Pastoral ministry is an incredible blessing, and at times, a real burden. Often it’s both. Newlife is blessed to be the spiritual home for more than 3000 people; from new-borns to almost one hundred years old and everything in between. Shepherding the flock under our care (1 Peter 5:2) can feel daunting in its size and complexity. Systems and strategies help, but at the end of the day only go so far. When it’s all said and done, effective pastoral care is birthed from, and empowered by love – ‘agape’ love – self-sacrificing, expecting-nothing-in-return, love.
One of Newlife’s six stated values is Genuine Love. It’s another way of saying agape love. We long to be a community increasingly marked by joyful, sacrificial love for God and one another. Those of us called to pastor God’s people seek to shepherd with Genuine Love. What does it look like?
Well, Genuine Love is passionate for, and about people.
Genuine Love is purposeful.
Genuine Love is personal; it risks getting involved.
Genuine Love is prayerful; it offers only what has first been received from God.
Again and again we read in the gospels that Jesus was ‘moved with compassion’. It was an emotional, visceral reaction that led to practical and immediate response.
On one occasion Jesus hears the terrible news that his cousin, John, has been brutally executed. In his grief, Jesus withdraws to a solitary place (Matthew 14:13). But the crowds follow him:
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. (Matthew 14:14)
With passion, Jesus didn’t avoid the interruption – he embraced it. Genuine Love does not run from people’s needs, it wades knee deep into them.
A little later in the story Jesus sees 5000 hungry men (and many more women and children) in desperate need of a feed. The disciples see a logistical nightmare – an impossibility. Jesus sees an opportunity for the people’s needs and his power to meet. Genuine Love then births a miracle with five loaves and two fish.
Again and again when I move towards the often overwhelming needs of people I find in my empty hands what I need to extend love in that moment.
Jesus attracted crowds with his teaching and miracle-working. But it was his love – agape love – that set him apart from so many other rabbis, charismatic teachers and would be saviours of his day.
Genuine Love is passionate about people, especially the least, the lost and the lonely. Genuine Love is drawn again and again to the Imago Dei in every person, including and especially the most broken.
At the turn of the 20th century, American politician, leader and adventurer said:
People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.(Teddy Roosevelt)
In the end, Genuine Love recognises that people are not problems to be solved, or projects to be worked on but have been created by love, for love.
Like pastoral ministry, parenting is not for the faint of heart. It can be a wild, roller-coaster of an adventure as you pour your heart and soul into raising your kids. Most parents of young children would be clear in their purpose, even if its unstated. Our goal is to see our kids become well-adjusted, ready-for-the-world adults – to mature at the same pace emotionally, psychologically and spiritually as they do physically. A loving parent will sacrifice (time, money, energy…) and will risk (hopefully temporary) rejection to do so.
Genuine Love is purposeful
Jesus spent three years, pretty much 24/7 pouring his love into 12 misfit men. It was a purpose-filled, three-year formation intensive. His love was shaping them as his disciples.
Following the example and command of Jesus, those of us called to pastoral leadership love with a similar purpose – to see people mature, becoming more like Jesus. That’s why Genuine Love will sometimes be tough. Genuine Love will humbly ask the hard questions, compassionately challenge destructive behaviours – as well as encourage and cheer every step made towards maturity in Christ.
If we are to pastor with Genuine Love, our primary focus will not be on the obsession of our age to build a ‘personal platform’, or the immediate demands of a myriad of worthy projects and programs – but people. Genuine Love prioritises people above all other competing demands, other than communion with God. More on that in a bit.
Tragedy can upend the most mundane of days. In 1996 I was working in Tasmania, planning a national youth convention. One afternoon a work colleague left work a little early to ride her bike home. A couple of hours later we received the call to say she had been killed in an accident. We were devastated. I was floundering. That night, my friend and mentor Craig called me from Adelaide. He said he’d drop everything, get on a plane and come to stand with us in our grief; with me in my grief.
Craig’s Genuine Love for me and us was personal and profound. Genuine love will always be closely, intimately personal.
Genuine Love Gets involved. Genuine Love draws near. It’s what Jesus did again and again.
One day Jesus was moving through Jericho, the crowds swarming around him still. He wasn’t planning to stop, nor stay. But then he saw someone everyone else ignored, actually avoided – Zacchaeus the tax collector, hiding in the foliage of a sycamore tree:
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19:5)
Genuine Love sees, it stops, it steps in. Genuine Love is never arm’s length, but always up close and personal.
For we who pastor, Genuine Love is always on the lookout for the one – the one God is calling us to serve without agenda except to love as we have been loved.
Genuine Love Prays. Always prays. Listening and asking; seeking and receiving.
The Apostle Paul’s pastoral ministry was saturated in prayer. His epistles begin and end with prayer for the people under his care. Mid-letter he will often break out in prayer. For example, see Ephesians 3:14-19. At the end of the same epistle he offers this charge:
Always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. (Ephesians 6:18)
Always and all. Wow.
Here’s one way I seek to live out this encouragement. Every Sunday, with a bunch of others, I enjoy the privilege of praying with people after one of our gatherings – for healing, wisdom, provision, breakthrough faith…
This is holy ground.
The same day I note who I’ve prayed for and for what. For the next seven days I continue to pray for them. It’s one, small step to ‘always and all’.
Often Newlife people will come to my mind, any time of day, seemingly randomly. I’ve learned, slowly, these promptings are often from the Holy Spirit. So I will text or call, telling them they’ve been on my mind, asking if there is anything I can pray for. It’s amazing what emerges from these God-breathed conversations. I know it’s not always God that brings people to mind, but no matter. I find people are pretty receptive to any offer to pray for them, whether prompted by God or not.
Genuine Love is passionate, purposeful, personal and prayerful.
A couple of things as I finish. Love, by its very nature, is costly. Genuine Love certainly is. And we are finite, flawed creatures. Pastoral needs press in on us and can threaten to overwhelm. Often as a pastor I will need to let go again of my ‘messiah complex’, thinking I need to rescue everyone. I can’t rescue all. Never could, never will.
But God does call me to ensure that those under my care are genuinely loved in the ways I have illustrated. This is where the Body of Christ is divine genius. The church is a living, breathing organism sustained by Genuine Love from God, overflowing for each other. In all of this, there are some God is calling me to go deep with. I love how Andy Stanley puts it:
Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone. (Andy Stanley)
Last, Genuine Love is sustained by an overflow of LOVE received. If I love out my own strength I will soon be overwhelmed by compassion fatigue, or worse, bitterness and disappointment and burnout.
I love because I was first loved. Genuinely, sacrificially and beautifully loved.
I cannot overflow with Genuine Love for others unless I am always standing under the forever flowing waterfall of God’s Genuine Love for me. Put another way, I cannot lead people to a well I’m not drinking from myself.
And so, freely I receive again and again in order that I can freely give – again and again.