I hope it is fitting to mention Wendell Berry at the ordination of a former city planner. Many of you have at least heard me bring up Wendell Berry, a farmer and author from Henry County, Kentucky. One of the reasons why Wendell is worth mentioning again tonight is that he can help us think properly about pastoral ministry.
Reflecting on the differences between industrial and agrarian mindsets, Berry contrasts the work of the strip miner with that of the farmer:
“I conceive a strip-miner to be a model exploiter, and as a model nurturer I take the old-fashioned idea of ideal of the farmer. The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health, his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s…The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, ‘hard facts’; the nurture in terms of character, condition, quality, and kind.”
Those of you who have lived in rural communities know, the farming life, the nurturing life is hard work. It means getting early to feed and milk the cows, collect the eggs, and let the animals into a different lot. It means long hot hours on the tractor or behind the mules or horses. It means potential disaster in every summer storm or lack of storms.
But it is also a good work with its own rewards. For it also means going to the County and State 4-H fairs and seeing the produce, the animals, the healthy results of the land and the work that has been done. It means blue ribbons and elephant ears, lemon shake-ups and prize animals.
If we take this and apply it to our life as the church, then the agrarian mindset is more conducive to the ministerial task—after all, this is pastoral ministry.
We often use that word, pastor or pastoral, so often that we forget what it means. That word pastoral relates to “shepherds, animal husbandry, the rural life.” By the very nature of the case, our calling as pastors is to nurture, to care for God’s flock in such a way that it knows health—healthy character, healthy condition, healthy life together.
And this ministerial task, this life of shepherding God’s flock, is hard work—it means late night phone calls and hours in the hospital; it means stressing over the sermon that never seems quite right; and it means praying and weeping over the brokenness that God’s people know. But it is also good work—and we long to see the full and final fruit of this work at the end of age, when the Chief Shepherd appears and we hear, “Well done, good and faithful shepherd.”
It is helpful for to push our minds into the rural life in order to hear Peter’s words afresh again and to reflect on what we do as pastors, on the life for which John is being set apart by the laying on of hands. Our text tonight is actually closely connected with what precedes it. In 4:12-19, Peter urges God’s scattered people not to fear persecution and suffering. In fact, one should expect that this suffering and judgment should come to the household of God; and so, God’s people should entrust their souls to their faithful God even as they know persecution.
But Peter goes on to explain that this determination to bear suffering must characterize the church’s leaders above all else. Even if others falter and fail to name Christ during this fiery trial, the leaders must be willing to continue to lead, even if in doing so they may make themselves a larger target of persecution.
And in order to encourage them, he appeals to these elders as a fellow elder, one who is a fellow witness to Christ’s suffering and a fellow participant in the glory about to be revealed, the glory of the living hope and imperishable inheritance (1 Peter 1:3-4). Peter’s appeal to them was actually quite simple—in the face of hardship, difficulty, challenge, and opposition, Peter reminds us that
1. An elder shepherds.
He actually reminds us with an imperative, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” In charging elders in this way, Peter was drawing on a rich biblical metaphor. And most often throughout Scripture, God is presented as the one who would shepherd his own people through the wilderness through his presence, provision, protection, and guidance.
We know that best, of course, in the 23rd Psalm: Because the Lord is our shepherd, we do not lack any good provision; we know the protection of his rod and staff; we feel his presence even through the valley of the shadow of death; we have his guidance in paths of righteousness.
By reminding his fellow elders that their calling was to shepherd God’s flock, Peter was reminding them of very specific asks of their calling in Christ’s church. We can see this by asking three questions:
A. Whom do the elders shepherd? God’s flock
In other words, this church, John, is not your church; it doesn’t belong to you. This is God’s church, Christ is king over it, and God himself by Christ’s own Spirit cares and shepherds it. But he also condescends to use you and me and others to nurture and care for his people.
In fact, one of the reasons God judges the leaders of the OT people of God is because they presumed that Israel actually belonged to them. And because of this presumption, they abused, neglected, and tore apart God’s people. As God says in Ezekial 34: 7-10:
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for him.
Notice, throughout this word of judgment, God reminds his leaders—these sheep belong to God, not to us.
And even in Peter’s own letter, we find this. In 1 Peter 2:25, Peter reminds God’s people that they “were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” And God brought about this return, through the blessed wounds of Jesus our Savior—he sent his Son to buy his sheep back and return them to his own flock. And God himself is the Shepherd; he himself is the Overseer of his own people. Remember then, John, that these people belong to God. Never presume that this church belongs to you or any other pastor.
B. Where are we to shepherd? God’s flock that is among you
This has everything to do with our presence as shepherds of God’s people. Just as God’s presence comforts us, so we comfort God’s people by our presence. That means, John, that you must be bodily present in those times of trial and difficulty that God’s people experience. Your presence is vitally important to care for them, to shepherd them.
But this also suggests that our presence as pastors is for people in a given place, community, and time. In 5:3, Peter talks about those people whom God has entrusted to you, those in your charge, those allotted to you by God. We can’t pastor everyone in every place; rather, our nurture and care must be given to a local community. And your commitment is to live your life with this particular people for this time.
Even more, as we live among a given people, not only will we know their spiritual condition, but they will also know ours. They will know our faults and failures, our stammering and indecision, our weakness and foolishness. And yet, as we love God’s people because they belong to God, so they will love us because they will know that we have been sent by God. This connection between pastors and people is so precious because we are among them, caring and weeping and loving and speaking to and for them.
Remember, John, that it is to this people for whom you are called to care. Love them, pray for them, care for them, be among them.
C. How are we to shepherd? By exercising oversight
That word for oversight is the same that we find in 1 Timothy 3. But this pictures more than simply a CEO, overseeing operations and making sure everything runs smoothly. Rather, this oversight is an intimate knowledge and care.
In the same way that farmer wanders through his fields to check his crops or his animals—picking off bugs, examining leaves, checking predator tracks—so pastors protect and provide for God’s people, guiding them into paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
But Peter qualifies this oversight in three ways:
Pastors oversee God’s people willingly; it is not begruded service. It is easy to understand why pastoral service could be seen as an unwanted burden—pastoral care is hard work, it involves the risking of ourselves, it involves our hearts being broken and betrayed. And in Peter’s context, it could even involve persecution all the way to death. But pastors who are called by God do this care willingly, joyfully, knowing that their own dying, there is a rising again in Jesus. We are willing to be criticized and broken, betrayed, disappointed, counting these things as part of the sufferings of Christ overflowing into our lives (2 Corinthians 1:5). For as we partake of Christ’s suffering, so we partake in Christ’s resurrection glory.
In addition, pastors oversee God’s people eagerly, not calculatingly. There is no thought of “shameful gain,” or a desire to get; there is no thought of personal advantage. Rather, those called to oversee God’s people recognize the cost and yet are eager to give themselves away to God’s people for Christ’s sake.
But finally, pastors oversee God’s people in an exemplary fashion, not by domineering them. A friend of mine once observed that pastors shepherd flocks, they don’t herd cattle. And the way we shepherd is by modeling the Christian life, by going in the front to lead the way toward holiness, by engaging our hearts as lead worshippers. We are the head repenters, the chief believers, the most persistent lovers, the most ready forgivers.
Thus, Paul’s words to Timothy are good for all pastors, regardless of age: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Our oversight is such that we are called to set an example of what Christian discipleship looks like.
And so remember, John, as you pastor this church to oversee them willingly, eagerly, and exemplarily. Do so for their and your spiritual good, knowing that this is God’s call to you.
But never forget, John, that we as elders are called to shepherd God’s people, longing for the appearing of
2. The chief shepherd.
Though we don’t look for earthly rewards, we do look forward to a heavenly one. But that heavenly reward is far more than riches or power, fame or adulation. The heavenly reward is a never-fading crown of glory, the glory that we share with our older brother and the Chief Shepherd, Jesus.
Our great reward of glory is tied to the fact that the victory is already won and is tied to Christ’s own appearing. And when Jesus returns and sets all things to rights, he will acknowledge us as his own, acquit us from all wrong doing, fill us with inconceivable joy by granting us such a sight of himself that all our pains will be forgotten (LC 90).
At the appearing of our Chief Shepherd, we will fill full the meaning of Samuel Rutherford’s great hymn:
The bride eyes not her garment, but her dear bridegroom’s faceAnd then we will echo the last poem in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress:
I will not gaze at glory, but on my King of grace;
Not at the crown he gifteth, but on his pierced hand;
The Lamb is all the glory of Emmanuel’s land.
Now, now look how the holy Pilgrims ride,
Clouds are their Chariots, Angels their guide;
Who would not here for him all hazards run?
That thus provides for his, when this world’s done.
John, remember that this glory is not your own, not the result of your work and labor for God. Rather, by God's grace and by your union with Christ, you share in Christ's glory as he shepherds his people through you. Keep your eyes then on the Chief Shepherd as you nurture this people for his glory and their good, to the praise of his glorious grace, Amen.