd is best summarized in two words: feeding and leading.
Feeding the Flock
One of my favorite narratives in the New Testament is found in Acts 20. The apostle Paul said goodbye to his pastor friends from Ephesus. They had traveled 30 miles to see his weathered face one last time. In this tearful parting, Paul challenged them to keep the main thing the main thing in the local church. Throughout his motivational speech, he employed the shepherd metaphor. He says:
"Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears" (Acts 20:25-31).
In this passage, Paul made it plain that the pastors must make it their aim to feed the sheep. Shepherds must recognize that sheep are always on the verge of feeling famished. As a father of three growing boys, I hear daily this complaint: "Dad, I'm hungry. Mom, do we have anything to eat?" My three sons have bottomless bellies, it seems. They constantly want to eat. In the same way, healthy churches will have hearty appetites, and the preacher must make sure there is a good meal being prepared for the family table.
It is my conviction that many churches today are starving to death. When pastors are cutting corners in the study, having the open-door policy for drop-ins (lest they offend a few), they are robbing the flock of much needed nutrients. As pastors continue to offer the sheep the leftovers or a steady stream of fast food, the flock becomes increasingly unhealthy.
The danger of malnutrition was exactly what caused Paul grave concern with the Ephesian elders. To drive home his point, the apostle appealed to his own practice: "I have not hesitated to teach you the whole will of God!" To paraphrase, he strongly said, "I didn't give you vegetables only! I also supplied some meat. I didn't give you just meat and vegetables; I made sure you had bread. I supplied well-rounded meals. Now go and do the same: Feed the sheep!"
In order for the flock to be healthy, it must be properly fed. The main meals are the responsibility of the pastor.
Challenges to Proper Feeding
For a pastor to keep his focus on the ministry of the Word, he must be a determined individual. As Laniak says so well, the life of a shepherd is uncertain. Leading a flock involves an unpredictable physical and social environment.
In the ministry, you never know what a new day will bring! Unforeseen motorcycle accidents, marital crises, frustrated staff members—these are just a sample of the surprises that can hijack a pastor's clean-cut study schedule. Even so, a pastor committed to faithful preaching prayerfully will appoint other leaders to oversee the daily activities of the body at critical times so he or she can withdraw and feed on God's Word.
This is not to say he or she always refuses to be knocked off a sacred schedule; sometimes the leadership of the Holy Spirit punts the plan. By and large, though, the pastor is resolved to keep his or her seat in the seat and study, study, study.
While the intrusion of a crisis can be an obstacle in preaching thoughtful sermons, a more common problem among pastors is the lack of a creative rhythm. Time management is paramount for an effective feeding ministry. Preaching icon Martyn Lloyd-Jones wisely said, "Know thyself," meaning: "Arrange your schedule to play to your strengths." I believe he was spot on.
For me, this means clustering similar pastoral tasks together to maximize effectiveness and to minimize lost time and energy. Hence, in this season of my ministry, all of Monday and Wednesday are face time with people. I meet with the flock—staff, deacons, wounded members, whoever. My assistant lines up these appointments and keeps me busy with some appropriate breaks for catching my breath.
These people-heavy days are wonderful for reading and exegeting the flock. Without these days, I soon would preach sermons that are disconnected with the real needs of the congregation. Exegeting people helps tremendously in exegeting the text.
Tuesday and Thursday are the opposite. On these days, I give myself fully to the task of creating thoughtful messages. All email and phone calls are put on hold unless it's absolutely necessary that I take them. At the end of these days, I normally check my voicemail and peek at my email to be sure there are no fires that need to be put out immediately. This quick check puts my mind at ease so I can retire and give myself fully to my family in the evenings.
Most email can wait till Monday, especially when a quick word is sent to acknowledge the receipt of the message. This is my system; but again, hear the words of Lloyd-Jones: Know thyself. Every shepherd should create a plan that fits his or her natural rhythms.
Leading the Flock
While God wants His shepherds to feed the flock effectively, He also calls the pastor to lead them in a specific direction. This involves prayer and strategic planning. He has to be hearing from God and willing to walk ahead of the flock.
In his book One Size Doesn't Fit All, church growth expert Gary L. McIntosh does an excellent job of addressing various pastoral responsibilities for each church size. Surely a pastor in a smaller, rural setting is expected to be more hands-on than the leader of a larger church. Each shepherd should know the sheep and adjust his or her leadership style accordingly. However, in my context as I lead a church of several thousand members and more than 30 staffers, the role of prayer and planning eats up most of my time outside the study. Believe me, there are days I wish I could be more relational!
Mental mapping is a drain; but like it or not, this church needs me to be out front. The challenge of pastoring is to be near enough to the flock to smell like the sheep but far enough ahead to see the greener pastures. In my context, the flock is divided into sub-flocks (or ministries), and each of these ministries has an undershepherd. These key leaders desire and need the encouragement, guidance and direction of their leader.
How will I strategically lead my flock? While this article is focused primarily on the theology of pastoring, it seems fitting to flesh out a few of the basic practices I plan to employ this year as I lead my flock. Currently, the following structure seems most fitting for me, but this is always subject to change as the Lord leads:
• Bi-monthly All-Staff Worship and Meeting (second Wednesday every other month, 11a.m.-1p.m.)
This meeting is for every paid employee at our church, including custodians and part-time helpers if they are able to be present. We sing praises to the Lord and focus our eyes on His guiding hand. We pray together in various formats, and I offer a word of encouragement from Scripture. Following the first hour of worship, we spend the next hour covering tactical issues as we eat a good lunch.
• Weekly Prayer Meeting with Worship Pastor (Monday, 8-10a.m.)
Each Monday morning, I meet with Travis Cottrell, our worship pastor, to thank God for Sunday's blessings and seek the Lord's will for the following Sunday. The synergy between Travis and me is extremely important as we strive to plan fresh, meaningful worship experiences for the flock. We must continue to pray together and seek the Lord's guidance for our family gatherings.
• Weekly Worship Ministry Meeting (Monday, 11a.m.)
I meet with our worship/media/communications team to be sure we have clarity concerning Sunday's agenda items. We discuss the big ideas, important announcements and flow of the service. As this meeting concludes, all minds are mostly clear about the direction for worship. We are off to the races!
• Ministry Staff Lunch (Every other Monday)
The main ministry staff will join me for an informal lunch. This time is essential to keep key relationships warm and communicate about upcoming events. This time is purposely unstructured time and can go in a thousand directions. This is not the only time the pastoral team meets with me as we have other ad hoc meetings each month, but this is a set aside time to enjoy one another, become better friends and to demonstrate love for one another.
• Weekly Senior Leadership Meeting (Wednesday, 9-10:30a.m.)
This is the most draining meeting of the week as the executive and associate pastors meet to discuss current challenges, upcoming projects and long-range goals. While the meeting could take a full day, we discipline ourselves to hold the meeting to 90 minutes and stay on task. Too much heavy thinking on Wednesday can drain the batteries before Wednesday night discipleship classes and the college worship (a preaching post I enjoy very much).
• Special Called Quarterly Meetings
Several times a year, extended meetings are called for the purpose of more advanced planning. This is especially true when the new budget is being formed or strategic initiatives are being developed. These meetings can last from one to six hours, depending on the complexity of the task.
A wise shepherd stays close to the sheep. His presence brings security and strength to the flock. He carefully feeds the sheep and strategically leads them. While a pastor cannot remain always in sight, he must use his time well and engage the sheep entrusted to his care. As his flock grows larger, his time will be devoted more and more to the undershepherds who serve alongside him, ministering and caring for the flock.
I agree with Laniak when he claims the biblical evidence is clear: Without a shepherd, the sheep are prone to wander. May God grant me grace to feed and lead my flock most effectively.