Frankly, it’s hard for any pastor, I suspect, to zero in on only one. Lots of things perplex, challenge, disturb, perhaps even dismay a shepherd of God’s sheep. The one I feel the most more than not is trying to shepherd those with whom I can’t seem to make contact.
Proverbs 27:23 exhorts, “Know well the condition of your flocks and give attention to your herds.” The writer’s main application may well pertain to literal diligence on the farm, but I dare say any pastor worth his salt will make the connection that he should familiarize himself as well as he can with the sheep of his pasture for their welfare. Add Hebrews 13:17 to the equation, the sobering truth that undershepherds ultimately will give an account to the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4) for those entrusted to their charge, then you have a pretty good idea how distressing it can be for someone who takes such a thing seriously to lose touch with the lambs in his fold, many or few.
As self-serving as it may seem, here is my plea to sheep everywhere to help ease this dilemma of shepherds everywhere when it comes to their obligation to feed, tend, know, and care.
One, become a member of your local church. Without your informed consent, your willing submission to the pastoral authority in your church, your shepherd has no ecclesiastical ground upon which to move into your life with the array of responsibilities with which he is charged, especially your discipline if necessary. This is why Hebrews 13:17 exhorts believers to submit and obey. You acknowledge that some ecclesiastical authority, somewhere, has your permission to keep watch and even intervene with discipline if you stray and that they are indeed responsible before God to do that. Remember, you cannot be put out of that to which you don’t belong (see 1 Cor. 5).
Two, don’t forsake the assembling of the saints together on the Lord’s Day (Heb. 10:24-25). It’s not the only way shepherds track sheep, but it’s a primary and significant way. We look to see who is hanging around the ordinary means of grace each Sunday that is the preached word and the Table. By the way, you can help your shepherd a lot if you will communicate with him in advance when you are going to be on vacation or away from the assembly for any other reason so that he need not be concerned about whether or not your absence means you have fallen into the ditch somewhere and that he needs to come with his crook to help yank you out of there.
Three, if you become discontent with your church and decide to go searching for a different sheep pen, do your present shepherd who cares about your welfare the favor of letting him know. Give him a heads up. I get that this is hard. You don’t want to hurt his feelings. You just want to slip quietly away. All I can tell you is that my default response when anyone extends to me the courtesy to communicate in this fashion is this: “Thank you for loving me well by cluing me in. You just made my mission-impossible job a bit easier.”
Four, don’s stay in limbo too long and as soon as you can take the church you are leaving off the hook for your care by resigning your membership and/or preferably transferring it to your next place of community. I’m not saying every church cares about this kind of record keeping, though I believe it should. But it helps your shepherd and it protects your soul if you make a clean and appropriately timely and sooner-rather-than later shift and inform the necessary parties affected.
My personal philosophy of people moving from church-to-church boils down to this: bless and release – EXCEPT if someone is running from sin or conflict. In those cases the same sin and the same conflict is waiting for you in greener pastures just in different garb. Deal with your stuff where you are and then if still lead, get a move on, little lamb.
And if you don’t know how to do that, ask your shepherd for help. If he can’t or won’t, you should probably leave that pen anyway.