The residents of Mumbai take pride in our city’s ability to bounce back from adversities. Whether it is devastating floods or terrorist attacks, we manage to return to normalcy in seemingly no time. The COVID-19 virus seems to be an exception, but our resilience and our ability to focus on the work at hand will serve this city well. I think this sort of resilience should also characterize those of us who are called to pastoral ministry. Setbacks and discouragements are a reality in ministry, but staying focussed on our task will help us press on. In a time when social government guidelines mean that churches are unable to gather together physically, what should we as pastors focus on?
As we search the Scriptures, what we find is that the regular weekly gathering of the church is just one of the elements of what it means to be a pastor/elder. The call to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to your flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28) describes more of a lifestyle than something which can be done in an hour and a half or so on a Sunday morning.
So, what does this look like? Whether or not there is a country-wide lockdown, what does it mean to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you?” (1 Pet. 5:2). The call to be an elder/ pastor/ shepherd/ overseer involves three central elements:
1. Feed the FlockGod’s people are transformed by the preaching of the Spirit-inspired Word (2 Tim.3:16-17), and Christ continues to sanctify the church through as his Word is preached (Eph.5:26). As elders, the only qualification of the ability which Paul mentions is the ability to preach the Word (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9). Normally, the teaching-preaching ministry of a pastor includes sermons preached on Sundays, small group Bible studies, classes, and one to one discipling. But since Paul clarified that the Word is to be proclaimed even “out of season,” we would be wise in a time like this to consider how to instruct our flock with the Word of God.
Some churches have decided to do services on conference call platforms like Zoom or live streaming platforms like Youtube and Facebook. Other churches have decided against substituting the “gathering together” using virtual means. Whichever way your church has chosen, the Sunday sermon is not the only way we feed our people. In the current situation, this could mean doing conference call Bible studies, electronically sending good resources, devotional articles or recordings, or calling people and encouraging them from the Bible. However you go about doing this, please help your church to engage with and apply God’s Word.
2. Pray for the FlockWhen the church in Jerusalem needed people to manage food distribution, the apostles said they would “devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts.6:4). They understood prayer to be central to their calling, and as pastors so should we. In prayer, we show our reliance on God and plead with him to act. This is because we recognize that only God can change hearts and transform his people into the image of Christ. We need to be men who pray for our flock when there is no lockdown, and much more so when we are unable to meet and pray with our church members these days.
I must confess that this is something I struggle with, but no excuse justifies not praying for Christ’s bride. As men who will have to give an account for our flock (Heb. 13:17), we would do well to know our members and intercede for them. We should pray for them not only in their particular life situations but also as Paul models in his letters for their lives to be more aligned with God’s Word (like in Eph. 1:15-23; Phil. 1:3-11). A practical step could be preparing a list of church members and working through that list in prayer. And as we pray we can know that God will answer in his time and according to his will.
3. Care for the FlockIn his first letter to the Thessalonians Paul writes that he was “gentle among [them], like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (2:7), and exhorted and encouraged them “like a father with his children” (2:11-12). As those who lead the household of God, we need to care for and love the church. We do this primarily through preaching and praying, but also by counselling and encouraging them in their sadness and joy. In a time when we cannot meet people and talk with them, we should use technology that allows us to stay in touch.
We would do well to call our church members regularly and care for them over the phone. Whether they are struggling with loneliness, a financial crisis, the prospect of unemployment, or the loss of a loved one, no Chrisitan should suffer alone. It would be a shame if the church and especially the leaders of the church did not know about their situation or did nothing to help the situation. Along with helping with specific needs, we will be able to teach and pray for our members better.
God’s Word remains our guide even in this unique situation that we find ourselves in. Let us strive to stay focussed feeding the flock, praying for the flock, and caring for the flock during this lockdown, and let us continue doing so even when the lockdown is over. As we do that, let us remember that we are working as undershepherds to the chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4). May God help us shepherd his flock.
For an example of how one church cared for its people, click here. For thinking through how to resume church gatherings after the lockdown, click here.