March 12, 2008

Where Have All the Shepherds Gone?

2008 1507 page5 capastoral visits in this church will be made only upon request,” announced the worship bulletin just three weeks after my family joined a suburban congregation. Fresh from 16 years of pastoral ministry, I turned to see if others browsing the bulletin were experiencing the incredulity rising in my brain.
“Sounds just like the parable of the lost sheep, now doesn’t it?” my wife whispered mischievously as she watched my eyebrows arch. “You know how it goes, Bill: ‘Here I am, shepherd—over here, over here, hanging off the cliff. Come rescue me; please rescue me!’”
I was grateful Debby could find some quiet humor in a moment that nearly torched the tinder in my soul. She has the gift of stilling the irritation that too easily rattles my world.
Ten years later, however, neither of us is laughing. What seemed the anomalous—and outrageous—declaration of yesteryear is now so commonly assumed by many Adventists that it hardly seems necessary to restate it. Pastoral visitation, even where it still exists, is rapidly going the way of the Sabbath school secretary’s report, the oval blue Ingathering can, and any worship tune older than 20 years.
2008 1507 page5Some lost things are better left that way—anger, racial prejudice, lists of enemies, even the occasional stray nickel. But sheep—and fellow believers—deserve some greater concern. Before we declare ourselves satisfied with the current count and shut the sheepfold door, it may be useful to review the reasons why pastors have been visiting in the homes of fellow Christians for almost 2,000 years.
1. Faith Deserves Support. “The world is too much with us,” William Wordsworth lamented 200 years ago. Faith takes a bruising every week as other, coarser options entice or overwhelm us. We cling to Christ like swimmers caught among the rocks—hoping, praying that the next wave will not undo our grip on things eternal. The pastor who visits believers worn down by the logic of disbelief brings solidarity when it is most needed; he or she is a lifeline and a symbol of hope. Faith requires companions—and specifically, a companion skilled in applying the promises and assurances of God’s Word to the human heart.
2. Sin Requires Rebuke. Only fools believe they can accurately diagnose their own spiritual maladies. It’s the greatest kindness a pastor can do to sit among the debris of failed relationships and fractured morals and firmly call the fallen back to grace. This can’t happen in the boardroom or the church foyer, or in the hearing of the curious or self-righteous. I’ll gladly hear the correction a godly man or woman of God brings me in my living room, even where it goes against the grain, for presence gives them credibility. And I am not the only one.
3. Love Needs Modeling. Pastors who visit believers in their home discover surprising opportunities to teach the skills of reconciliation and peacemaking. Conflict requires no special training; wisdom and forgiveness call for “special education.” “Follow me as I follow Christ,” the pastor says in the words of Paul, showing the blunt and biased that goodness, gentleness, and self-control are still the fruits of a Spirit-filled Christian. I get to practice my better self when my pastor visits me.
4. Prayer Strengthens Hearts. When pastors visit, they call us to a new way of seeing our lives. We suddenly remember that all our problems are surmountable with prayer, that all our sins are cancelled as we confess, that by interceding for others we join the ministry of the One who ever lives to make intercession for us. Prayer is the one essential of every pastoral visit—and the thing we miss the most when we neglect the gift of shepherding.
“You can’t shepherd a flock from the farmhouse,” a colleague once wisely reminded me. But too many Adventist pastors today are attending only to those brave enough to visit in an office or so physically ill they must be hospitalized. If all the time once spent on visiting believers were now employed in teaching Scripture in new homes, we might be understanding, if still underserved. But even that excuse is almost never offered. 

Let’s covenant again that we will not allow this cherished practice of God’s church to disappear without a trace. Busy, hectored, harried lives require more pastoral care, not less. The grace of shepherding is needed now more than ever.

Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review.