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When You Spend Yourself for the Sheep

I don’t like looking through old church directories. The names of so many no longer here, staring back at me; faces I know so well, no longer present on Sunday mornings. Living in our mobile suburban context means we regularly say goodbye to those who move. Living in a heavily churched and consumeristic community means we regularly lose the dissatisfied. And living in a world under the curse means we regularly weep tears that hope in the resurrection over bodies that stop working.

Every name in those directories means something to me, because every name holds a story. They are not my stories, and yet I am somehow woven into them, threads cast and stretched out like a dreamcatcher across the body of Jesus Christ.

Leading With Parental Long-Suffering

It is a peculiar thing to pastor a church. It means to be called—in concert by God and congregation—to lead and serve, protect and teach, with the double love of God and people as our guide and sustenance. For all the desired professionalism of the American pastorate, it is no distanced corporate task for me. The pastor must love the sheep with parental long-suffering, and die for them with cruciform affection when the time comes. Neither is possible from a distance, any more than the incarnation was possible from heaven’s heights.

For all the desired professionalism of the American pastorate, it is no distanced corporate task for me.

As Christ descends into our dust and shame to freely give his body for salvific consumption (John 6:53), so his delegates give not only their schedules and working hours, but themselves to the people under their care. Love binds the pastor to the people of God, stretching across time and space. And when I slow down long enough to consider the mystery of this calling, and my threaded tension, I share in the fear and trembling of Paul’s question: “Who is sufficient for such things?” (2 Cor. 2:16).

This calling pierces my soul with love’s needle, weaving the lives of those I shepherd into my own. Her grief becomes my own. His struggle with sin becomes my burden. Their failing marriage becomes my ache. In prayer, thought, time, and labor, the pastor is the first among the flock to bear the burdens of the sheep. This threaded bond to Christ’s people weighs on me with a cumulative pressure. It is a strange burden, one that settles with increasing pressure, rather than shocking with suddenness. And it is an experience shared by pastors wherever they may be found, a common knowledge even strangers may relate to upon meeting.

I am woven into the stories of the people I love, and so I do not like to look at old directories. Every name tells a story. Some are stories of my failure, reminders of the hard words I should have spoken in love, but didn’t. Awareness of the time I should have spent, even though it was awkward. Regret that I couldn’t see how deep their wounds were, which I inadvertently inflamed. Every name reminds me of the ways my debt of love remains in arrears.

The stories of the people I love are woven into me, which is why it pains me to scan the names and remember the threads ripped from me. Echoes of friendship and companionship, severed by betrayal and criticism. Thick cords of costly love poured out to care for wounds so jagged and deep, torn by sudden declarations that no, sorry, we’re not doing enough. Dark lines of conflict, shredded by those who would rather leave than heal. Rich, thick, braided threads, suddenly cut over a secondary issue imbued with misplaced gravity.

While the pain varies—it is one thing to help a family say farewell in the hope of resurrection, or send off precious saints with our blessing to new geographies; another thing to receive “the email” or be ghosted—it is pain nonetheless. Each entry in the directory is a hole opened in my heart by love.

Each entry in the directory is a hole opened in my heart by love.

I have grown accustomed to the pain. Fifteen years ago, as a young associate pastor, I received my first We’re Leaving email. “We are no longer attending,” it read. Just like that, a respected family in leadership was gone, their membership canceled like a dormant gym membership. I have a collection of those letters and emails and phone calls stored in the halls of my memory, each a record of the tearing thread.

Does this sound melodramatic? Perhaps it is. But I know something about thick skin. My decade and a half of pastoral ministry has taught me to anticipate the tearing without withdrawing into isolation. I have developed callouses without becoming calloused. I have learned to let the past live in the past.

Even so, the ache remains.

I have developed callouses without becoming calloused.

I was recently contacted by former members who left badly, by email, with a stern warning never to contact them. And yet they now needed me to vouch for them as they pursued membership in a new church. I had not spoken to these friends for three years—per their request. With trepidation and risk, I engaged. The conversation was sufficiently civil, certainly honest, and I ultimately agreed to speak with their new pastor.

In the days after the call, a deluge of emotions I didn’t expect swept over me. The constellation of unresolved wrongs against us, grief and sorrow at love swatted away—forgiven, yet presented again in this casual contact, swelled within me. Perhaps I am melodramatic. More probably, I am human, trying to love well.

Leading With Open Embrace

I have often defined Christian love as “the self-giving pursuit of another’s true good.” If this is the case, then the posture of love must be one of open embrace. To love is to move toward another for his good. Yet in our world twisted in on itself, open embrace is not safe. To move toward another in love, to let your story thread into hers, is to risk not only the cost of seeking her good, but the wounds of losing her.

Safety is only possible in its fullest form by holding others at a distance; by using one’s arms to form a protective stance. Of course, as long as my emotional safety is preeminent, love remains impossible. As long as I guard myself from others, I am unable to move toward others. The strange and wonderful work of the pastorate demands thick skin, if only to endure the wounds which inevitably result from this open embrace.

We need no more corporate pastors; we have far too many already. We need shepherds who follow the Good Shepherd, who loved his own to the end, kneeling on the floor to wash his followers’ feet—even those of traitor Judas. If it is by Jesus’s wounds we are healed, then surely it’s through the wounds of pastors that a church learns what it means to love.

Those old church directories haunt me, like specters of sorrow. And yet, in contemplating the sorrow I know so intimately, I discover the true joy of this work. It is no easy task. But I see just how lovely—and possible—are Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Cor. 12:15).

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