LESSONS FROM THE SCHOOL OF THE SHEPHERD
Pr. Dennis Gallaher
I have a confession to make. The assignment to write this article has been on my desk for well over a month. It pokes at me each week like a splinter that demands attention. I have looked it over time and again, yet, have not written a word on something that should not be difficult. After all, the ministry of the pastor is what I do and what I know best, but I find that after 35 years of pastoring it is almost too close to describe.
Pastoring is my holy ground, my Abraham’s altar, my Jacob’s long dark night where “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The words needed are being dug from the secret place of the heart. What should be a simple and biblical portrait of the most common ministry in the church grows quickly into a challenge to bear my soul.
I was called by God at a very young age. Though I was raised in a Catholic home and knew little of the great salvation story, I was in a spiritual climate that taught and believed the tenants of the faith. I remember at 5 or 6 years of age knowing that I wanted to serve God. At the time, I thought that meant becoming a priest and held to that plan until I was a teenager.
At the age of 17, I was introduced to Jesus and gave my life to Him. The change in my heart was immediate but the change in my behavior was not. Two years later I surrendered to the total grace of God because I knew that I would never survive temptation unless I determined to follow God alone. One night in May of 1974, God spoke to me and called me again. From that moment nothing less than my whole life would satisfy the call with which He had so clearly called me.
I did not know what I was called to do, mind you. I only knew that the one thing I did not want to do was pastor a church. That’s right, I did not want to be a pastor. In fact, I thought that any other assignment would be acceptable except dealing with people day in and day out. At the time, I was not willing or capable of loving people the way Jesus does, a core ingredient needed if you are to care for God’s people.
So one day in prayer I asked God what He wanted me to do. The response came quickly yet with a unique twist. God spoke to me and said that He needed shepherds in His church and if I would agree, He would teach me to be a shepherd. Though I had already graduated from Bible College, now I was enrolled in the School of the Shepherd.
Over the years I have concluded that the best description of a pastor is the word “shepherd.” Though the most common of the five-fold ministry, it is noteworthy because the other four must be present if the pastor is to find success. The pastor must evangelize, plant, tell the truth and teach the Word. It is not all about teaching and preaching... those are part of a gift-set. The heart of the pastor must be to love the sheep more than the sheep love themselves. That does not happen without two key distinctive marks that cannot be taught or learned in any other place than in the School of the Shepherd.
...if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24
The first lesson in my schooling was the breaking of my heart. Before, I saw people as not disciplined, not serious or not committed. I saw the sin and disfunction of families and couldn’t comprehend why the people didn’t just try harder. I would preach the Word and nothing would change, that is until my heart began to break.
Jesus gave me new eyes to see people the way He saw them. They were still sinners, broken, not disciplined and in need of faith. But even in our sin, “Christ died for us.” He saw something that was valuable in the mess of my disheveled soul. He saw beyond Adam’s sin to the image of God long hidden, save from the loving eyes of Jesus. Looking into the universe before the ages were made, He saw me on the other side of destruction and chose to love me. This thought is too wonderful for me!
Brokenness is what focuses the gaze to look into the soul that desperately desires healing and forgiveness. For those who are not broken, only the sin is seen, judged and a sentence given. The religion that I grew up in sent me to a confessional where this would take place. My sin would be exposed to another, the severity judged and the “sentence” or penance would be pronounced.
But it is not only the Catholics who do this. Everyday in every church the same process is worked out among people whose hearts have not been broken. It is the reason why James the Apostle wrote, “The tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity... with it we bless our Lord and Father and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way!” James 3:6,9,10
Brokenness cracks the facade of self until I see who I really am. It is Isaiah seeing himself next to God, “High and lifted up with His train filling the temple.” It is Paul, blinded and on his back before Jesus, “who you are persecuting.” It is David who chokes through his tears, “Against You, and You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” It is Peter denying Christ, Job repenting and ashamed, Adam covering himself and hiding. Brokenness is the result of seeing ourselves for who we really are without Christ. When I see that, my criticism and judgement of others turns to the fear that rescues, the patience that endures and the heart that seeks the one lost sheep.
When a person is broken, grace flows in. Like a watershed that catches the overflow of monsoon rains, a life that is broken receives the flow of grace that God promises. Wonder why so many Christians are hard and judgmental? It is simple. No brokenness, no grace. No grace, no forgiveness. No forgiveness, only judgement remains. Brokenness is God’s gift basket filled with His grace.
A pastor cannot fulfill his calling without this. He might preach well, organize well, even evangelize well but without brokenness he is a clanging cymbal, void of the only love that matters. It is this brokenness that is the vehicle of God’s love that builds up.
Let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” James 1:4
I often hear good people express their fear of praying for patience. A simple look at the Scripture should dissolve that anxiety because patience, or endurance, is the key to success… “you may be perfect, complete, lacking nothing.”
Patience is the key ingredient of a life that is mature. It is among the most obvious attributes of those who have gained from God as well as those that have overcome hardship to attain God’s blessings. A mature life will have patience because you cannot have one without the other. Perhaps that is the reason that so many Christians resist the goal of patience, many would rather remain immature.
The minister who lacks patience will never become a true pastor. Years ago a pastor friend told me the story of his first church. He was a popular and well liked minister who had served a number of years under a senior man in a large church. A sister church called him to serve after the retirement of the founding pastor and he accepted and assumed the responsibilities of the new assignment.
After several weeks, he arranged a courtesy visit with the elderly man and as they sat talking the older man said, “Tell me this. When do you think you will become the pastor of the church?” The man was testing the young man’s brashness so my friend responded, “Oh, that will take some time… maybe a year or so.”
Here was the old man’s response. “If you survive the first year, some of them will consider you their friend. After the second year, they may trust you to be their confidant and counselor. After the third year, you will be their brother and after the fourth, some will look up to you as a father.”
The old gentleman paused, leaned forward and touched the young man’s hand. His eyes, wrinkled from years of patient shepherding, looked all the way down into my friend’s heart. “After the fifth year, when you have proven your friendship, proven your loyalty, proven your faithfulness and proven your love, THEN, young man, you will be their pastor.”
The perfect...complete...lacking nothing is when those who God has called you to serve recognize you as their pastor. Not in name only, mind you, but because that endearing title represents the heart that Jesus has for His sheep. They know they are cared for by a graduate of Jesus’ School of the Shepherd. Beyond the titles, accolades and invitations to lead is a call to do what only Jesus can teach.
And that lesson leads to a high calling indeed.