I was once told by a church leader that I “wasn’t very pastoral.”
This makes me laugh now, as I regularly find myself helping people through personal crisis and pastoral issues. It’s a testament to God’s transforming work, as he took someone who loved debates and didn’t have much compassion for weakness and shaped me into a spiritual mother.
Maybe the lessons below are obvious to you. Praise God! But I learned them through sweat, tears, and many cringe-worthy foot-in-mouth moments.
So here are some hard-earned lessons to help you as you join Jesus in caring for His flock.
1. A strong reaction often means you’ve hit a nerve
Has this ever happened to you? A group is engaged in discussion on seemingly neutral topic, when suddenly someone begins to get overly invested in the conversation. The mood intensifies. Tempers flare. And you can’t figure out why.
Or maybe this happened one-on-one. One minute you’re discussing a theological concept or some pop culture news, and the next there’s an edge to the conversation.
My friend Joe Marcucci taught me that an unexpectedly strong reaction often means you’ve hit a nerve somewhere. Watch out! The discussion has just gone from theoretical to personal. Slow down. Tread carefully.
I’ve applied this wisdom and often found it to be true later on. You may be speaking generally about gender identity, mental health, or the urgency of going to the unreached. But later you discover the friend you were speaking with has a sister in a lesbian relationship. Or a background of mental health issues. Or is wrestling with God about an unbelieving relative that just passed away.
Don’t take those reactions personally. Listen for wisdom. Apply the spiritual fruit of gentleness and self-control. Seek to win the person, rather than just the debate.
2. Say what you know to be true
As a geriatric millennial, I came of age when the American Christian cultural pendulum was swinging from Bible-thumping apologetics to friendship evangelism. “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words” the well-known saying goes.
We all learned to give “Alpha answers” when people told us their crazy theories. You know: “I believe there’s intelligent life out there, and when we have déjà vu that’s actually a connection to the universe.” You reply: “Mmmm, very interesting. I’ve never heard that idea before.”
I see this approach carrying over to mentoring, particularly among my peers. A believer comes to you looking for advice: I’m thinking of getting engaged to my non-believing boyfriend, what do you think? I can’t be in a small group with that person, because he drives me crazy. Will God forgive me if I get an abortion?
Even if the theological issues are clear, it’s difficult for many of us Western millennials to speak it. It’s ironic that while we live in a time where we use social media to amplify opinions and polarize debates like never before, we’re still so afraid to draw lines based on biblical truth.
Cultural relativism is the air we breathe. A non-judgmental outlook on life is both a blessing and a handicap. And if we live cross-culturally, we (rightly so) spend even more of our lives living in gray. But how can we serve other believers who come to us for help if we’re so unwilling to draw clear lines?
Here’s a simple antidote: Say what you know to be true.
When someone comes to you for help, be honest.
Imitate Jesus in asking searching questions. Seek to identify and speak to the heart of the issue, and not just the initial question. Like with prophesy, be careful to say what you are certain of, and resist the urge to elaborate.
But then, with love, speak the truth.
3. When in doubt, go to the Metanarrative
If you’re anything like me, you often run up against issues where you just don’t know the answer. In fact, one of the most startling revelations of moving to a new culture is how much of what I previously “knew to be true” was actually based on cultural norms, rather than Biblical truth.
The most helpful resource for developing as a Christian leader is getting to know God’s Big Story laid out in the Bible. This is true across the board – for pastors, preachers, children’s ministry workers, small group leaders, prophets, cross-cultural evangelists, etc.
Whether the question comes from a 5-year-old or a highly educated intellectual, it’s not a cop-out to zoom from a difficult scripture to the bigger picture. It’s actually one of the most basic hermeneutical techniques: Start from what is clear, and then built toward what is less obvious.
What is God like? How does He relate to us? Is there a story in the Bible of someone facing a similar situation? As you do so you’re discipling the people listening in how to approach these issues in the future – whether they’re a Jesus follower yet or not.
This is especially true for me now in the Middle East, because much of the time topics that are considered personal in the West (and therefore talked about one-on-one or not at all) are dealt with in a group setting. I’ve been in groups of ladies – not necessarily believers – where we all discussed if one person in the group should get divorced or not. Another time we wondered if God causes infertility. We’ve talked about if our husbands beat us or not and if there’s a place for that. We’ve all discussed one person’s parenting, and if she shouts too much at her kids. [As an aside, these kinds of situations demonstrate the need to invest in theological training for women, particularly in cultures with more separation between genders.]
When you admit the issues are complex and look to the Bible’s big themes for help, it demonstrates humility and submission to the authority of Scripture. And even if you lose the debate on a particular issue, those listening may still be captivated by the larger Story.
4. Imitate the compassionate Father
One of the most frustrating things about caring for people pastorally is that they don’t always listen to you!
Sometimes it’s just irritating (but since you’re not God, remembering your judgement is fallible is a helpful ego check). Other times seeing people go their own way rips your heart out and sends you to your knees.
Maybe you’ve listened carefully, said what you know to be true, and placed the situation in light of the Gospel… and it has all fallen on deaf ears.
One of the toughest lessons I’ve learned is that people mostly do what they want to do. If someone’s heart is alive to God, even a brand new believer is capable of making incredibly costly decisions. I’ve seen this again and again in the Middle East.
Jesus didn’t seem to feel pressure over people’s reactions to his teaching. He often ended his stories with the phrase: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Ultimately people are responsible before God for their own choices.
But when you’re hurting because of someone’s bad choices, it’s a chance to identify with God himself – the one who cast himself in the role of the compassionate Father, waiting for the prodigal to return.
Imitate the Father in actively waiting for the first sign of repentance. Stay alert! Don’t grow weary in hope. When your spiritual daughter or son appears tentatively around the corner, don’t walk, RUN!
5. Shepherds know which sheep are theirs
Jesus was very clear about who was with him and who wasn’t. He told the story of the shepherd who leaves the flock of 99 to restore 1 lost sheep. And in John 10:16 he says “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” Jesus had the 3 and the 12, along with women disciples who were identified by name. Though there was always a large crowd around Jesus, he knew who were in his inner circle.
It’s easy to get pulled into spending most time with the most seemingly needy people.
Here’s the key: which situations has God called you into?
Jesus had incredible demands on him from crowds of people, yet (in a theological mind-bender) limited himself to what he saw the Father doing (John 5:19). All God’s people are to bring light and preserving salt and blessing into a needy world. But the leading of God should be what defines our life’s work.
To whom is God leading you this week? This month? Leaving the 99 to chase after the 1 God has called you to isn’t scatterbrained leadership or mismanaging your time. It’s imitating Jesus.
6. My number 1 tip for a missed opportunity
Finally, I’ve got to throw in this little tip. It’s one of the single most helpful phrases I’ve learned and used, whether in evangelism or pastoring or really any kind of relationship. Like all my best stuff, I learned it from someone else – a great friend and evangelist from Boston named Lynn Breitenbach.
Surely you’ve also had the experience of walking away from a conversation and WHAM, you suddenly realize what you should have said. Doh! A missed opportunity, or maybe some kind of extra-biblical advice you accidentally doled out. If you’re working in your non-native language, I assure you this will happen regularly!
How do you pick the conversation back up in a natural way the next time you see them? Simple.
“I was thinking about what you said the other day, and…”
It’s simple. The person knows you were thinking about them after the conversation finished. And it’s a great lead-in whether you apologize for something you said, ask a Jesus-like probing question, or just want to pick up the conversation.
Blessings to you spiritual mothers and fathers everywhere.
May you experience God’s compassion and power as you care for the people He loves.