A group of adult siblings sat in my office one evening not too long after their parents divorced. The siblings and their spouses were at a delicate point in their relationships and confused about how to move ahead with each other, their parents, and the new people coming into their lives. There were a lot of questions and exposed nerves in my office that night, and we all needed wisdom.
While I had prepared by praying about each of them and studying up on their situation, I re-learned a lesson I have learned several times over in my almost 30 years of pastoring. My preparation fell short, and I felt like I did not have the kinds of answers I wanted to give them in their time of need. I was asked several straightforward questions and answered as well as I could. I asked plenty of questions, probably sounding naïve more than once. By the grace of God, I hope they received some comfort and guidance. But I know God was at work in me, teaching me something about my role as a pastor.
Being patiently involved with people can help introduce the gift of pastoral humility into our work. Pastors are not fortune-telling machines at carnivals where people input their loose change and get a trite answer. We are not experts at behavior management who treat the human soul like a computer with a virus. We are not saviors. We are shepherds. We are at our best when we help others into the presence of the Good Shepherd and the lover of their souls and help them find ways to hear His voice. Pastoring is far from an exact science. It forever eludes simple formulas or managerial expertise, no matter how often we try to foist them upon the biblical work of taking care of souls. Pastoring often humbles us.
Why is humility a pastoral gift? How can we receive it?
A Pastoral Gift
We need to be in direct and intimate contact with the people in our congregation to learn how much we cannot do. The role of pastor is given to heady experiences when things go well, as we are sometimes susceptible to our congregants’ flattery. As a result, we need experiences where we come face-to-face with issues that cannot be fixed with a new mission statement or Easter strategy. We need to be in over our heads from time to time.
We are tempted to reduce our work to formulas, because we know how hard real life is. If we can fly at 30,000 feet above the daily lives of our congregation and drop care packages of new logos and a nursery remodel, we might be able to convince ourselves that real work is being done. If, however, we strap on our boots and go trudging through the mud with a family wrestling with chronic illness or an individual confused about their sexual identity, we might learn to put our mission statements in their place and focus more on the presence and power of God in real life.
When these things happen, I learn what role I play. I am crushed by the thought of trying to “fix” these problems under my own power. I would be too ashamed to hand them a spiritual version of a sugar pill and avoid eye contact the next week. The gift of pastoral humility means we learn what role Jesus plays in their lives and how important it is that we point people to Him as often as possible.
To paraphrase one disciple, I need to become less and Jesus needs to become more. If someone leaves my study thinking more about their relationship with Jesus than what I said, it was a successful meeting.
Receiving the Gift
This is a gift that unwraps over time. Chances are we will have occasional shocks of humility when we are laid bare. These moments happen to all of us, and we may even walk away licking our wounds. But one moment of being humbled does not a lifestyle make. We may decide to never be put in that position again and avoid it from there on out. If we do, we have not received the gift.
Receiving the gift of pastoral humility means being able to absorb those moments and let them inform us over time. Instead of the promised successes of managed programs, the lives of people provide all the ups and downs we can imagine. This makes work difficult for a pastor trying to move people forward in their discipleship, but it was the experience of the Good Shepherd Himself. We follow in His footsteps when disciples pledge their lives to Christ and even when they walk away in confused and faithless disobedience.
I am learning to pay attention to what Jesus is doing in my life through these moments. I could have walked away from that evening with a sense of failure. Instead, I decided to reflect upon how it could develop my own sense of humility and push me deeper into my reliance upon the work of Christ.
Humility teaches me that my final task is to obey my call, love my Savior, and point people to Him. I believe that pastors need to grow in both faithfulness and spiritual fruitfulness over time, but I am also learning to approach those goals with humility instead of a veiled hubris. If I am careful to pay attention to this gift – and others like it – I can rest more and more in the sovereign activity of our wise and loving Shepherd.