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Question – We are looking for a new church. Would you mind answering this question for us: If you were looking for a church, what kind of pastor would you be looking for in that church? I know many things to consider when hunting for a church, but we wondered about leadership and what makes a good pastor. Thanks for your time. —Supporting Member
The first step is to seek advice. It is wise, humble, and essential. The decision is too big to make without external input. Church life is one of the three most significant spheres of your life, and work and family are the other two. You live most of your life in these interrelated circles, and when any one of them becomes unsettled, it can make life uncertain and even uncomfortable.
When I think about the “church question,” my primary thought typically revolves around the idea of, “Who do I want to be my shepherd?” I like to frame the church question this way, especially when you substitute the word pastor for the word shepherd. Jesus called Himself the good shepherd, and that speaks volumes to the kind of person He was and the kind of person you need to come alongside you as you lead your life and family.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).
You automatically connect the word shepherd to the kind of people you are: sheep. While sheep are not typically a flattering term, it is an accurate one. You cannot trust sheep to meander down the trails of life without the expert care of a good shepherd. The Lord knew this, which is why He gave the church under-shepherds to care for His sheep. Under-shepherds help you do things that are not “spiritually instinctive” to you.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake (Psalm 23:2-3).
I am not calling you foolish—at least you are not more foolish than I am. But you must receive care from others, which is one of the many things that distinguishes Christians from our worldly counterparts. You humbly recognize your need to receive care while seeking interdependent relationships who are for you. And none of those outside relationships are more critical than the shepherd you want to submit to receive his care.
Shepherding care does not mean the lead pastor of the church will be personally pastoring you. That is not always possible, especially if you land in a large church. Of course, the size of the church should not matter. Congregational size is a matter of personal preference. You can receive the care of the pastor regardless of the size.
The shepherd’s role is not what he does for you but what he provides for you. Though the pastor may not give you his undivided attention, he can offer you his expert care. The kind of care he provides for you and others will flow out of the type of person he is. The pastor of a small church and the pastor of a large church is the same in this way: they determine the shepherding care the church provides and the sheep receive. Regardless of the church’s size, the church leader sets the attitude, direction, and quality of the care. The church reflects his personality.
To equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Ephesians 4:12-14).
The pastor’s primary role is to lead, whether by caring for you individually or leading those who will be caring for you. If the church has a lot of people, the pastor will equip others to care for you. These individuals will carry out his shepherding vision and direction for the church. Suppose he is a pastor of a smaller congregation. In that case, he may be doing the primary soul care for the congregation while identifying a few core people to come alongside himself to help in the shepherding responsibilities.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).
Either way, the sheep who are part of the local church he leads should be receiving his world-class shepherding care. No doubt the shepherd you find will be wearing many hats, but the main one you want to discern is his soul care hat.
If you were to go to an auction where they were selling sheep, you would want to know the health of the sheep. The quality of the sheep will directly reflect the kind of shepherd who was in charge of caring for them. The quality of care is such an essential point that our Good Shepherd will judge His under-shepherds.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account (Hebrews 13:17).
The Hebrews text is a fearful passage that should motivate any pastor to be careful and diligent about the kind of care for his people. Though I am not a pastor, and God will not judge me in the same way as a pastor, this verse is a sober reminder of the seriousness of a person’s shepherding responsibilities.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3).
Peter considered the elders to be examples to the flock, another fundamental perspective you look for in a good shepherd. What kind of example is the pastor of the church you are considering? There are ways for you to discern the “exemplary care competence” of your potential under-shepherd.
You want to carefully consider his wife and children, assuming he has a wife and kids. His family will provide you the most accurate assessment of the kind of person he has been.
Though she is personally responsible for how she grows in Christ, there is no question her “shepherd husband” has affected her. You cannot live close to another human being for an extended period and not affect that person, whether for the good or bad.
If they are in their teens years or beyond, how do they carry themselves, interact with others, and engage in life? These things will be a reflection of how the primary influencer in their lives has influenced them. Their dad is the one who has had the most powerful impact on their lives. As you observe his children, what kind of vibe do you pick up from them?
I am not asking you the “regeneration question” or even the “passion for Christ” question. If they have been born again or passionate for the Lord, that is between them and the Lord. None of us can insert salvation or passion into our children because those functions fall within the sphere of grace rather than the works of men. What you are looking for is how their dad has shaped their personalities.
You are not looking for perfection in any of these qualities but the presence of Christlike shepherding from their dad. Similar to his wife, what has been his imprint on his children? No sheep exhibits perfection. We all have our flaws, but a discernible element of care has affected the person.
The reason these observations are essential is that you are not just asking the shepherding question for yourself. Your responsibilities before God are more significant than your unique sanctification desires. God has called you to lead your family, which means, in part, making sure you position them to receive the best possible soul care from the various ways the Lord provides. When I think about the local church I attend, one of the questions I ask, which is related to the shepherding question, goes like this:
If I were to die, has my pastor created a culture in our church that would be a safe and nurturing environment for my wife and children to continue to grow in their sanctification? Will my wife and children be safely cared for while helped to fend off the enemies of their souls?
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies (Psalm 23:5).
This verse makes the shepherding question much more extensive than who will take care of you in the here and now. Who do you want to bring long-term, futuristic care to your wife and children should you die? When you decide on the church where you will plant your family, you will be placing them under the care of a shepherd who will have a present and future impact on their souls.
He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil (1 Timothy 3:6).
Your decision has long-term consequences. Another way I like to think about this question is similar to how I reflect on a surgeon. Let’s say you were going under the knife, or maybe your wife were going under the knife. What kind of person do you want to do surgery on you? How about your wife? Who do you trust to do this? Surgery is not a rash decision, as you can see. You are looking for a person who is competent enough to provide the shepherding care and contexts that Jesus wants your wife and children to have.
The shepherding question is one of the most important questions you can ask when looking for a church. Though the shepherd knows how to preach and lead an organization, his application and practice of soul care will have the most significant impact on you and your family.
Paul did not preach in the most appealing or expected ways, but he knew how to care for souls (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). A great orator for a pastor may be a plus, but it is not a must. Even being a world-class CEO who knows how to run a world-class organization is not bad, but it will be his ability to provide personal soul care and soul care contexts that are of utmost importance.
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