Growing up, I never expected to become a pastor.
As the daughter of a preacher, I was well aware of the spiritual burden pastoral leaders are blessed to bear. I watched (and participated) as my father planted a brand new church in a very unchurched area of our nation, and then continued to sow—year after year. People would come and go. Leaders rose and fell. Our family had both incredible supporters and disheartening enemies. As a daughter, I’m grateful for my parents’ consistency to teach me how to rely on Jesus through the ups and downs of life and ministry.
I now recognize that the burden of pastoring others is a true blessing—one full of extreme joy, pain, and leaps of faith. It’s not an easy calling, but it is an exciting one. I’m not convinced that any pastor can really prepare for what they will face, but I do know that it’s only by the power of the Spirit that one can remain grounded and faithful throughout the journey.
I’m not referring solely to senior pastors of churches. The truth is, any follower of Jesus who oversees other believers is called to pastor them. In the New Testament, particularly in the letters of Paul, we see several examples of instruction and warning given to church leaders or “overseers of the flock.” In fact, the title “shepherd” is often interchangeable with the word “pastor.”
“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.” Acts 20:28
Small group leaders, children’s ministry teachers, team leaders—all are overseers of the flock. All have been commanded to care for God’s people and to do so with vigilance and high standards. So what does it mean to “keep watch” over others, to be a “shepherd” of the church of God?
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.” John 10:14-15
We look to the example of Jesus, the perfect pastor, teacher, and leader of leaders, who gave himself the title “good shepherd.” But did you notice what characterizes Jesus as such? He lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus didn’t just save us by his sacrifice, he modeled perfect leadership in laying down his own life for those he would empower to carry on his message. His actual sacrifice would set the example for us to lead in the same way—as sacrificial servant leaders.
Pastoring others is a blessed burden because it requires sacrifice to self daily. It requires a shift in our mindset. It’s not natural to willingly allow ourselves to be abused, disadvantaged, and unappreciated. It goes against our human nature to let go of our own defenses and in doing so, become invincible. The logic of it all makes no sense in our human world.
Yet time and time again we see Jesus model this exact style of leadership. Unfazed by the abuse of religious leaders and haters, Jesus went where it was dirty, he walked miles upon miles teaching, and he constantly put others first. His ministry climaxed at his ultimate sacrifice where he prayed on behalf of his very murderers.
“Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.” Luke 23:32-34
Jesus teaches us how to be good shepherds, how to lay down our own lives for the sheep. All the sheep. He shows us how to love even those who may abuse and persecute us in the midst of our sacrifice for them.
The sacrifice of Jesus is not simply an act of salvation for a place we will one day live eternally. The sacrifice of Jesus is an example for us to follow and live out every single day of our time on earth. As pastors and leaders of others, we have the responsibility to first and foremost check our own hearts and lifestyle to assess the example we are setting for those we lead, but secondly, to challenge others to do the same.
Here are some heart-evaluation questions I have gotten into the habit of asking myself:
- Who has hurt me recently? Which leaders have let me down? Am I praying for them? Do I genuinely want the best for them?
- Am I willing to endure suffering, ridicule, and injustice sacrificially so that my very oppressors can see Jesus in my example?
- Will I love my oppressors radically through the oppression?
- Will I remain faithful to God even when it means allowing my enemies to trample on me? Will I be a suffering servant? Will I overcome the temptation to do what the world says is right?
Leading others pastorally means being a good shepherd. It means laying your life down for the sheep. Although this may manifest in a variety of ways, the consistent factor is the heart behind it all. The heart of a pastor is one of surrender to the will of God. The heart of a pastor recognizes that we are blessed to bear the burden of leading others. The heart of a pastor sees oppression and trials as opportunities to love the way that Jesus loved us. It’s not an easy journey to pastor people, but it is a riveting adventure. As we lay down our lives for the sheep—in that very act—eternal life is revealed.