One Cure for Burnout: A Plurality of Like-Minded Shepherds
“Don’t ever give your personal number to anyone in your congregation. If you get too close to these people you will regret it.”
That’s what a pastor once advised me when I was first beginning in pastoral ministry. This man had been very successful in ministry, and was a very gifted communicator. He’d led two very large churches, and I think his advice was given with an earnest concern both for me and my ministry. But sadly, this man had an unfortunately corporate and, frankly, unbiblical understanding of pastoral ministry.
A FAMILY, NOT A COMPANY
It’s easy in our current moment to think that the job of the pastor is to build an effective mechanism that produces useful Christian products: good sermons, good music, an exciting and morally instructive children’s ministry. In other words, it’s easy to see the job of a pastor as similar to that of a CEO. But the biblical definition of pastoral ministry is more like what Peter writes in 1 Peter 5:2–4:
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
When you look at how the church is described in the New Testament, the authors use words like “family” (1 Tim. 5:1–2, Eph. 3:14, 2 Cor. 6:18, Matt. 12:49–50, 1 John 3:14–18), “household” (Gal, 6:10, Heb. 3:6), “bride” (Ephesians 5:32), and “ body” (1 Cor. 12:12–27, Eph. 4:15-16). In other words, the language the New Testament uses when talking about the church isn’t marketplace language; it is covenantal language. It isn’t exchange-of-goods language; it isn’t we-offer-the-best-product-in-town language; it isn’t brand language, Rather, the New Testament uses relational language; it uses we-depend-on-one-another language—just like a family, a household, a bride, and a body.
SHEPHERDS NEED OTHER SHEPHERDS
When a pastor begins to understand this, he’ll see himself more as a father or a shepherd, and less as a manager or boss. He’ll see his job less as a man who runs an organization and more as a man who cares for people and seeks to disciple, guard, protect, and stir others toward faith and good deeds.
When this transformation happens in the heart of a man, he truly becomes a pastor. And once this transformation takes place, he will desire co-laborers for this task in order to serve the church. He’ll realize that he cannot care for the church alone—like a CEO—and so he’ll desire men who can do more than run his ministry mechanism. He’ll desire men who are shepherds with different gifts, viewpoints, and perspectives.
A plurality of elders is a natural conclusion for those who rightly understand the New Testament church and the role of pastoral ministry. But more than that, a plurality of elders is a biblical conclusion and expectation.
Throughout the New Testament—from Acts to Titus to 1 Peter—a plurality of elders is commended and modeled. A healthy congregation needs the care and oversight of more than one man, and a plurality of elders gives affords many particular benefits: better teaching, a broader congregational perspective, a variety of gifts in leadership, and accountability among leaders. Such a list could go on and on.
Thankfully, the Lord gave me wiser counselors who helped me see that the advice I received to separate myself from the congregation was neither right nor wise. Since that conversation many years ago, the Lord has allowed me to transition established churches to a plurality of elders, and to plant a church that began with a plurality of elders.
Transitioning a church’s polity and establishing a church’s polity are both challenging ventures, but those challenges are far less than the challenge of rightly pastoring a congregation on your own. After all, when you’re on your own, you are left to, at best, cursorily look after the souls that have been entrusted to your care, and, at worst, to ignore many of them altogether just due to sheer lack of time.
Graciously by his Word, the Lord has given us a better way to lead his church. He expects a plurality of gifted and qualified men to care for his bride. If you currently pastor a congregation that has no qualified men other than yourself, then you should do two things: begin earnestly praying for such men and, second, perhaps reconsider if your standards are loftier than the Bible’s.
You will be grateful for these men today. But pastor, you will be even more grateful for them on the last day, when you give an account for those souls that God has entrusted to your care (Heb. 13:17).