The Heart of a Shepherd

Part 2: The joy of portable grace

When God calls pastors, He endows us with a certain spiritual instinct for the work, a shepherd’s heart. That said, I’m not suggesting that all pastoral responsibilities come naturally. I have trouble taking grace on the road. I like organizing and studying quietly at my desk. I love everything about Sunday mornings. While I like being with people at the hospital or in their homes, I just don’t always have the gumption to get out the door.

Lots of pastors are just the opposite. It’s like grace is burning a hole in their pockets and they can’t wait to go out and find someone to spend it on. But I’ve learned a lot.

I got a call at church one summer evening when I was a young assistant pastor. Our senior pastor was away, so I was in charge. Art was calling to say that his college-aged son, Tom, who was working on a garbage truck for a summer job, had been seriously injured when his truck was hit by a train. He was in a coma at the hospital.

“Do you want me to come?” I asked.

There was about half a beat before he said, “No, you don’t need to do that. Just ask the church to pray.”

Half an hour later, people started arriving for a meeting and I spread the word. Jim, a wise and direct lay leader, asked, “Are you going to the hospital?”

“Art said not to,” I replied.

He looked at me, incredulous. “You don’t ask!” he exclaimed. “You’re the pastor. You go!”

My public style is very warm, so most folks don’t realize I am really weak at sympathy. Sadly, sometimes people in our church learn the hard way when I fail them. I’ve been a pastor for nearly 35 years, and I’m more responsive than I used to be. But I often have to resort to a quiet little test question: “What would a sympathetic pastor do?”

The sympathy to go to the hurting is the first step grace takes. It is pretty hard to help when I keep my distance.

God expects pastors to get gospel grace out the church door. Grace is portable. Grace is social. Jesus loves being with people. So pastors learn to go.

Welcome at work

I’m learning another facet of grace: I am salt, but I am also being salted.
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There are a lot of doors that open to shepherds. The first church I served had a lot of businessmen. At first those suited, sophisticated guys intimidated me, but as friendships developed, I got up my nerve and decided to take a one-day pastoral road trip. I arranged to ride the train into Chicago with one man. I met another for mid-morning coffee, another for lunch, a fourth around 3:00 p.m. Then I rode home on the train with one more.

I was afraid I’d be bothering these busy executives. I wondered if it would be embarrassing to them if their pastor showed up in their offices. But it was just the opposite. They were honored that I came.

They introduced me to their coworkers. They wanted to tell me about their work, show me their offices, and let me see the pictures and plaques on their walls. When I asked if I could pray for them in their offices, I realized that likely no one had ever done that before. Since then I’ve visited lots of people at their jobs, and it is always the same.

When we take grace on the road, wherever it is we go, we need to remember some things:

First, don’t be embarrassed by Jesus. In secular places I feel a subtle temptation to water down the gospel’s wine, to be a little too discreet. After all, this isn’t church. But we help people normalize Christ’s presence in their workplace. When we speak of Him naturally and personally over a desk or a lunchroom table, maybe they will too.

Do Word work. Ask God to help you naturally weave biblical truth into your visit. Choose a short passage of Scripture you can read if there is an opportune moment. Ask your friend what they have learned about the Lord and the gospel in this place. Ask what is hardest about being a Christian on the job. Encourage them in the Lord.

Pray for people whenever you can. Think about what you’ve seen and heard with them. You might be able to pray to the surface the frustrations, sorrows and sins that lie beneath their veneer. Draw up promises and blessings from Scripture like water from a spring. Invite Jesus into what are often godless places.

Honor their work. When you see skill, say so. “That machine is really complicated! How long did it take you to learn this?” When you sense how draining their job must be, acknowledge that. After I toured a steel mill, I had a new appreciation for the toll it took on our men who worked there. Tell God’s saints you can see how valuable they are in this place, not only to their company but also to Christ. “It is obvious how people respect you there. You’ve worked a long time to build up a reputation like that. ”

Salt

God expects pastors to get gospel grace out the church door.
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I’ve never been great at evangelism. I don’t mind sharing my faith, but I think there are so many people in my life that I am subconsciously reluctant to go out looking for more. Nonetheless, I realized I had to do something. Other pastors coach Little League or join Rotary. Hanging out at a doughnut shop was more my speed.

I started going early in the mornings to read and drink coffee. And guess what? I made friends who weren’t Christians. Other Christians do that all the time, but I had not. I did learn that being a pastor among unbelievers gave me some advantages my fellow believers don’t have.

One morning the owner introduced me to a brash guy I’d seen many times. “Lee, this is Lou. Lou, this is Lee. He’s a pastor.”

Lou smiled devilishly. “You’re a pastor, huh?” he said. “So I supposed you don’t like words like . . . ,” and he unleashed a string of vulgarities meant to shock me.

“Well,” I said, “I like those words about as much as you like words like sin, hell, repentance and righteousness.”

He grinned at me, speechless for a second, before he said, “Good one.” And just like that, we became friends. I’m pretty sure he had never had a pastor friend before. When it comes to salty language, I think God has given us the advantage.

Now I hang out at a local Einstein’s Bagels. I’ve been going for well over 10 years, often several times a week. The manager cuts me a break on coffee. I don’t evangelize much in the usual sense of the word, but I do try to be salty. People there know me and know what I do. Many of us are friends. Some open up to me more than they would to others because they know I’m a pastor

I watch the world go by from my corner table. Even when I have no conversations, I catch a flavor of the lives all around me. I watch droop-shouldered salesmen, aggressive young executives, moms with their kids, teenagers mesmerized by their cell phones. I realize how hard it is to be an immigrant, and I watch parents trying to connect with their kids over a muffin. I have become much more sympathetic—and more patient. I love non-Christians better than I used to.

I must also say that some of these friends have cared for me when my own burdens were heavy. In all this, I’m learning another facet of grace: I am salt, but I am also being salted.

There folks aren’t targets for me. I really enjoy knowing them. Their lives are interesting. I enjoy our visits, and we laugh a lot. I like to think I’m messing with their stereotype of an evangelical pastor.

Matthew 9:36 tells us: “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

I know some of those harassed and helpless people. We have coffee together. Often, I am the only shepherd they know.

I don’t go to Einstein’s all those mornings just because I like the coffee. I go because I need to taste the life of people around me and perhaps give them a taste of Jesus. When I sit there, I often think of part of a poem by Beatrice Cleland that I came across long ago:

For me, ’twas not the truth you taught,

To you so clear, to me so dim.

But when you came to me you brought

A sense of him.

And from your eyes he beckons me,

And from your lips his love is shed,

Till I lose sight of you, and see

The Christ instead.

This article is reprinted with permission from Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the care of souls, by Lee Eclov, copyright 2012 (Chicago: Moody Publishers). It’s the second in our three-part series “The Heart of a Shepherd.” Read Part 1, “The slow, small, but immeasurably sacred work" and Part 3, "When a colleague falls, what's your role?"

Read another of Lee Eclov’s writings on this topic—“The Practice of Grace”—published in 2012 at EFCA Now.

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