You are about to take your last few classes. You are ordering the gown and inviting your friends and family to graduation. You are freshening up your resume in hopes of landing in ministry somewhere.
Before you launch into this next phase of your life, stop and thank the Lord for the rare privilege of studying at one of the finest seminaries in the world, for the concentrated time of studying with world-renowned professors and wrestling with the Scripture and with important theological texts. Many of your brothers and sisters around the world would give anything to simply own a few books besides the Bible, yet you have been granted, by God, the opportunity to study and learn from the best and with the best. You’ve plunged head-first into the glorious riches of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But now you are entering your ministry life and while your learning is just beginning, your season of concentrated theological study is coming to a close (until you come back for your PhD!). Now the bulk of your time will be spent putting into practice what you have absorbed over the last few years. As you enter your mission field, chapel sermons, formative books, and favorite phrases from your professors will ring in your ears.
What does ministry after school look like? Truth is, now that you’ve been a student, you are now, most likely, on the path to something that requires an even deeper level of commitment and dependence on the Spirit of God. You are called to be a shepherd of souls.
Whether you become a full-time senior pastor, a youth pastor, an associate pastor, a counselor, a women’s ministry leader, small group leader, camp counselor, or some other role, you will be tasked, by God, with the care of souls.
Called to shepherd hearts
You’ve been a student. Now must become a shepherd. What does that look like? Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
1.Shepherding is a theological task.
One of the ways you can most love the people you serve is to teach the Word of God faithfully, to feed those in your care the rich meat of his Word. First and foremost, shepherds must lead their sheep to good food. If you are a senior pastor this is particularly important. The main focus of your role is to stand in the pulpit and declare, with power and authority, what God has already said.
2. Shepherding is a patient task.
Every pastor must be, by calling, a preacher. But not every preacher is a pastor. You will understand quickly that leading involves patience and care, providing on-ramps for your people to get from where they are, spiritually, to where they need to be. This means you will have to set aside the notions and illusions of an “ideal church” and serve the people God has actually put in front of you. Shepherds know intuitively how to gently guide their people along, not browbeating with theological condescension. You must see your people, not as masses to be moved, but as individual disciples, people made in God’s image and objects of his saving love in Christ.
3. Shepherding is a long-term, habitual task.
Spiritual change rarely happens overnight, but over a process of many years. Your people will not be moved by one big sermon, but by a steady diet of God’s Word over a long period of time. Weekly rituals of worship and teaching will help form habits that shape the heart over a lifetime.
4. Shepherding is people work.
Shepherds are in and among their people. Regardless of your role, resist the urge to stay in a theological ivory tower. Instead, you must live in and among your people. Know their deepest struggles and greatest triumphs. Visit their workplaces. Attend their children’s ballgames. Sit down for coffee. This is not only part of your role as a pastor, it will endear you to your people and will show up in your preaching. When they listen to you on Sunday, they will know if you’ve been among the people or if you’ve been cloistered in your office.
5. Shepherding is hard and messy warfare.
Sanctification, the process by which the Spirit of God peels away the layers of sin and decay and reforms us into the image of Christ, isn’t formulaic. You will encounter people with deeply layered sin problems—just as you are deeply layered with sin problems. Even as we progress, we see how much more progress there is to be made. You will have some great and visible victories, but most often you will see slow progress and much of God’s work of restoration will happen on the other side of his second coming. But you are called to serve, not the people you wish you had but the people as they are. It will be messy and will look nothing like the easy formulas you discussed in your hair-splitting theological bull sessions in seminary. That’s ok.
6. Shepherding involves a lifetime of learning.
You may be finishing seminary, but your time as a student is just beginning. Enter ministry, not as the theologically trained know-it-all, but as a humble servant. Find a good pastor, who has long labored in the trenches, and ask him to mentor you. If you can, try to serve in an internship or associate role before you assume a primary teaching and leading role. Study and learn the craft of pastoring. This will not only help you move forward with confidence, but will help shape your future ministry.
Daniel Darling serves as vice president for communications at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is currently a student at Southern Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanDarling.