Sharing the work of the shepherd
[Note: This sermon based on the gospel for the day was prepared for a service which included the commissioning of elders. In the Uniting Church in Australia, elders share with the minister in the pastoral care and oversight of the congregation.]
Jesus spoke of himself as the good shepherd [John 10:11,14] who knows his flock and cares for them even to the extent that he lays down his life for them. His followers know him and answer his call [see John 10:2-4]. They do not follow thieves and robbers who come in by the back way. He comes to them openly by the main entrance in full view of all and they know his voice [John 10:2-4]. They know that he cares for their lives more than for his own, unlike other leaders who use their followers to advance their own interests. His purpose is fullness of life for his followers:
Ezekiel went on to warn them that God would act: [see 34: 7-10] Thus says the Lord,
Jesus, the good shepherd, is a model of servant leadership, gathering his people into a unified community, healing the sick or wounded, protecting them and suffering for their welfare. Above all he served their interests and not his own. Yet there is today a general expectation that whatever people do they must be doing in some way to serve their own interests, so it is difficult for many to accept the idea that a leader could genuinely be a servant too.
The idea that even in welfare work people must be serving their own interests was brought home to me a few years ago when a public relations officer who had been hired by a church welfare agency said to me in a long discussion of what the church was about, "I do not understand why the church is in welfare." She had come from a background of PR work in secular organisations and expected to find some self interest being involved in whatever a corporate body committed itself to do; she could not understand why the church was involved in welfare because she could not see what the church was getting out of it. We should not be surprised. That kind of commercial attitude pervades all our dealings with the general public, as is made clear in the suggestions of political commentators from time to time that the self interest of the churches must somehow be at stake when complaints were made to governments made against the reduction of benefits to people in need. Ministers are commonly regarded as being in some kind of business promoting religion for their own benefit even if they might have given up another job that paid three times as much.
That assumption of self interest is so pervasive today that it has corrupted much of our community life. As I have had reason to point out, sadly, it is also having a corrupting influence in the church with the growth of consumer attitudes when people shop around for the greatest satisfaction of their personal needs, and entrepreneurial religion is developed to satisfy that market. There is nothing new it that, even in Paul's day there were those liked to have their ears tickled rather than remain faithful to the teaching of the apostles. The present time is one of those periods in history when the corrupting influence of a culture of self interest has become very bad in both church and society.
The model of Jesus as the good shepherd stands out in midst of corrupt forms of leadership. Professional competence is important. Teachers should know what they are talking about and how to foster the development of understanding. Carers of all kinds can be trained. But being well trained and having a good understanding of others is not enough in itself. Certainly, it is important to do things well; but for all who would act as shepherds, there is a perfect model in the selfless motivation of Jesus as the servant leader. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Sharing the shepherd's work in the community
There are obvious implications for all in positions of shepherding in church and society. Traditionally people in positions of responsibility of this kind include teachers, managers, governing authorities, priests, parents, and elders. Today we tend to dislike hierarchical forms of leadership. In the church especially we place emphasis on being of service to others, and sometimes we import secular democratic ideas of equality. Servant leadership does not, however, mean that there is no role for leaders. It is not a contradiction in terms. To speak of leaders being servants says, rather, something about the kind of leadership we should expect to give and receive in the name of Christ. The purpose of good shepherding is to serve those who are led, just as Jesus made himself a servant of his followers who nevertheless looked to him for leadership. Much the same applies as far as practicable in our work and family responsibilities: where we have responsibility for the welfare of others we are not called upon to give up that responsibility but to carry it out for their benefit rather than our own.
Some of you might say that you are just an ordinary member of the church and that in your everyday life you are not a leader or that you are not the managerial type. Perhaps, to a degree that is true; but there are times when each of us takes responsibility for someone else. Parents cannot avoid it; and in later life we often find it is necessary to accept a reversal of roles when we have responsibility for aging parents. Sickness or unexpected disabilities among those close to us sometimes thrust upon us cares that we might never have anticipated. We all have to act at one time or another as the shepherd looking out for and leading on behalf of someone else. When we do that Christ is the model for what we do.
After the sermon as we prepare for the commissioning of elders, we will sing the servant song,
Brother, sister, let me serve you,
let me be as Christ to you;
It is something we can all apply to ourselves, as we can the following two lines.
pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant too.
How important that is! How often we are too proud to accept the service that others offer to us! We do not like to admit that we are in need of help, or we might prefer it to be structured as a commercial transaction in which we pay for the service or demand it as a right and thus retain the upper hand. The field of leadership and service is riddled with the demons of concern for status: as Peter said to Jesus "you will never wash my feet". Only by the grace of God can these demons be exorcised, whether we be in the position of power or in danger of losing what little power we have. Jesus had frequently to confront these difficulties.
I find it sad to hear discussions in secular terms of the way that power is exercised in the church, as if Jesus had never said
Sharing in the ministry of pastoral care in the church
When we commission new elders we pray for the gift of the Spirit of God that they will be able to give servant leadership as they share in ministry. They will share with the minister and other elders in the pastoral leadership of the congregation. With others they will assist the minister in the leadership of worship, and have oversight of the spiritual welfare and development of the congregation, including its educational programs, evangelism and service activities. These are genuine positions of leadership which need to be honoured and supported by all members of the congregation. They are positions of responsibility in which the servant leadership of Christ is the model.
While we honour those who are given these responsibilities and pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit to enable them to fulfil their calling, we all need to recognize that the task of caring for one another is something in which we all share. It is extended to others in various ways. One way in which we have made regular provision for others to share in the pastoral work of elders is to recognize a significant number of people as parish visitors. Visiting people in their homes to strengthen the network of care in the community is an important function of the body of believers. In addition to those who act officially, any member of the congregation can contribute informally to this network by keeping in touch with and encouraging others in their Christian discipleship.
Let me also make a plea for recognition of priorities. For my part, personal pastoral care has priority over everything else. Teaching and preaching and study and prayer and organisational tasks are all important, but I am never too busy to see someone in need or to visit the sick or people in some kind of difficulty. The same should apply to all who share in the pastoral responsibilities of elders and members of the congregation generally.
The network of pastoral care needs to be strengthened in several ways. One is the need for the minister to be informed of any need for special care. Too often I have found out indirectly and accidentally when someone is in hospital. I don't know if I not told. Another point of strengthening the network of care is that the elders and others need to have sufficient knowledge of the people to know when needs arise. That knowledge needs to be deep enough to recognise the spiritual significance of what is happening to people. If you never discuss things of the faith and never pray with or for them, how can you know people are in their inner beings?
I hope no one needs to be assured of a listening ear and absolute confidentiality. It is of fundamental importance to listen without being judgmental. It is very sad to discover that people in need of sharing a burden have failed to do so because they fear what others might think of them. This is important for ministers, elders, visitors and everybody who in any way cares for others. Treating everyone as an individual, listening carefully to their own unique story and not assuming you know from your own experience how they are feeling is essential. I have had many years experience of listening to great and terrible things and keeping other people's secrets. I learned it as a young psychologist a long time ago, and I fear I learned the habit of not talking about what people tell me so well that I have not even tell my wife things that there would be no harm in sharing. It is a habit of safety. People without professional training sometimes find it hard to cope with the knowledge of other people's burdens, so all concerned need to be careful to agree upon what can be told and to whom and to seek help from those who are more skilled if necessary.
Finally, however, it is not a matter of skill and knowledge, important as it is to act responsibly and to do things well, and much can be learned with appropriate training, but the basic motivation must be to serve the interests of the other person, and not to get your needs mixed up with theirs -- not to use them for your purposes, even when you are not aware of doing so. That is one of the basic principles of servant leadership. If you suspect that you might be giving some service in order to satisfy you own needs, you ought to think carefully about why you are doing it and what influence that might have on what you do. It helps to discuss your own needs and reactions with another experienced person.
In all of this, whether it is as leaders or carers in the church, or in exercising our responsibilities in the world at large, our hope and confidence rests in the great shepherd of the sheep who gave his life and was raised from the dead. As we have it in the letter to the Hebrews:
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