Before all this upheaval, pastors used to have at least some vague idea of whether or not we were being good shepherds. Now, in this season of social distancing, livestreaming, disinfecting, and Zoom meetings, who even knows?
Over the next few weeks let us get our bearings and our balance from Paul’s farewell words to the Ephesian elders, a compass given to us in Acts 20. We’ll take it slowly because these words are God’s mercy to you, not another burden you are ill-equipped to carry.
When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents.” (Acts 20:18-19)
Paul will talk about his Word work among them and the importance of shepherding their congregation but first he says this, “You know how I lived ….” Ministry credibility starts here. Not with your vision, leadership, or study, but by how you live, in full view of your people, especially your leaders.
Paul shows us that serving the Lord requires three knee-benders that I suspect never appeared on any of our job descriptions.
“Great humility” comes to no one naturally. What’s more, leading while holding a basin in one hand and a towel in the other can seem uncommonly difficult. Humility is not actually a virtue you can summon up by trying. Rather, it is awkward, personal truth-telling, taking off our clerical costume to reveal our rags and empty pockets. To put it another way, (as Jesus did), humility is becoming child-sized so we can maneuver naturally through the low doors and narrow corridors of the kingdom.
Pastors like Paul also serve Jesus “with tears.” Ministry brings a lot of moments that break our hearts but Paul thought particularly of one burden. In verse 31 he said he “never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” Pastors bear the weight of their people’s destiny like parents anxiously waiting up for the kids to get home. I imagine that one of your burdens of these last months, distanced from your people as you’ve been, was worrying if they’d remain faithful, if they’d return stronger or weaker, or if they’d return at all. Who can blame you?
Finally, serving the Lord brought Paul “severe testing” from gospel enemies. Few of us face any opposition so severe as his but every pastor worth their salt has felt the diabolical pushback against kingdom progress. For a time, I led a seminary class where each week a student would bring a case study and we’d all talk through how to handle it. Those future pastors were analytical and theological but I realized they were missing something. “If you were in this situation,” I began to ask, “what would it do to you? Given your personality and vulnerabilities, what kind of toll do you think it might take?”
Serving the Lord will take the stuffing out of any shepherd. Humility, heartbreak, and the inward toll of devilish trials are not only hard, but they need to be experienced in full view of your people. Pastors must keep plenty of secrets but our weaknesses aren’t among them. Our flock doesn’t need to know all our heartaches and failures but transparency and vulnerability under pressure are part of pastoring. Here is where we earn ministry credibility. These are the steep steps up to the pulpit. But there is a mercy in these things, too, for they free us from pretense. Our people are watching us, to be sure, but no longer up on that infernal pedestal.
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.