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When you’re zealous for God and eager to please Him in this great calling He has placed on your life, that’s a wonderful thing. God delights in souls who sincerely care about pleasing Him. But while you’re learning how to juggle the many aspects of shepherding God’s flock, there’s one very important principle which you need to keep a hold of: you matter, too. It’s not just about the little lambs under your care. God didn’t call you into this role just to perpetually give and never receive. Within the context of His personal relationship with you, God says your personal spiritual development is the top priority. This means that He is always going to be teaching you personally, even as He uses you as a conduit to minister to others. As far as God is concerned, what’s going on between you and Him is far more important than what’s going on between you and anyone else. God didn’t call you into this role just to use you to benefit others. God’s primary reason for calling you to serve as one of His shepherds is to draw you closer to Him. This is an easy thing to forget, because we’re told on all sides that pleasing God means being outwardly focused. Well, as much as God wants us to love others, He wants us to love Him first. This means our focus must be inward before it is outward. We must be allowing God to nurture our own souls before we try to go nurture others on His behalf.
A common trap well-meaning shepherds get caught in is losing a grip on how precious they are to God as individual souls. When needs arise in their flock, they rush to help out of a sincere desire to please God. But after a while they slip into the mentality that all they are to God is the instrument through which He blesses others. They are always the conduit through which God’s love and encouragement flows, but they never get to be the sponge that soaks these things up. Here’s where we need to get back to basics and think about why God calls humans to shepherd for Him in the first place. After all, He’s God. He’s All-Powerful and utterly capable of taking care of His lambs without our help. Truth be told, we are often more of a hindrance than a help with all of our bumbling about and constant questioning of His methods. So why does He bother with us? What’s the point of getting us involved when He could do so much better without us? The answer is that He delights in communing with us.
God didn’t call you to shepherd His flock because He needed your help. He’s already shepherding the entire flock—not just your little piece of it—and He’s doing a very marvelous job. The call to shepherd is not a call to lighten God’s load for Him, but rather a call to walk the fields with Him and observe the way He cares for the sheep. We do not shepherd alone, we shepherd under His close supervision. Working for God is an entirely different thing than working for people. When people hire us, they offer us a limited period of training, after which it is expected that we will stop asking questions and go off and handle the tasks we are given. But when God calls us to serve Him in some way, He never declares us qualified to work without Him. And instead of becoming impatient with our questions, He teaches us to constantly come to Him over every little thing. While human bosses reward independent thinking among their employees, God rewards dependency. The more we lean on Him, the better. The less we trust in our logic and instead rely on His wisdom to guide us, the brighter we shine in His eyes.
When you’re legitimately called to function as a shepherd for God, His words are burning within your soul and you simply can’t be at peace until you speak them out loud. The true call to preach feels like a desperate need to preach. Even when His message scares or perplexes us, we can’t keep it bottled up inside. Like Jeremiah, the torment of trying to stifle God is far too intense to bear, and even when our reputations are on the line, we obey His commands if only to secure our own peace of soul. Yet what is the true purpose of God seizing hold of us like this? Is it really to get some critical message out to the flock? No, because God is quite capable of convicting souls directly. While He will certainly use our messages to impact others, that is not His primary goal. In the context of your life, God calls you to preach in order to draw you closer to Him. In the context of your walk with God, you are His first priority, and everything He does with you will be about drawing you closer to Him. It’s never just about some other soul. Sometimes it will be about another soul and you, but it is always about you.
The whole experience of God dominating you and seizing control of your mouth and mind in the process of speaking His words—this is an experience which is going to give you fabulous insights into the concepts of reverence, submission and alignment. Certainly it is a great honor to be used by God to bless some other soul, but the greatest privilege of all is that He is inviting you to know Him better. In your life, the flock cannot be first. You and God are first. It is the needs of your own soul which He will keep turning you back to over and over again, and it is the needs of your own soul which He wants you to discuss with Him before you start discussing anyone else.
God has the flock well under control. He will always have the flock under control. You aren’t here to improve upon a Shepherd who is already perfect in every way. You are here to let Him minister to you. As a shepherd, you need your own Shepherd to tend to you before you will have anything to give to anyone else. In every life, His nurturing will take a different form. We’re not all designed to spend hours in a prayer closet. We’re not all going to find our souls uplifted by contemplating Scripture or reading the spiritual musings of others. Don’t let the title of pastor or priest make you feel like you must conform to some standard mold of communing with God. He loves variety and He created us all to have different dynamics with Him. So how does He meet with you? What form of communion uplifts your own soul? Be who He made you to be. There is no one right way to pursue a closer walk with your Creator.
It is out of our own abundance that we give to others. While sacrificial giving and choosing a life of poverty are often upheld as markers of devotion in the Church, there’s nothing positive to be said about spiritual poverty. When your own soul is feeling burned out and drained, that is not the time to push yourself harder, it’s the time to recognize that God is intentionally shutting down your resources so that you’ll get back to a place of greater dependency on Him.
The priest who is always there for his flock day or night is showered with praise while the priest who refuses to interrupt his own prayer time in order to bail someone else out of a crisis is accused of being selfish and slacking. Well, guess what? God wants you to be selfish. He wants you to take care of your own soul before you go trying to prop everyone else up. At the end of your life, it is only your own soul which you are going to give an accounting for, not the souls of others. The quality of your life in eternity will be determined not by how much time you spent worrying about everyone else’s needs, but by how much time you spent nurturing your own relationship with God. The common belief that we can get closer to God by only ever talking to Him about everyone else is a great lie. The assumption that we are to let our own souls starve while we give away every scrap we have to others is a gross distortion of what God wants.
The call to shepherd is not a call to move to the back of the line and spend your life watching God minister to everyone but you. It is a call to move closer to God yourself and to thrive under His excellent care of you while you surrender yourself into His hands as a vessel which He can use to minister to others. Shepherds are not God’s last priorities, though their flocks often expect them to act as if they are. In your life, God is going to put you first. If you try to make Him treat you like His last priority by refusing to ever discuss your own needs with Him, then you’re going to find yourself in a war of wills which He will surely win. So think about your own walk with God and ask Him to show you if there are any changes He wants you to make in your receptivity to Him. As a shepherd, you matter greatly to God. You are not expendable to Him, nor will He treat you like His last concern. So when you pray, your prayers should be about you and Him, not about Him and everyone else. If you know you’re not there right now, ask Him to help you gain a more accurate understanding of His great love for you.
Shepherd Burnout: Help for Pastors
Understanding Why God Calls Us to Serve Him
Saving Souls & Changing Lives: Wrong Reasons to Go Into Ministry
Boundaries in Counseling: Avoiding Counselor Burnout
The Right Focus in Life According to Christ