By now it should be obvious that my talents don’t lie in the area of shepherding (in the traditional pastoral sense). But the series really needs a post on how to shepherd — and I’m the last person you should ask.
So I’ve asked other people — people who are good at this.
Here’s what I gather —
1. I believe we’re going to be judged most especially by how we treat the “least of these.” Different places and cultures have different “leasts.” In church, there are always what some call “extra-grace Christians” — people who are just harder to deal with than most people.
I make a point to greet and speak to stutterers, the mentally ill, the disabled, the very shy, people with Asperger’s Syndrome, and anyone else at church who is difficult to talk to. If they don’t want to talk back, I respect that. But I figure some of these folks haven’t met a friendly ear all week — and if church means anything, it’s a place where a stutterer will find the patience to be heard.
So I don’t know if that’s “shepherding,” but I think it’s important. And if someone with Asperger’s wants to talk about comic books for a few minutes at church, well, I can talk Fantastic Four or Batman however long I need to.
2. Most people don’t need counseling. They need presence and listening. And even I can do that. (I learned about presence from a Patrick Mead sermon.) Those who are mourning are not going to be logically compelled to stop mourning. They don’t need to be told that “It’s all part of God’s plan.” (No, it’s not. God is not a monster. God’s plan is to defeat death.) But they do need someone to be there to listen and care. People just need time to work through tragedy — and a loving ear helps.
Now, I’m the sort who is happy to listen — the first time. I really hate having to hear the same thing over and over — and yet I have some dear friends who process difficult issues by talking about it over and over. It drives me nuts. But they’re friends, and so I listen.
Evidently, there is this strange sort of person — called an “extrovert” — who wants to “process” information by talking. And talking. And talking. And I don’t get it. But I understand that there are such people and that they think I’m just as strange. (If you catch me repeating myself, I’m tired or sick or dying.)
If you’re an extrovert counseling an introvert, don’t assume that they desperately need to talk about it. You in their place, but you are different kind of person. If your introverted friend would rather go for a quiet walk, tend to her garden, or read a book — support her decision and enjoy the silence that only close friends get to experience together. Get a book and read, too — so she won’t be alone while she “processes” her grief in her own way.
3. People need to feel significant to the church leaders. Get on Facebook and say “Happy birthday!” to every church member with a birthday. (I don’t do this, but I’m on leave of absence.) Even I like to be wished a happy birthday. In fact, I’ve learned that any effort beyond “Happy birthday!” will put you in the top 5% of Facebook birthday well wishers. Just say, “Have a great birthday, brother!” and the personal touch will be astonishing. Say something actually personal (like “And have fun with your family at the lake!”) and you’ll make the top 0.01%, and they’ll be thrilled for the extra effort.
One preacher recommended that we elders send a handwritten personal note to each member in our shepherding group each week. But that would have been about 150 cards per week at the time — and I couldn’t help but notice how few cards I was getting from said preacher.
Handwriting is pretty old-fashioned, and most of us would prefer an email. An email or even a text or personal message on Facebook congratulating members on accomplishments, graduations, new jobs, promotions, etc. will be great encouragements.
In fact, I know people who aren’t elders who do this as a personal ministry — and I do enjoy receiving the positive note of encouragement now and then.
The little things add up.
4. Teaching is not pastoring — although if you’re a really good teacher, you can connect to some people that way. I mean, some people just enjoy a good Bible class, and while teaching is not pastoring, it can build a connection with people who are big into Bible study — intellectuals and such like. Use what you have.
I make a point to hang around class as long as people want to talk with me about the class (or other stuff). I try to get there a little early and stay a little late to create space for unplanned conversation. In fact, I try to be the last person to leave if anyone wants to talk about anything at all. This is time I’ve budgeted to be available.
5. Make yourself available before and after the morning service. Try to be early. Stay as late as you can without being late for a class you need to teach. Informal chats in the aisles — and just being available — are invaluable.
6. Go to small groups — not just your own but every group that has members who are part of your shepherding group. And don’t teach. (Okay, you can teach some of the time.) Just be there, be friendly, and listen. If someone wants to complain about the church to you, be glad they chose you as the conduit for their complaints. Listen. They just might be right.
Rotate among all the small groups you’re responsible for, and then start over. Don’t think in terms of being the “leader” and meeting with the small group leaders and coaching them. Why? Well, what do you know that they don’t? They don’t need a small group coach. That’s hierarchical thinking. That’s about control. And most of these leaders know more about small group leading than you. They don’t need you to be their boss. They need an elder who is present and willing to listen.
(Just as being ordained an elder doesn’t make you an expert in counseling, it doesn’t make you an expert in small groups. If you want to be a small group coach, take the trouble to study the literature and become knowledgeable. It’s not rocket science (although some of the books read like engineering manuals) — but show enough respect for the real experts not to assume that your title makes you an expert.) (Saddleback has 120% of their members in small groups — and some excellent training materials.)
Try to learn names (I’m terrible at names. I mean, really, really terrible.) Try to learn something about everyone there. Try to form some connection. Work the room without appearing to work the room.
Bring your wife. On your way home, write down what you remember about the people. Take notes. Learn the people — not just names but jobs and children. Be a people-person even if, like me, you’re not.
Stay late. Be the last couple to leave. Help clean up. Be an humble servant. Insist on throwing your own trash away.
On your third or fourth visit, suggest that the group start taking the Lord’s Supper together as part of a common meal. Preside over the inauguratory meal. Assume the role of an elder as the elements are shared. Make it a big deal. It is. Jesus died so we could do this. Pass the elements. Take on the role of servant in carrying the bread and drink from person to person. Serve.
I’ve never done this (I’ve done this, but no group has done it at my suggestion), but I bet it dramatically changes the meeting from party to sacrament.
7. Visit the sick in the hospital. Visit the mourning at the visitation. Feel free to stop by their home the night before and hug and console the mourners. They’ll be glad to welcome their elder into their home. They’ll be honored that you did this.
8. Take someone with you. It’s more important that you equip others to serve than that you serve. Multiply your learning by sharing your learning.
When you go to the home of someone who just lost a spouse, invite a younger member or two to come with you. Model shepherding behavior. Do it right and you’ll soon have created a dozen or so under-elders who multiply your ministry, who make your life much easier, and will allow you to retire from the eldership knowing you left it in better hands than your own.