Photo by Nicola Jones on Unsplash
Today’s guest post is from Jonathan Chong, pastor of Chinese Presbyterian Church in Sydney, Australia. To learn more about CPC, you can visit their website.
In the last week, I’ve been farewelled from my first pastoral position post-seminary. I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learned as a first time pastor that I will carry with me to my next post. Here are 5 of the most important ones…
(1) People live in the ordinary – make sure you know how to connect God with the ordinary
You come out of seminary learning about cool things like Vosian biblical theology and Pauline union with Christ. You (used to) know what communicatio idiomatum meant and the importance of a hitpael vs. piel verb stem. None of my church members cared about this stuff though.
What did they care about? They wanted to know what the Bible says about dating. Or, how to think about God in the midst of depression, or how to trust God when they were still unemployed and couldn’t find a job. They wanted to understand what it meant for God to be their refuge and strength when they were being constantly berated by their parents for not living up certain standards and expectations.
I realised that if I wasn’t able to connect the depth and riches of my seminary education with the ordinary nature of everyday life, people would struggle to see the meaningfulness of my pastoring. This didn’t mean that I had to dilute my theology or to only talk about felt needs, but it did mean I needed to learn to show them that those felt needs were directly related to spiritual realities (and they very much are!).
Connecting God with the ordinary is an ability to show how in all circumstances Christ speaks powerfully. We want to show our people that the Gospel in Christ is not only a soteriological solution, but that it is relevant and satisfying in the most mundane and ordinary aspects of our lives.
(2) You never know when someone is listening – make sure you’re pointing them to Jesus!
It’s amazing what people remember. As I was farewelling our congregation, many people recounted to me small off-handed comments I had made and how they’d taken them to heart. It wasn’t the amazing sermon that I preached (though I’m not too sure how many of these actually exist), nor the captivating Bible study I led, it was those comments directing people to Christ in their moment of need that stuck in their minds.
There is a temptation to shepherd via pragmatism or secularism. To provide counsel that will “make life work” for people without thinking about the theology that drives that counsel. Without realising it, our counsel can be great advice but not the good news of the Gospel. I needed to constantly ask myself, am I offering Christ, or am I offering something apart from Christ? (For example, I found this discussion on self-care vs. sabbath interesting). We might tell people to seek self-care, but what we might better be teaching people about is the biblical principle of sabbathing.
(3) The small stuff matters, even if it doesn’t matter much to you
Time and time again as I was farewelling people, they would remember small things I did for them that I didn’t even remember myself. Having time for a phone call or a coffee. Buying them a small dessert when they were going through a tough time. Talking to them briefly each week after church. I was blown away by how much the small stuff matters to people. Often these things never even factored in on my radar. They were one among many other things happening in my life. And because of this, it would be easy to neglect these small moments – a phone call, a small conversation. For in my mind – what did it matter?
I realised that the small stuff really matters to people – even if it didn’t matter that much to me. I’ve been challenged to make the small stuff matter to me now, since I’ve realised it matters so much to others.
(4) Everyone wants to portray an image of strength – the greatest gift, apart from Christ, is to be weak before your congregation
We are always making assumptions. Regardless of whether they are valid or not, that’s what we do. I think one of the things that people assume of pastors is that they have it all together. They may not be perfect but they’re generally doing better than 99% of the congregation.
What this assumption generally does is stop people feeling that they can approach pastors with their issues (for fear of potential judgement?). And so what happens is a division gets setup between the congregation and the pastor.
I think one of the greatest ways we can show Christ to our congregations is to tear back the curtain and show how weak we are. Where appropriate, talk about the temptations and the struggles that we face. Talk about where we’ve repented and talk about how we’re actively trying to grow in faith of Jesus.
In our weakness, Christ is glorified as people see God at work in our lives, but what it also does it helps people also see that being weak is okay. It invites them to share with you about their relationship with God with openness and honesty, and that vulnerability is a real gift to a pastor.
(5) Patience and empathy are powerful tools in shepherding God’s people
I wish I was more patient. And I wish I had greater empathy. But I think, through God’s grace, I’ve had just enough over the last three years to make a difference in people’s lives.
People need time to grow. They also need space, not to just grow but to be heard as well. Being able to be patient and to understand where people are at speaks volumes to those being shepherded. It seems to communicate in a way that nothing else can that they are valuable and worthwhile.
This is hard. With the competing desires of life there’s always the temptation to want to fix people fast. Paul describes a few times of how he relates to people as a parent (1 Thess 2). Parents are long-suffering, patient and sacrificial. I think this is a great image of what it means to shepherd God’s people.