When Pastoring Gets in the Way

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Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

When I planted my church, I just wanted to preach and let other people take care of the flock. I knew the vision better than anyone else, and the doctrine better than anyone else, so I knew I couldn’t let others lead from the front.

I needed to evangelize; they needed to do the counseling and discipling. My job was to lead the mission. Besides, if I slowed down to counsel, we’d lose sight of the mission.

I’ve heard a version of this story many times. It contains numerous problems, not the least of which is the frequency of “I.” However, it does put a finger on the pulse of a tension we often feel in ministry: the tension between missional activity and pastoral responsibility.

Missional and Pastoral?

In pastoral ministry it seems there is no end to the breadth of missional opportunity: social injustice, faith and work, cultural engagement, mercy ministry, evangelism, and apologetics.

And yet, there’s also a limitless depth of pastoral needs: grief and loss, miscarriage and infertility, community and conflict, gender confusion, sexual sin, greed and financial disaster, and everyday idolatry.

As I talk with church planters, I often hear comments like, “God called me to preach, not pastor.” Or, “Counseling isn’t my gift.”

I get it. Counseling is time-consuming and difficult. Some of the problems people face are complex, and can feel overwleming.

Yet the Bible doesn’t allow us to specialize in mission. Elders are called to shepherd, not just preach. Counseling may not be your gift, but it is your responsibility.

As elders, we’re called to shepherd, not just preach. Counseling may not be your gift, but it is your responsibility.

Even the apostle Paul, himself a great church planter, prioritized counseling. His letters are charged with gospel-centered counsel that springs from an intimate knowledge of people’s everyday lives.

Paul often opened and closed his letters by greeting people he knew. Even in his most theologically dense letter, Romans, Paul ends by greeting 27 people by name, often including a specific word of counsel.

For instance, Apelles must have struggled with approval, since Paul writes: “Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ” (Rom. 16:10). Aren’t all of those named approved in Christ? Yes, but evidently Apelles had a particular need to hear it.

Paul also affirms others for working hard and risking their lives. Rufus is reminded that he is “chosen in the Lord” (Rom. 16:13). Perhaps Rufus struggled with assurance?

In turn, Paul’s counsel is often to counsel (Rom. 15:14; Col. 3:12–17). Peter, James, and the writer of Hebrews didn’t just counsel their churches; they counseled their people to counsel each other!

We Are Not Professionals

Church planting has become an industry. Just google it. When I did this about five years ago, “church planting” got 897,000 results. Today, I got 3,630,000. “Best practices” dominate church-planting conversations. Conferences promise things like “breaking through the 200 barrier” and the possibilities of reaching “Level 5.” We value the entrepreneurial index and measure rounds of funding. Consider this common string of questions:

  • What are you running?
  • Are your groups multiplying?
  • When are you going to plant next?
  • How are you reproducing leaders?

Multiplication quickly becomes the chief interest. Meanwhile, the difficulties of discipleship in our congregations are overlooked. We’re quick to talk mission and slow to talk sanctification.

We’re quick to talk mission and slow to talk sanctification.

If we’re not careful, “church planter” will simply become another religious profession in an increasingly professionalized church.

We may build congregations and hold conferences; but if we do not pastor the flock of God, we neglect the most critical aspect of our role.

Counseling Immortals

I love the mission of God. It’s awe-inspiring to participate in the grand redemptive plan of Father, Son, and Spirit. But I want to be in equal awe of what that plan is ultimately meant to create: the church of Jesus Christ.

I want to know people’s names, faces, and the stories behind them. I want the reverence C. S. Lewis had for people when he wrote that we live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, and that even the dullest person I meet may one day be someone I’m tempted to worship.

Why? Because there are no ordinary people. We’ve never spoken with a mere mortal. We’re called to love and pastor the very images of God.

Slow Down to Speed Up

I recently spoke with a new believer who shared the difficulty of reconciling broken relationships from his past. Now that he was a Christian, he wanted to mend the relationship with his distant daughter and estranged ex-wife.

Tears surfaced in his eyes. He knew the gospel, had resolve to reconcile, but didn’t know where to begin. Guilt hung on him like an oversized jacket. He had only learned the gospel forward, from conversion on. But he also needed to learn it backward.

He needed to see how God, in the gospel, had dealt with his past failures and sins. In order to reconcile the broken relationships of his past, he needed a deep understanding of the freedom he had been given in Christ (Gal. 5:1).

Any pastor knows this work requires time. It takes more than one conversation. In a superficial estimation, this kind of counseling slows the mission down. In reality, though, it reflects the heart of God.

In a superficial estimation, this kind of counseling slows the mission down. In reality, it reflects the heart of God.

In order to plant healthy missional churches, we must grow in both gospel breadth and gospel depth. We must train our people to think the gospel down into issues of their heart and back into the struggles of their past. 

Perhaps we need a greater focus on pastoral ministry in our church-planting residencies. Maybe we should include counseling training as part of church-planting assessments.

Slowing down to pastor will enrich our sermons with pastoral application, which can only come from spending time with struggling sheep. The best application is mined not from homiletical brainstorming but from pastoral counseling.

Counseling on mission is critical. If we do not counsel while we are on mission, we may plant churches that multiply, but we won’t be multiplying health.


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