When a sheep gets sick or breaks a leg, who is there to nurse it back to health? It’s the same man who led that sheep to pasture and fended off wolves: the shepherd. This is the New Testament’s primary metaphor for leaders in a local church. The root meaning of the word “pastor” points to this reality. A pastor is a shepherd of the people.
The beautiful thing about the shepherd metaphor is that it’s multifaceted enough to encompass many of the pastor’s tasks—from leading to feeding to care. But that last responsibility, caring for souls, is the part of pastoral work that needs vigorous attention in today’s celebrity-crazed evangelical culture. Just as the shepherd is the doctor of the sheep, the pastor must also make soul care a priority.
What does this look like practically in a local church? Here are seven principles.
1. Don’t let polished programs be a distraction.
Caring for souls is slow work, and the results are often hidden and hard to measure. But the more visible work of polishing a program can feel instantly rewarding. We feel we’ve made some progress when we rebrand our ministry logo, improve our presentation software, or renovate the nursery. That’s why it can feel tempting to put more effort into improving programs than we do into developing Christlike people.
While it’s true that programs often serve as the tools for soul care, we mustn’t let the appeal of polished programs outpace our focus on patiently caring for the flock.
2. Prioritize your own spiritual health.
Pastors sometimes recoil from seeing their shepherding ministry as soul care because they’re spiritually flabby themselves. We must ask, “Do I know what spiritual health looks like for myself?”
Paul’s admonition to the Ephesian elders, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28), confronts our tendency to attempt caring for the flock without first monitoring our own spiritual health. Paul insists on keeping this in order when he writes to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).
Pastor, you cannot expect to lead and feed your flock for lasting spiritual maturity if you aren’t engaged in daily prayer and Scripture reading, regular communion with God, and healthy rhythms of rest and recreation.
3. Study theological anthropology.
Medical doctors study both the theory and practice of medicine. Similarly, pastors should be students of both the theory and practice of soul care. On the theory side, we must learn all we can about the human condition in its fallenness and in its restoration in Christ. We must know the pathologies of the Christian life and stay alert to the heart-level motivations that drive sinful behavior. We must also understand how people change and grow as Christians.
Many resources help us here. Augustine’s Confessions [read TGC’s review] sheds light on the soul’s inner turmoil and its struggle to break free from sin. J. I. Packer described the Puritan pastors as “master-physicians of the soul.” Among the Puritans, John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation, Jeremiah Burroughs’s The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment [read TGC’s review], and Thomas Boston’s Human Nature in its Fourfold State are a strong beginning. The lesser-known Letters of John Newton [read TGC’s review] also feature helpful examples of a pastor at work diagnosing and treating his congregants’ soul maladies.
4. Attend to the inner workings of people’s souls.
As pastors, we must study our own sheep by being with them and listening to them. We must learn to ask thoughtful questions, such as, “How is your faith in God’s goodness holding up during your cancer?” “Is your marriage on a solid footing, or are you and your spouse struggling to treat each other with love?” and “How have you resisted growing bitter over your parents’ treatment of you, or is that something you’re still struggling with?”
Asking pastorally strategic questions like these is not prying for the sake of prying. The state of a Christian’s soul is his pastor’s business. Backed by proofs of our love, this is how we get to know the members of our flock so we can give them the care they need.
5. Embrace your limits.
Acknowledge there’s a limit to how many people one pastor can realistically shepherd. Medical doctors—for ethical and practical reasons—don’t accept a limitless number of new patients. Pastors should limit their care as well. Though there’s no exact science in the pastor-to-members ratio, pastors do have breaking points. They must know when their capacity is stretched and be willing to involve other elders in care or refer to outside counselors.
6. Train others to share the load.
When a pastor understands his limits, his perspective will expand. He won’t just ask, “How can I care for the congregation?” He’ll ask, “How can I build a team of shepherds to care for the congregation?” Just as Moses learned (Ex. 18), each pastor must acknowledge that he can’t adequately care for the people by himself. Then he must focus his energy on equipping others so they might know the gospel and develop sufficient shepherding skill to share his pastoral responsibilities.
7. Let your care influence your preaching.
There’s not an infinitely positive correlation between the number of hours you spend preparing a sermon and its quality. At some point, a preacher reaches his threshold, and the additional hours aren’t effective. In fact, if a pastor shuts himself in his study, isolated from the practical concerns of his people, the quality of his preaching will suffer.
If a pastor shuts himself in his study, isolated from the practical concerns of his people, the quality of his preaching will suffer.
A preacher needs to study the Scriptures, but he also must study his flock so he can make application that’s relevant to each member’s unique circumstances. While the pulpit is never the place for a pastor to vent frustrations or to make incriminating applications, it is the place to bring God’s Word to bear on the challenges currently facing the flock.
“Pastoring as soul care” doesn’t have the glamor of “thought leader,” the glitter of “influencer,” or even the gravitas of “public theologian.” But soul care in balance with other dimensions of pastoral ministry is exactly the kind of scaled-down emphasis we desperately need.