Shepherds and Self-Awareness

When ministers and elders gather together, it is usual for them share their ministry burdens with each other. The calling of a minister of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is high and hard; the weightiness of the calling and the sufferings experienced in it give us the need to discreetly share some criticisms we endure, oppositions we face, and brokenness we encounter. We are usually acutely aware of how these contribute to our own suffering.

It is more rare to hear ministers and elders reflect on how their congregations have suffered because of their ministries, despite the fact that this kind of self-awareness is a route to the most blessed and mature ministries. Why is it as uncommon as it is? Often because self-centeredness not only makes us shallow and blunt instruments of ministry but also blinds us to the harm done to the Lord's sheep entrusted to us. Then the sobering words of Ezekiel 34:3-4 become increasingly applicable to us: we fail to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bring back the straying, and seek the lost. We place hindrances between Christ and his sheep. Self-promotion, self-pity, apathy or harshness begin to characterize us. Evangelical writers offering counsel to pastors describe this all too common problem in varying ways. Some label it as low emotional intelligence or as narcissistic personality disorder. In the worst of cases, those who ought to be Christ-like shepherds of the sheep are self-centered abusers of the flock, and as these studies indicate, troublingly blind to themselves--and able to speak of their 'challenges in ministry' with great sincerity.

So how do we cultivate a healthy self-awareness in gospel ministry? How do we cultivate a humble and fruitful love for the flock?

Ordinary Means

First, we need to be engaged in communion with God, using the ordinary means of grace. We need to be in the Word for ourselves and in prayer for ourselves. As we come to him, the Lord uses his Word and Spirit to remove simple and overly high views of self, making us wise; his pure commands will enlighten us, including to ourselves. (Psalm 19:7-8) He will prune us for greater fruitfulness. (John 15:2) As we grow in knowing and communing with the Lord, we begin to see ourselves with far greater clarity, and realize with renewed depth how difficult it is to discern our own errors. (Psalm 19:12) We more deeply realize our need of our Lord Jesus Christ, and His perfect sufficiency for all. (Romans 7:24-25) United to Christ, and living in him, we become more like him. Through this, our ministry grows.

Communion with the People of God

Second, we need the communion of the saints for our own sanctification. We need to see ourselves as worshipping the King of kings and Lord of lords alongside them, with them. We need their love, encouragement, their concerns and wisdom. We need to be ready to listen to and heed our wives, elders, and fellow ministers. We also need to be ready to hear from our congregants. They see us, hear us, and know us from week to week. They enjoy the blessing of our ministries; they also suffer under the weaknesses and sin in our ministries. As ministers, when we receive concerns from church members, we need to guard against "circling the wagons" with sympathetic fellow ministers who don't see us day in and day out. It is all too easy to self-justify and commiserate with them rather than listening with a servant's heart to those living with our ministry. Our congregants may well see with uncomfortable accuracy that our ministry is going poorly; or they may have a gut sense that something is off, or missing in us, though they struggle to articulate it. If you want to grow in God-exalting ministry listen, reflect, and pray. Heart-searching counsel of past ministers is also a help; Charles Spurgeon's essay, "The Minister's Self-Watch", is a good place to begin.

Strict Judgment and our All-Sufficient Savior

Those who minister will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1). We need to proceed in ministry with great care and humility. We are not sufficient for our calling, but our Lord is more than sufficient for us in it. We bear the treasure of God's good news in jars of clay, so that it would be evident that God is the one who saves and sanctifies. (2 Cor. 4:7) He provides for and enables growth in faithful, fruitful ministry--including the painful blessing of coming to a more accurate self-awareness.

William VanDoodewaard has served as a church planter and is Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article is expanded from an earlier version published in the PRTS Update.