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Pastoral care

Fourth Sunday of Easter: 25th April, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

John 10

For many today, the model of pastoral ministry based on the ancient Middle Eastern shepherd is regarded as having been superseded by secular therapists and the explosion of the social sciences. It may have made a great deal of sense in a world which was basically composed of rural communities. But today we live in a world dominated by urban societies, and technical world-views. Sheep and shepherds are unfamiliar sights. As some one has put it: 'We can cope with a therapist, an analyst, or a counsellor, but a pastor sounds quaint and old-fashioned'.

But the shepherd metaphor, though admittedly strange to modern ears, is as up to date as ever in its meaning and relevance. The long discourse in John chapter 10 spells out the essential elements of pastoral ministry based on the model of the Good Shepherd:

1. The Good Shepherd Knows his Sheep

'The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out' (10:3)
'My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me' (10:27).

Unlike his counterpart on a Texan Ranch or New South Wales sheep station, a Palestinian shepherd had just a few sheep and he knows them each individually by name. And here is the first point real relevance to our modern world where so many find themselves being treated as patients or clients or customers. The Good Shepherd metaphor teaches that pastoral care is always, first and foremost, personal care.

We see this in the ministry of our Lord. Time and time again he turned away from the multitudes to pay attention to a needy individual — a blind beggar, a tax collector, a woman with a haemorrhage or a small child who has been silenced and brushed aside. It was this personal knowledge that startled Philip, 'How is it that you know me?' he asked. Jesus' knowledge extended to the depths of his being.

It was the celebrated Dr Spooner who, whilst shaking hands with people at the church door, got himself into a fluster when he couldn't remember who the lady coming towards him in the queue was. He blurted out: 'I know your name so well, I just can't think of your face'! I have some sympathy for clergy in that predicament. It is an easy thing to do when you are confronted with a queue!

Yet those who take to heart the role of the Good Shepherd will make every effort to ensure that, even if they can't know and care for the entire parish, they will ensure that there are others to share the responsibility. It is, after all, impossible for any one person to know everyone in a parish of more than 100 to 150 people. Pastoral care is personal care. The Good Shepherd knows the sheep.

2. The Good Shepherd Serves his Sheep

'I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep' (10:11).

In the Good Shepherd we see the true ANZAC spirit of self-sacrifice. The more we become like Jesus, the more we will want to pour out our lives in love and service to others.

How can people be transformed from a worldly-minded, self-centred way of living (even as Christians) to a heavenly-minded, other-person-centred way of serving? How does this kind of personal transformation take place, such that people's hearts burn within them to want to serve Christ and other people? Although we have many dedicated people serving in one way or another in our parish, we still have, like so many parishes, an 80/20 problem — 80% of the work being done by 20% of the people.

The root of this problem is surely related to people's lack of understanding about ministry in terms of loving service to others. Wanting to serve others, and to grow in that, is a function of Christian maturity.

The Good Shepherd serves his sheep.

3. The Good Shepherd Leads his Sheep

'When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice' (10:3).

In his charge to the elders of the churches in Asia Minor, Peter in his first epistle, instructs them to 'tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it — not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock' (1Peter 5:2,3).

Christian ministers are to lead by example. In other words, the priest or pastor, is to have oversight of herself or himself as well as oversight of the flock. None of us is perfect. It was said of one preacher that he 'preached so well and lived so badly, that when he was in the pulpit everybody said he ought never to come out again, and when he was out of it they all declared he never ought to enter it again'.

All clergy are human beings of human frailty and fallenness, vulnerable to temptation and suffering, struggling with doubt, fear and sin, and needing continuously to depend on God's forgiving and liberating grace. In this way, the pastor remains a model — but a model of humility and truth.

And being examples, Peter said, they are not to lead with coercion or control. Our Lord told his followers that the power motive belongs to the way of the world — 'Those who rule over the Gentiles, lord it over them ... but it shall not be so among you'. Sadly, in parishes and dioceses, there are those in positions of ministry who seem totally oblivious of this teaching. There are too many Christian leaders, not least among the bishops(!), who are 'control freaks'; who place too much value on having everything neat and tidy and under their control. A bit of messiness is inevitable in people ministry.

The Good shepherd leads by example, not coercion and manipulation.

4. The Good Shepherd Feeds his Sheep

'I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and out and find pasture' (10:9).

Like sheep, human beings are consistently hungry. Have you ever thought why most of us need three meals a day? We usually feed our pets just once, but we come back morning, noon and night. My theory is that this is so because it reminds us that we are fundamentally needy and weak. It drives us constantly back to the only One who can provide for us and strengthen us.

It would be a terrible mistake to see a healthy, strong man and assume that he must not be hungry, and then not feed him. He is healthy and strong precisely because he has come back again and again and again to be fed. Physically and spiritually we are hungry and frail, and need to return continually to the One who meets our needs.

The shepherd's role is to feed the flock with the life-giving bread of life in both Word and Sacrament.

Professor Tom Torrance helpfully spoke of the Eucharist as 'the sacrament of our continuous participation in Jesus Christ and all he has done and continues to do for us by his grace, whereby we live unceasingly not from a centre in ourselves or our own doing but from a centre in Christ and his doing'.

Likewise, the preaching of faithful, compelling biblical expositions is absolutely vital and necessary to the life and growth of our congregations. Weak and inadequate preaching weakens our churches. 'Sermonettes produce Christianettes'. It is a vicious circle. Superficial clergy make superficial congregations and superficial congregations make superficial clergy.

The Good shepherd feeds his sheep in Word and Sacrament.

5. The Good Shepherd Guards his Sheep

'The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep' (10:11-13).

Our Lord warns against two dangers — the wolves and hirelings. The wolves hunt the flock, now singly and then in packs. With their cruel instincts they represent the false teachers about whom Jesus warns in the Sermon on the Mount, 'beware ... they come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves' (Matt. 7:15).

Part of the task of those involved in ministry is, as Paul reminds Timothy in the so-called Pastoral Epistles, to guard the sacred deposit that has been entrusted to them from distortion and error. This is the kind of control that the New Testament calls for, the control of sound doctrine. But again, it is not a triumphalistic or coercive power that seeks to crush or snuff out those who hold a different opinion on 2nd Order questions. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, 'our job is not to secure purity but to find ways of deciding such contested issues that do not simply write off the others in the debate as negligible, morally or spiritually unserious, or without moral claims'.

Concern to guard the Gospel from wolves (false teachers) must always reflect the 'beautiful strength' of the Good Shepherd which is consistently tempered with charity — a much needed attitude in this fractious time. If the wolves represent false teachers, the hireling represents the unfaithful pastor. He or she is only in the job for personal gain and what they can get out of it. As Peter says in his 'ordination charge', the elders are not to be involved in ministry 'for sordid gain' or 'filthy lucre'!

The Good shepherd guards his sheep from wolves and hirelings — false teachers and unfaithful pastors.

6. The Good Shepherd Seeks his Sheep

'I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock and one shepherd' (10:16).

In our post-Christian culture we are keenly aware that the church is no longer a pastoral institution in a largely Christian country, but rather a minority in a missionary situation. Pastoral theology today must concern itself not only with penning of existing sheep but with the birth of more sheep. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, came to 'seek and to save the lost'. He leaves the 99 and goes after the 1 that is lost. The goal of our pastoral training is never just to make disciples. It is to make disciple-making-disciples.

Here then, are the essential elements of pastoral care in every age:

The Good Shepherd knows his sheep
The Good Shepherd serves his sheep
The Good Shepherd leads his sheep
The Good Shepherd feeds his sheep
The Good Shepherd guards his sheep
The Good Shepherd seeks his sheep

In concluding I need to stress that the model of a single ordained minister working alone, though still the norm in some parishes, stands in striking contrast to the normal pattern of ministry in the New Testament. There, ministry was always collegial.

The apostle Paul, for instance, had a large network of colleagues and co-workers who worked alongside him in ministry. Up to 100 names are associated with Paul in the New Testament, of which around 36 could be considered close partners and fellow labourers. And this variety of associates had a diversity of roles, from preacher, to scribe to prayer-warrior. There were women in Paul's team. There were full-time and part-time workers. Some were officially recognized (in our terms 'ordained') but the vast majority were not.

The important principle is that a pastor should not and cannot attempt the task of ministering to a congregation on his or her own. The standard pattern is plurality rather than singularity.

The ministry team represents the 'ministry of the few'.

The congregation represents the 'ministry of the many'. All the baptized are called by God to share the truth of God's love whenever and however they can.

We must refuse to accept the consumerist assumptions of our society and turn up to Mass on Sundays simply because we find the 'product' attractive — whether as consumers of sermons or spectators of liturgy. Good preaching and carefully planned liturgy are vital, but we must never forget that we are not called to be consumers. We are all called to be disciples of Christ, under-Shepherds of the Good Shepherd, such that when the Chief Shepherd appears 'we will win the crown of glory that never fades away' (1Peter 5:4).


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