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Oversight: the essence of Pastoral Ministry

I have mentioned previously that I think Hebrews 13:17 is a key text for understanding how pastoral ministry holds together. It is crucial that we ask what task pulls together all the various tasks of the pastor and acts as the controlling force of the others. Failure to think in this way has led to the lack of clarity on the role of pastors today.

Heb 13:17 states clearly that “leaders” (I think broader NT context would establish these as the elders/pastors) are to keep watch over the souls of their congregation, knowing that God will call them to account for how well they did this. Serious reflection on this text, its implications and how this fits with so much else in the biblical description of ministry would revolutionize pastoral ministry today- and probably lead to renewal in the church. That is a grand claim, but I am convinced that it is true.

A pastor’s primary task is to watch over, guard, nurture the souls of his people. We are to be instruments of God’s grace helping His people to persevere. In Baxter’s words, “It is our duty to help others attain eternal glory” (14). It is this aim which guides and animates our preaching, our counseling, our visiting of the sick and bereaved, our work and weddings and funerals. In all of this we are to be shepherding the souls of our people, acting as God’s steward directing them in the path of life, pointing out pitfalls of their specific situation, sympathizing with weakness but confronting sin and urging them on toward the celestial city. This is pastoral ministry. Anything short of this does not deserve the name.

This task is not less than but so much more than preaching good sermons. It is this view of pastoral ministry which makes it clear that the pastor must walk among his people (see Video Church discussion). Note these quotes from Baxter:

“I fear most those ministers who preach well, and who are unsuited to the private nurture of their members.” (7) Amen! What does this say about our impersonal approach to preaching?

“For he that does not pray for his people will not preach powerfully to his people.” (18)

“We should know completely those in our flock.” (71)

“A faithful pastor should have his eyes on them all. He should labor to know each person’s natural temperament, their situations, and the context of their affairs in the world. A pastor should be aware of the company they live with and deal with, so that he may know where their temptations lie. Thus he knows speedily, prudently, and diligently how to help them.” (76)

“But when a minister does not know his own people, he is not able to really minister to them.” (107)

“By means of such personal ministry we come to be better acquainted with each one’s spiritual state. Then we know better how to watch over them and relate to them.” (107)

Does this not challenge our status quo? But is this not right? Sure I know it is difficult. Do not disregard it as idealistic. We dare not do so. Let us face squarely the crushing nature of the task, and let that drive us to our knees where we might learn humility and beg God for wisdom, courage and grace to fulfill our task.

- page numbers for Baxter quotes taken from the edition edited by James Houston

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