Shepherding and Trust


The demands of modern church life can consume a pastor, especially a young pastor.

I was 31 years old when I was called to Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, to succeed Dr. Richard Halverson. The church had grown from five hundred to two thousand during his twenty two year of ministry there, which meant I encountered a large and active congregation with large and active expectations.  In attempting to meet those expectations, I discovered, like many young pastors, what it is to be buried by the demands of the present.

Yet now that I’ve pastored Fourth Church for over two decades, one piece of advice I would share with the new pastor is that the most effective ministries usually take time, since the most effective ministry usually occurs after earning the congregation’s trust.

Congregations need to know that their pastors are committed to long term involvement with them. If they don’t, they will feel like mere stepping stones for advancing the preacher’s agenda and not like cherished members of the covenant community and co-laborers for the kingdom.


Ironically, many of the cultural distinctives of American culture, distinctives which make America so dynamic, also work against this kind of congregational trust in its pastor. Since coming to the United States, I’ve observed this in a number of ways.

American Christianity, like American culture generally, is full of energy and activity. I remember observing this when I first came to the United States. American Christians have great dreams and believe they can accomplish almost anything their minds can conceive. Yet there’s a downside to this “messianically pretentious energy,” as it’s been called. Americans can substitute their cyclonic activity for the work of God. A pastor, for instance, might be tempted to rely more on his busy schedule than his prayer; more on his new ideas than on long conversations with old members.

The American church, like America generally, also has a remarkably creative capacity for communication. There is a good and necessary desire to “get the message across.” Yet again there’s a downside, what Eugene Peterson has spoken of as “embarrassingly banal prose.” This is not simply a poor use of language; it is the loss of vision as to what we should be doing as pastors, which Peterson sums up simply as “teaching our people to pray.” D. Martyn Lloyd Jones would have talked about “introducing men and women to the living God.”

A third distinguishing hallmark of American Christianity, which again draws from American culture generally, is its capacity for visionary thinking.Some American churches have taken to “vision statements.” They want to know where they are going, and they place great pressure on the pastor to take them there. (Is this just a fad, like spiritual gift searching and church growth seminars?) Again, there’s a downside. This type of thinking can lead to “impatiently hustling ambition,”a sickness that afflicts churches with the determination to grow at all costs or to achieve their goals whether they are good or bad. Pastors are expected to be entrepreneurs, as evidenced by the recent publication called “Pastoreneur.”

Often pastors have an ambition to obtain the “tall steeple church,” something I had never heard of before coming to America. But if our vision instead is to shepherd the flock to which the Lord has appointed us, we should strive instead for daily faithfulnesses, knowing that this will prepare a foundation that bears fruit in the future.


In order to earn a congregation’s trust, the pastor must shepherd his flock, which means building relationships. This is the difference between the pastor as leader and the pastor as shepherd. One cannot shepherd without building relationships with the sheep. Mere leaders have no such mandate. If the pastor adopts a secular model of leadership, he will see people as a product, not as a priority. Such leaders are engineers, not encouragers, managers, not ministers.

In our postmodern era, the shepherd “model” is no strategic ploy; it’s a poetic and biblical response to the searching of an aimless, straying culture. Postmodern people don’t need another CEO or more gee-whiz gadgetry. They need shepherds who will provide care, concern, courage, and commitment to the flock. They need pastors who will shepherd them with the gospel, both by proclamation and “the care of souls.”


I am the seventh pastor to serve Fourth Church in its 185 year history. It was and is daunting to know that the church has a corporate expectation for a lengthy ministry. But that is the traditional pattern of ministry: you, pastor, are to live among your people, serve your people, love your people, and so lead your people to grow in Christ. And it is this vision of shepherding—not mere entrepreneurship or clever vision casting—that should not only shape your preaching and teaching, it should shape your entire life and ministry.

Robert Norris

Dr. Robert Norris, originally from South Wales, has been the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland since 1984.

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