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Volume 15, Issue 2: Poimen

The New Guy, Pt. 1

Joost Nixon

God loves sheep, and having withheld claws and fangs from the fluffy little creatures, He compensates for their defenselessness with a state-of-the-art relational radar. Sheep know to reject strangers and are uncommonly attached to the fellow whose voice is so familiar. Usually this works to their advantage.

But there always seem to be exceptions. Consider, for instance, a period of transition. As the flock contendedly munches green grass by still waters, perhaps their shepherd suddenly succumbs to the maw of the lion. Or maybe—less gloriously—their shepherd dumped the flock for a lucrative psychotherapy gig in Manhattan. Regardless of the reasons, a changing of the guard is bound to happen sooner or later in every flock. Time sweeps all of us away like a flood, and every shepherd eventually goes to his reward. But sheep need shepherds. So what about the new guy?
There is an awkward time when a new shepherd arrives on the job with formal, legitimate authority—but the flock neither knows his voice nor follows him. The poor fellow shows up on their relational radar as a bogie, and the sheep run for it on their stubby little legs. He calls for them to follow, but they're having none of it—they continue to be positively skittish until they learn to trust him. This is a vulnerable time for the flock. And though the pastoral equivalent of a 67 car pile-up can happen at any time during a man's ministry, this season when formal authority outpaces informal authority is like an icy freeway with zero visibility. We must do what we can to shorten this length of the road as much as possible.
That this danger exists is symptomatic of a bigger problem. Seminaries have largely taken the responsibility upon themselves of training pastors, or rather, the church has given them this responsibility.1 And because the training isn't happening in local congregations as it ought, most churches have an unfortunate need to import leaders from other congregations. These men, even if they are qualified, still come to the flock as strangers who must work hard at building trust, or capital.
Many pastors fail, not because they are leading in the wrong direction, but because they simply lack the capital to lead in any direction. It could be stated still more strongly: many well-meaning pastors know precisely where the Lord would have His flock pastured; they have the turf by the still waters staked out, the green grass happily anticipates being eaten, and the shade trees continue to push their limbs up and out. All is waiting like a well-laid feast—the sheep need only follow. But trust is wanting, and so green grass or no, those sheep are not going to budge—and a few of the more ornery ones might take to gnawing on their well-meaning pastor's ankles if he keeps pushing.
Consider the Apostle Paul. Obviously qualified, and moreover, hand-picked by Christ for apostleship (Gal. 1:1), Paul's second letter to the Corinthians is nevertheless a cry for pastoral capital. He did not want legitimacy,2 he wanted their hearts. "O Corinthians! We have spoken openly to you, our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted by your own affections. Now in return for the same (I speak as to children), you also be open" (2 Cor. 6:11_13).
Clearly, we are simply speaking of the nuts and bolts of building a reputation, and its effect on one's ability to lead and feed God's people. "A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, Loving favor rather than silver and gold" (Prov. 22:1). Ultimately, this "loving favor" is a gift from God, and yet He does not give it randomly and purposelessly, but rewards faithfulness and the use of means.
So what are the means? Three questions help us get a handle on the topic. First, to what extent is the man qualified? Second, and welded inextricably to the first question, to what extent is the man faithful in his pastoral duties? And third, have the sheep had a large enough window of time to know experientially the answers to the first two questions?
There is little need to add to the already massive corpus of literature on the qualifications for ministry. It is self-evident that sheep will shy away from men who brandish rotisserie spits around them. It is good for scoundrels to have a devil of a time earning trust. But given qualified character, what else builds capital? First and foremost is a love for the sheep. This love can be manifested in words (e.g. 2 Cor. 6:11-13; Phil. 1:6-8), but comes across much more powerfully in mundane actions. An infants knows his mother loves him by the way she changes his diapers, holds him to her breast for nourishment and sacrifices for him in countless other ways. If a mother analogy seems inappropriate for an office that is exclusively restricted to males, let the reader understand that Paul considered himself both nursing mother and exhorting father to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:7-10). Translated into shepherding, this is a man who is aware of the state of individuals in the flock, and is out seeking, caring, healing, feeding as each sheep has need (Zech. 11:16; cf. Ezek. 34). All this takes a tremendous amount of time, is often emotionally draining, and there are occasions when all the fuss is for naught. But that you care to take time for God's people to help them with what is significant to them all counts enormously when building trust.

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