It was a sunny Sunday morning in February 2001. I remember the day very vividly. I was being inducted as pastor at Milford Baptist Church on the North Shore of Auckland. Just three months before I had finished my formal theological college.
Paul Windsor, the principal of Carey, preached the sermon that day. I still remember it very clearly. His message has stayed with me through the years. The text was Psalm 78:72:
And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
with skilful hands he led them.
This is a wonderful little verse. I can’t imagine a better guiding verse for pastoral leaders. It outlines our job description. It very clearly and succinctly—in 14 words no less—explains what we are to do, and how we’re to do it. In fact, there are two of each: two whats, and two hows. Drawing deeply on Paul Windsor’s words that day, let me take you through them both.
The first “what” is shepherding. David “shepherded” his people. When it comes to the Bible, and the examples set by its central characters, this is the central metaphor for ministry. This is the picture of a pastor—a shepherd. Think of the verbs that come to mind when you consider what we know of shepherds or sheep farmers. They care for the sheep. They feed the sheep. They guide the sheep. They guard the sheep. Caring. Feeding. Guiding. Guarding. It’s a comprehensive picture of a pastor. This is what we are called to do for the people that God places in our care.
But there’s more to this image. When you think of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, what really moved him? What stirred his compassion? It was seeing people—in his words—as “sheep without a shepherd.” Lost.
Some time ago I was shopping at the Westfield mall in Albany. My wife was at home and I had our three children with me, the youngest of which is Daniel—he was two or three at the time. I was in a hurry, and Daniel was lagging behind. He wanted to have a ride on something and I said, “No, I want you to come with Daddy now. I’m not waiting.” I started to walk away, took a few steps, and looked over my shoulder. It looked like he was coming, so I made my way with the girls out the doors to the car park.
When I got there, I realised that Daniel was not with us. I raced back into the mall. But I couldn’t see him. I retraced my steps, looking for his little head. I still couldn’t see him. He was gone. I’d lost him. Now just that week I had seen a news item about Jamie Bulger, the little boy who several years ago was abducted in a shopping mall. So, to the consternation of many shoppers, I started shouting at the top of my voice, “Daniel! Daniel!”
Eventually I found him, half way down the mall, cradled in some lady’s arms. I took my boy and held him in my arms, relieved and thankful to have him back safe and sound. As pastoral leaders our priority must be to care for the people of our community, to feed, guide and guard them, to shepherd them, in order that they might participate in God’s larger mission to reach his lost children, his lost sheep.
… with integrity
And how do we go about doing that? Again, this verse is so helpful. How did David shepherd? With “integrity of heart.” David’s heart—the essence of his being, everything inside him—was integrated. There was a wholeness, a completeness, about his life. No separate compartments. On this occasion it’s worth asking: what threatens integrity as a pastor? Two threats.
First, when our public image separates from our private world, that sense of integration or wholeness is under threat. There is no wholeness. There are two different people. I remember seeing this played out vividly in the life of Don Brash, one of New Zealand’s leading public figures in the last thirty years. He had a distinguished career as an economist, business leader, Reserve Bank governor, and politician. But it all came crashing down when it emerged that he had lied to the public and had an affair with a prominent businesswoman. He lost his career; he lost his marriage; and he nearly lost his life. He says in his autobiography that he contemplated suicide after—and I quote from the newspaper—“his private and public lives fell apart.”
There are many politicians who live two lives. There are many business leaders and sports stars who lead double lives. And for many observers that’s okay. Your private life is irrelevant provided it doesn’t impact on your public role. But for a pastor, it’s never okay. Don’t let your public life and your private life drift apart.
One of the ways it happens is with our words, when we’ve been hurt or wounded. We say things in private which we would never say in public. I love the principles that John Stott adopted for dealing with conflict. He resolved that he would never say anything negative about anybody if he hadn’t already said it to their face. And he resolved that he would never say anything negative about anybody without first affirming what he could say positively. They’re good principles. Don’t let your public life and your private life drift apart.
A second threat: When technique gets separated from conviction, our integrity is in danger. What I’m talking about here is the mentality of going for whatever works, rather than doing whatever is right.
- C. Sproul tells a story about a young Jewish boy who grew up in Germany many years ago. The lad had a profound sense of admiration for his father, who saw to it that the life of his family revolved around their faith and a weekly visit to the synagogue. But in his teenage years the boy’s family was forced to move to another town in Germany. This town had no synagogue, only a Lutheran church. And the life of the community revolved around that church. All the best people belonged to it. Suddenly, the father announced to the family that they were all going to abandon their Jewish traditions and join the Lutheran church. When his stunned family asked why, he said, “It’ll be good for business.” The youngster was bewildered. And over time, his deep disappointment matured into a kind of intense bitterness that plagued him for the rest of his life. Later, when he left Germany and went to England to study, he formulated a whole new worldview. He conceived a whole new movement that denied the reality of God and described religion as “the opiate of the masses.” The boy’s name? Karl Marx, the founder of communism.
At some point most of us feel the pressure to get results. Most pastors do. Don’t buy into that ugly brand of pragmatism where you grasp at techniques and whatever seems to work, rather than acting out of biblical convictions and doing what’s right. If you do that you’ll wake up one day and realize that you’re all about manipulating people, using—rather than caring for people, shepherding people. For God’s sake, do what is right and it will work. And God will build his church at his pace and in his way. Shepherd with integrity.
But if we zoom in on this verse a little more, what else do we see? As pastors we have been called to shepherd God’s people. We’ve also been called to lead them. There are so many voices out there telling pastors what it means to lead. The UK government recently conducted a study to determine “the six essential elements of inspirational leadership.” Guess what was first on the list? Inspirational leaders are leaders who “genuinely care about their people.”
I don’t know how much this study cost. It would have been cheaper to just read the Bible and listen to Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45). Great leadership is ultimately about sacrificial service.
… with skill
But how does this verse say that David led and served his people? He led them “with skilful hands.” I love the little verse in Ecclesiastes 10 that says, “If the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success.” It’s true. You see this in sport all the time. How does Lydia Ko, a relatively little woman, manage to drive a golf ball further than most men? How does a relatively little rugby player like Aaron Smith tackle the massive lock-forwards that regularly rumble towards him? It’s skill—not strength—that brings success. So, again, it’s worth asking, what threatens skill as a pastor? Again, two threats.
One is forgetting the basics. At Carey Baptist College, where I work, we have often used a sentence that sums up our vision. We want to produce “pastoral leaders who, with humility, integrity and passion, can love, feed and lead the people God calls them to serve.” Love, feed, lead. Don’t make your job overcomplicated. Keep it simple. It starts with loving people. That gives you the credibility to feed them with good biblical preaching and teaching. And when loving and feeding are in place, you’ll have the opportunity to lead them. You’ll have the mana to lead them. You’ll find yourself leading them, with skill. Love, feed, lead. It’s a good motto.
The second threat, growing out of the first, is neglecting the word. John Stott says that “Pastoral ministry is essentially a teaching ministry.” It is the ministry of word and prayer. Your core responsibility is to preach the word of God, to teach and apply the Scriptures, so that the people of this church might embody the gospel in their life together. Sure, there are many other things to do: there are people to visit, emails to write, meetings to attend, plans to formulate. These are good in themselves, but they are demonic if they distract you from your primary calling to teach God’s word, God’s life-giving word. So, give yourself to preaching.
If you do, it will mean lots of reading, lots of studying both the word and the world. I teach church history and I’m often struck by the extent to which the greatest leaders in the history of the church were voracious and diligent readers. Take William Wilberforce, the great anti-slave trade campaigner. In his superb biography of Wilberforce’s life, William Hague notes that Wilberforce would take bundles of books with him wherever he travelled. He’d snatch every opportunity to read “sermons, speeches, theology, the Greek New Testament, missionary accounts, legal commentaries, biographies and collections of letters.” His ministry, the author says, was “sustained and fortified by his voracious reading.” As a teacher, so must yours. Don’t be embarrassed to spend lots of time reading. Do it. And you will lead your people with skill.
“David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skilful hands he led them.” This is such a rich little verse. It contains such wisdom. But pan out a bit. Where is this text located? What is its context? Verse 70 says that “He [God] chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance.” God chose David. God called David. God appointed David to the role. But how did he do it? Through people like Samuel and Jonathan. They all recognised God’s calling of David. They confirmed it.
Shepherding God’s people is a glorious privilege but there are times when we feel like saying, with the evangelist Ian Grant, “I’m in the Winnie the Pooh, and there’s not much winnie.” At times like that it pays to remember how God called us. Through his people. Remember the Samuels and the Jonathans. Remember the words that have spoken to you and over you, affirming God’s call on your life.
And then, if you pan out a bit further—in fact a lot further, 69 verses in fact—what do you see? A quick scan of this chapter and it’s very clear what’s going on. This whole psalm is a potted history of the people of God—their faithlessness and God’s faithfulness as he shepherded his people. Look at v. 52: “But he [God] brought his people out like a flock; he [God] led them like sheep through the wilderness.” The chief shepherd of the flock, the CEO of any church, is not of course the pastor. It’s God. Our ministry is not, strictly speaking, our ministry at all. It’s God’s ministry, Christ’s ministry—in which we get to participate.
As pastoral leaders it’s good to remember that God has not only called us; he called the people among whom we serve. He is at work by his Spirit among his people, and beyond. He’s been at work for the first 69 verses of their history and he will continue to be at work, caring, feeding, guiding, guarding, and giving you—as their pastor—the grace to shepherd with integrity and lead with skill.