When I was saved I entered the world of Christianity with some preconceived notions about church and what that all means. In the past many years I have come to understand that the word we translate as “church” in English is the Greek word “ekklesia”. I was surprised that it does not refer to a building; rather, it refers to the body of Christ – people. I don’t know why I have been surprised at this since I initially didn’t believe in God and have since come to understand that I was very wrong about Him!
Since that time I have studied the Word and have come to realize that many spiritual things I thought I knew were not as I thought them to be. One of these has been my understanding of the term “pastor.” The Greek word translated as “pastor” in the New Testament is the word “poimen” and it literally means “shepherd.” In fact, it occurs in the New Testament eighteen times and seventeen of those it is translated as “shepherd.”
While we often use this term to refer to the pulpit minister of an institutional church, that is not what I believe the Lord is specifically referring to when the Spirit uses it in the Bible. Some pulpit ministers, to be sure, really do shepherd their people. Many, however, find themselves in more of a managerial role in the local institutional congregation of believers. Most pulpit ministers have to prepare 2-3 sermons and a class or two every week, oversee the building and grounds and a host of other tasks. Many never get to do the real work of shepherding souls.
What is that work? First I believe a pastor needs to know the people God has entrusted to him and he should live such a transparent and genuine life that those people know him. Jesus, modeling this relationship said:
“I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.” (John 10:14)
This means that they must spend time together. (I never will understand how one man can “pastor” more than 20 people! How can he get to know them?)
Secondly, a pastor is to make sure the people the Lord has given him to shepherd have what they need in order to flourish. In order to know what they need he has to know them and know what they lack. In John 21 Jesus talks with Peter and emphasizes his importance, as an emerging shepherd of souls, to feed and tend the Lord’s sheep. By getting to know the people to whom the pastor gives oversight he can “feed” them by teaching them what they, as individuals and groups, need.
A pastor is to be vigilant watching for when the people the Lord has entrusted to him become weary or drift off in an unhealthy direction.
“But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)
“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying?” (Matthew 18:12)
In a spiritual sense, I believe a pastor is to be a safe place where the people the Lord has entrusted to him can be protected.
“Then Jesus said to them again, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.'” (John 10:7-9)
Spiritually, I protect and provide for those to whom I minister as pastor.
Finally, I believe a pastor is there to serve – not to be served.
“The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” (John 10:10-11)
A good shepherd is ready to give up his time, patience, expectations…everything - if that is what the people that the Lord has entrusted to him need. I believe the system in which a local pastor is considered to be the most important person in the church never was intended by the Lord. A pastor is to “give it up” for the people he serves.
So, how does that look in everyday practice? At the time of this writing I pastor two married couples and three single moms in our area. Giving pastoral care to local people is not a new idea as most typical church ministers do this to some degree. However, I also give pastoral covering to a family of five in the St. Louis, MO area and a female college student in Joplin, MO as well as a single woman, a married woman and a married couple in Houston, TX.
Many Christians might balk at the idea of the ability of a minister to give real and vital spiritual oversight to people who live five to eleven hours or more away from him. I have come to believe and then experience the reality that true pastoring has nothing to do with a pulpit; it has everything to do with a spiritually authoritative relationship in which a person gives a pastor permission to actively watch over his soul.
This idea seems Biblical to me given the pastoral care Paul gave to Timothy, Titus, etc from a distance. I often wonder why its practice isn’t more prevalent in the body of Christ today. I ask, "why couldn't a man of God in north Texas pastor a person in, say, Africa? Is God limited by time and space?" This is a spiritual reality and in that realm; time and distance do not determine the viability of what happens. The fact is, I know people here who really do pastor men in Africa. God is in it.
My pastor, Don Gunter, lives in Jasper, TX (six hours from our home). We talk on the phone weekly, email frequently and he stays here with us when he is in the DFW area. Pastor Don knows my family and me. He knows what matters to us. He knows our deep hurts and he knows what gives us joy. He truly knows what is happening in our lives. In fact, in the year or so that he has been my pastor I can say that he knows me better than any other pastor I have ever had, despite the fact that I have been in several churches with the same minister in charge for years.
How does he know us so well? He has taken the time and spends the energy it takes to build this relationship. In my relationship with my pastor, I regularly tell him everything that I am concerned about so that he can effectively pray for me. I am voluntarily accountable to my pastor. Thus, he truly knows me. Every morning he prays for my family and me and for everyone else to whom he gives pastoral oversight. If the Lord tells him that something is happening with us and if the Lord releases him to call me, he does so. He communicates more with me in a month sometimes than any minister has with me in a year.
We have traveled together and have shared hotel rooms. I’ve spent time with him and his wife in their home and vice versa. When we need him – he comes to be with us. He knows us because we have shared ourselves with one another.
In terms of knowing people I think it is important to understand that it goes much deeper than what we can see and what we can discern with our minds. Often, since this relationship is empowered by God, He will literally give us insight about what is happening in the lives of the people we shepherd. This right is acted upon by the Lord and is granted by the people who invite us into their lives at this level of intimacy.
The sorts of things He will allow us to “see” include but aren’t limited to the person’s spiritual gifts, kingdom role, earthly purpose, areas of future spiritual growth, training needs, potential pitfalls, strongholds, the enemy’s schemes against them, etc. Often the disciple himself may be unaware of these very things, which underscores the need for us all to have a true and personal pastor in our lives. This is, in the words of my own pastor, “an anointed, empowered and ordained relationship.” God works in and through it, taking us far past our own finite abilities and intuitions.
I give the same sort of care to the people that have invited me into this most holy relationship with them. I pray often for the people to whom I give pastoral care…. sometimes several times a day, especially during times of crisis. That means that I regularly seek the Lord on their behalf. I communicate with them often face-to-face as well as via phone, email, postal mail and live chats over the internet.
When I am in Missouri (several times a year) or Houston (every six weeks or so, ideally), I stay in the homes of some of the people I pastor there and my time is spent enjoying the relationship we have as brethren as well as ministering to them and others that desire some time with me. Teaching and mentoring happens as the situation dictates. My rule of thumb is that I am prepared to take the relationship to as deep a level as the other person wants to go.
When crises have arisen I often offer to go where the person is. If they need me, I go. My first priority is my wife and family and my second is the people I oversee pastorally. I have been blessed to be able to sit in the hospital in Houston when one of my flock was going through some dangerous testing. When the family in Missouri had a sudden death in their family I was free to be there the next morning and stayed a week with them then traveled with them to Alabama for the funeral. I was prepared to remain with them until they no longer needed me there. I’m their pastor. It was my privilege to be able to serve them in that way.
Having a pastoral relationship like this does not mean that we don't attend an institutional church. I and most of the people I pastor do go to churches because there are Christians in those buildings! My hope is that the spiritual health and equipping that will come out of this relationship (especially as I learn more and more about it and am more fully healed and equipped myself) will be directed toward people in established traditional churches. I go to a local congregation on Sundays because it refreshes me and because I am able to serve that group since they now know me.
Our most significant healing, equipping and refreshings, though, comes in smaller meetings that I call "gatherings." Sometimes I jokingly call them "home group meetings on steroids." Almost every time I am in Houston or St. Louis someone invites me to conduct one of these and it’s always amazing to me how much more the Lord does in a meeting like that when there isn't some "church structure" dictating what to speak on, how long to pray, when the meeting must end, when you have to eat, etc., the way most home groups seem to be legislated. (I have more and detailed information on our “gatherings” available by request.)
I believe that practicing the pastoral relationship in this style is really a lot more like what occurred in the early church than the managerial style pulpit minister role we are more used to seeing. One aspect to this that I enjoy is that I sometimes have some of the local people to whom I minister accompany me down to Houston or some of the Houston people come up here.
The family in St. Louis has been here in Decatur and has also flown to Houston to meet the people there. The young lady in Joplin has driven here and has stayed with one of the single moms in our group and I visited with her and ministered to her for several days in the summer of 2002. In other words, there is a sense of community here despite the geographical distance.
I have several final thoughts about the pastoral relationship. The most important one is that I require nothing of a person who asks me to be his pastor. In what I perceive to be the style of Jesus, as pastor, I offer myself as a resource through whom the Lord lives. Just as we only benefit in our relationship with the Lord to the degree that we participate in it – a person will only get out of a pastoral relationship what they put into it. The more open and honest the person is, the better I can pray for and minister to that person.
So, I will only go into a person's life where I am invited. I'll never hassle or pester the person for information or, really, for anything else. I'm here to give and serve, not to take. This relationship was designed by the Lord to primarily bless those receiving pastoral care. While I am blessed to pastor a few people - my purpose in this relationship is to glorify the Lord and to be utilized to bring healing, freedom, equipping, and to open spiritual ears and eyes, etc.
“Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17)
Another thing to know is that any time a person thinks the Lord would have them release me as their pastor or that it’s time to move to another pastor – they are free to simply say so. There will be no hard feelings at all. I believe that territoriality in the body of Christ is a sin. I don't "own" the people that have invited me to be their pastor. They belong to Jesus.
If He prompts them to ask me to be their pastor AND prompts me to agree, this really amounts to me being asked by the Lord to be a good steward regarding some of His precious people. Sometimes I refer to people I pastor as "my people" or "my folks" and I want to make it known that I was communicating stewardship and not ownership. If a person wants this relationship it is his place to initiate it...not mine, since we all have stewardship of our own lives. If asked, I pray and if it seems that the Lord is leading me to agree to be the person’s pastor, we come to a formal agreement regarding that spiritual relationship. Sometimes the Lord will tell me of the relationship before the person knows or asks, then I prepare and wait for him to approach me.
By the same token, even if a person asks me give pastoral care in his life, he is still ultimately responsible for his own spiritual life. As the person with the most authority in his life (under Jesus) that person is free to end the pastoral relationship with me or move it elsewhere any time the Lord says to do so. We are free. (Isn't that refreshing?)
Many people seem to have questions and concerns when they ask me what I do and I describe some of what I do by replying, “I give personal pastoral care to people – some of whom live away from here.” I hope this helps to explain how I see, participate in and enjoy pastoral care, one of the Lord's more crucial spiritual working relationships.
[Special note: My pastor of many years, Don Gunter, went to be with the Lord in Fall 2017 after a very courageous battle with cancer. Our pastoral relationship remains one of the most spiritually nutritious relationships I have ever experience and the things he taught me continue to flow into others over whom I watch. MKM July, 2018)