Recovering the Cure of Souls

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From my ministry vantage point at Midwestern Seminary and in getting to travel quite a bit and meet young and aspiring pastors around the world, I have been greatly encouraged by the increasing sense of what I can only call the “pastoral temperament” I sense among the younger generation. What I mean is, I sense—and I hope that I’m right—that something that has come alongside the gospel recovery movement is not just a recovery of theology, expositional preaching, missional church planting, and the like but also a recovery of the active and intentional shepherding of the people of God.

Our ancestors used to call this intentionally relational shepherding “the curing of souls.”

A lot of us still remember the winning of souls, and we employ that concept in a variety of ways, from end-of-service invitations to door-to-door evangelism or gospel sharing in backyards and coffee shops and airplane seats. But the curing of souls has fallen on hard times. You get the impression from some church promotional material that our only job is to win the soul, and then the soul is really sort of left on its own. But Jesus did not say to go out into all the world and make converts of all peoples; he said to make disciples. And this means the pastoral enterprise cannot begin and end with public proclamation and private planning—it must be applied in personal care. As John Piper has famously warned us: “Brothers, we are not professionals.”

The phrase in question is antiquated today, of course—curing souls may conjure up the image for some of an old-timey physician or apothecary promising some magical elixir for our spiritual maladies. But while the wording may be old-fashioned, I certainly hope the concept is not.

To those in the church committed not just to preaching and teaching and prayer—the primary tasks of the church elder, to be sure—but also to home and hospital visitation, counseling, personal discipleship—to helping people think and helping people live and helping people die—I want to offer my warmest thanks and profoundest salute. And to those who would seem to be falling behind in this vital area, I hope what follows will serve as a gracious exhortation to repentance.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8, the apostle Paul writes:

But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.

The nursing mother, of course, is not the dominant model of the pastoral vocation marketed today. I have never seen a ministry conference advertised called “The Pastor as Nursing Mother.” But this is exactly the image that Paul here is introducing as emblematic of the pastoral task.

Why does he use this maternal image to reflect “being affectionately desirous” of this flock and “sharing not only the gospel but his very self” with them? For at least three reasons:

1. Godly pastoral care is the overflow of love.

I didn’t nurse my children of course, but I do remember getting up with them in the middle of the night and preparing a bottle and feeding and rocking them. As fussy and inconsolable as babies can be, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more connected to my daughters than when cradling them up close, feeding them, singing to them, rocking them, soothing them. I often started that routine in an exasperated, frustrated way, but I almost never ended it that way.

Something spiritual happens when we get up close, share meals with our people, weep with them, remind them gently of the gospel, listen to their stores, hold their hands when they’re hurting or dying. You cannot experience this if you see the people of your church as projects, not people. You cannot experience this if your ministry is driven largely out of ambition or aspiration. It must be driven by love.

Paul calls this love “affectionate desire.” When Jesus looked out the crowd and says that they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, he was broken inside over them. If you struggle to feel this way about your church, ask yourself why. Ask God to help you. And then put yourself in positions to have your heart shaped more toward them. This is why Paul describes it as “gentle,” and why one of the biblical qualifications for eldership is “gentleness.” It’s also part of the fruit of the Spirit. So if you’re not a gentle person, not only are you disqualifying yourself from ministry, you have reason to test your salvation to see if you are in the faith.

2. Godly pastoral care is an act of nurture.

The nursing mom is feeding her child. She isn’t neglectful. She isn’t outsourcing the work. Remember that Jesus didn’t say to Peter, “Teach the sheep to self-feed.” He said, “Feed my lambs.”

Pastor, do not look at your church primarily as a recruiting station or an event center or a spiritual production, but as a pasture where the sheep are nourished.

And you must take care what you feed your sheep with. If you want them to be nourished, built up in their faith, and empowered to follow Christ day by day, you must feed them grace. The finished work of Christ announced in the gospel is the only power prescribed in the Scriptures for growth in godliness. You can’t inject anything into the law that will make it do what the simple, pure feast of the gospel will. Make sure you provide enough feed in the gospel that they never lack the sustenance they need to live and grow.

3. Godly pastoral care is an act of self-giving.

The nursing mom brings her baby to her breast. She is giving of herself. She cannot give what she doesn’t have. This is why Paul connects the image to “sharing our very selves” with the church at Thessalonica.

Pastoral care is costly. It doesn’t just hurt your brain; it can hurt your heart. Sometimes sheep bite. The weight of ministry will keep you up at night. It will make you sometimes feel drained. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul talks about the anxiety he feels for all the churches. Godly pastors know what he means by this “anxiety”—the spiritual weight of responsibility.

If your ministry is comfortable, you may not actually being doing ministry. Godly pastoral care is self-giving.

This means, pastor, that to give adequate care you must give adequate time to be nourished yourself. You cannot give what you don’t have. This is not a call to be self-centered but to be self-aware.

During my last pastorate, one dear lady who began as one of my most serious scrutinizers became one of my biggest supporters. When you can turn a critic into a colleague, something extraordinary has happened, because usually it runs the other way! But this woman watched me for several years up close, asked me lots of questions about motives and intentions. And she saw me at my best and at my worst. She got a piece of my heart. And she ended up being the last saint I had the privilege of helping pass into glory, the last funeral I preached before my time of service there was up. And over the several months it took her to die, I was one of the few she let into her room in hospice at any time—to talk, to pray, to read Scripture to her. Why? Because when I first came I was just “the preacher.” But I had become, over time, her pastor.

No, this isn’t new. It’s not innovative. And it’s not rocket science. But it is vital to the work of the minister and to the life of his congregation. Godly pastoral care is the overflow of love, an act of nurture, and an act of self-giving. Pastor, cure some souls.

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