The fall of a pastor is devastating.
Whether that pastor has been called as a shepherd over tens, thousands, or some number in between, the ramifications of a failed ministry ripple far beyond what we can see, perhaps even into eternity. What damage can be caused when the shepherd fails to care for the sheep or betrays them with his or her own grievous sin!
Why does this happen? Why do pastors who have been called and equipped by God for service turn on their calling and delve into rebellious sin?
I humbly suggest that pastors who fail have lost sight of one vital pastoral principle that should undergird the entirety of a pastor’s ministry:
The shepherd is also a sheep.
The Shepherd-Sheep Principle
I glean this principle from the pattern we see in the New Testament, particularly in the relationship Paul had with Timothy.
When Paul writes his first letter to Timothy, the younger man is no longer sitting at the feet of Paul. No, he is shepherding a congregation. He is tasked to guard the right doctrine of the church (1 Tim 1:3-7), continually pray for the people (1 Tim 2:1), lead the congregation in public worship (1 Tim 2:8-10), raise up elders and deacons (1 Tim 3:1-13), instruct believers in the practical living of their faith (1 Tim 5:1ff) and pursue the character of a minister of the Gospel (1 Tim 6:11ff).
Timothy is a pastor.
Yet, he’s not a pastor on an island. He is not a sheep tasked with leading and then abandoned to the work he’s been called to. He is also a sheep under the shepherding of Paul.
And Paul, along with the rest of the disciples, was also a sheep who learned from a shepherd, the Great Shepherd Jesus Christ.
What is a sheep? A sheep is a disciple of Jesus Christ, one who is devoted first to serving Jesus with the entirety of his being. The sheep obeys the commands of the Great Shepherd and recognizes her complete reliance on him for provision, protection, and purpose. If the sheep wanders off without the shepherd, he is now in danger of wandering off a cliff or being eaten by wolves.
If pastors forget they are sheep first and wander away from the Great Shepherd, they are in danger of falling off theological cliffs and being eaten by the ravenous wolves of sin.
So this principle has informed pastoral ministry from the beginning. Even those Apostles who were the foundation of the Church required the oversight of a Shepherd. How much more do we, pastors and pastors-in-training, need to be shepherded throughout our ministries? How much more must we remember that we shepherds are also sheep?
Why the Pastor Forgets
I understand why pastors can forget this principle. Ministry can be filled with incredible highs and dark lows. Each place is incredibly dangerous for the shepherd.
It may be understandable why pastors whose ministries are struggling are prone to such grievous sins. We can identify with it. Things are hard and the flesh promises comfort and joy through sin. The promise is a lie, of course. Sins leave devastation in their wake and people are harmed spiritually, emotionally, and sometimes even physically.
Perhaps he is ashamed of the struggles of ministry.
Perhaps she loses hope and joy in the ministry altogether.
Perhaps he starts to question the call to ministry and seeks fulfillment outside the calling of God.
Instead of persevering in the faith through prayer, accountability, the encouragement of fellow brothers and sisters, and the counsel of the Spirit, the shepherd tries to do it all on her own until she feels desperate and is in danger of making shipwreck of her faith.
There is also danger in the face of ministerial success.
When things are going well, the shepherd can begin to get lazy and forget the spiritual disciplines that protect him from the flesh which is always at war against our souls.
He doesn’t pray as much. She spends less time in Scripture. Soon, he doesn’t see the need to confess minor sins to his fellow pastors or presbyters. The power that comes from ministry success begins to entice the shepherd toward pride and self-reliance. Suddenly there is a disconnect between the life of the shepherd and the message coming from the pulpit.
The shepherd calls the sheep to prayer but does not pray.
To devotion but he does not read Scripture.
To the confession of sins but she begins to hide secret sins of her own.
The shepherd forgets that he is a sheep and suddenly is in danger of making a shipwreck of his faith which then exposes the congregation to countless pains.
All this carnage is the result of a shepherd who forgets that she is a sheep in need of the counsel and encouragement of other shepherds and the guidance of the Great Shepherd.
So What Can the Shepherd Do?
My prayer is that the men and women God has called to shepherd local churches would never forget that, first, they are sheep.
So place yourself under the shepherding of others. If you’re a Presbyterian, be a part of your presbytery. Allow the other presbyters there to encourage you. Seek out a mentor who will regularly pray for you and who will ask you the hard questions about your manner of life and conduct. If you’re not presbyterian, do the hard work of finding other pastors in your area who will keep you accountable and encourage you through those difficult periods of ministry.
Also, I encourage you to never stop taking stock of your life. This was how Paul finished his first letter to Timothy:
“Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses…keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (1 Tim 11-12, 14).
Note the verbs: pursue, fight, take hold, keep. These are words that demand action on the part of the shepherd. Are you actively pursuing righteousness and godliness? Are you fighting against the flesh and chasing after love and gentleness? Are you refusing to give up? Are you keeping the commandments of God and so proving your love for Christ (cf. John 14:15)?
We must always ask these questions of ourselves and answer them in prayer and devotion before the Lord. Open Scripture and allow the Spirit to continually sanctify you. Come before the Good Shepherd in prayer and submit to his leading and instruction.
Brother and sister pastor, you have been called to shepherd the sheep. But never forget the underlying truth: the shepherd is also a sheep. You forget this at your peril, and at the peril of the souls God has entrusted to your care.