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Our Inefficient Imperative

Weekly Devotional for Preachers
Our Inefficient Imperative
Image: Cyndi Monaghan / Getty´╗┐

My Dear Shepherds,

When lost sheep are found and gathered into a fold of God they need a shepherd. Christians cannot thrive without pastors who feed, lead, and guard them for the Lord’s sake. (Churchless Christians and their cousins, livestream Christians, are like teenaged runaways oblivious to the dangers of homelessness.)

Caring for the sheep entrusted to us requires all the planning, organizing, and efficiency we can muster and then some, but a lot of pastoring defies conventional management. Ministry by the numbers is deadly and toxic. Part of our work must be personal. One-on-one pastoral care is every pastor’s inefficient imperative.

Before the Cross, we know Jesus best from his personal encounters. Peter at his nets, Matthew at his tax table, Mary at Jesus’ feet, the desperate centurion, the raving demoniac, Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the thief on the cross. In all these he taught us what good shepherds do.

No pastor can run a tight ship. A routine hospital visit can suck up a couple of hours away from sermon prep. A long lunch could’ve been handled by an email. A smattering of unexpected calls and a drop-in or two can leave a well-planned day in rags. Eugene Peterson taught me the hard lesson that interruptions are ministry.

What we learn from Jesus’ examples is that we may be at our best when we welcome unscheduled conversations and hold loosely to our plans for the day. A day entrusted to the Spirit bears fruit whether or not we see how. So many kingdom values run counter to our efficiency instincts. We’re planting seeds not running ministries. Little children (and infant disciples) are not a bother but a priority. Being a servant is greater than being a master.

Freedom from the tyranny of the efficient opens doors. I remember a single mom calling me in a panic over her teenage son who wouldn’t answer his phone. She was at work, 45 minutes away, and he was home alone and deeply depressed. She was afraid he’d hurt himself, or worse. “Could you please go over and check on him?” she pleaded. “The back door is open.” I found him safe, huddled on the floor in a blue funk, and far from Jesus.

“The back door is open.” Pastors are often sacred intruders. We have a mandate to be spiritually nosy. A sign outside the hospital room might say “Family Only” but that doesn’t apply to us. We can go into lives long after hours. We arrive at some closed-door crisis and hear the whisper, “The pastor is here.” I’ve talked to complete strangers in distress and said, “I’m a pastor. Would you like me to pray for you?” Of course they said yes. I keep waiting for someone to check my I.D.

It’s like that with people’s hearts, too. “Would you mind if I come in?” And the next thing you know you’re hearing about carefully-guarded fears or sins, or you’re pulling dusty sheets off long-covered, moldy memories. When people sense we come in Jesus’ name they are often relieved to have someone look with them down the dark, creaky stairs into the darkness of their souls.

When we don’t rush them and don’t try to squeeze God’s Word in edgewise Jesus has room to work wonders. Grace is the credential that lets us park close to people’s hearts.

Efficiency, as it turns out, is a matter of perspective. Ask Jairus, desperately waiting for a miracle while Jesus was waylaid by love. Ask the blind man whom Jesus healed by stages. Ask Lazarus, fresh from four days in his grave.

Be ye glad!

Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.

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