While many are familiar with William Wilberforce, leader of the anti-slavery group in England known as the Clapham Sect, fewer know his pastor, John Venn of Clapham Parish. Venn is one of the better-kept secrets behind Wilberforce's success.
Here's the back story.
On most weekends for many years, Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists met in Clapham, a village outside of London. There they developed their strategies for, as they put it, "reforming the manners and morals of all England."
But on Sunday mornings, Wilberforce and the others always paused to worship at John Venn's church. As the years passed, John Venn's preaching and pastoral wisdom influenced them in no small way.
"The whole Clapham sect looked up to (John Venn) as their pastor and guide," writes Marcus Loane, "and he was thus intimately linked with their thoughts and plans … both as a friend in their homes and as a pastor in his pulpit."
Venn, Loane continues, "was a master in the art of advice when called upon to speak his mind. Men of all kinds came to him for counsel for he had a well-stored mind and a well-furnished memory, and he was an independent if not original thinker. He was both a preacher at whose voice men wept or trembled, and a friend to whom they turned for help and comfort; he was a guide to the lost and a host for the weary … for he had a rare and noble talent for laying down duty or clearing up doctrine in the light of common sense and gospel glory."
John Venn has always been one of my heroes. He was the consummate pastor, a shepherd, a spiritual guardian of his people. Let's explore what that role means for us: shepherd and guardian.
A spiritual guardian
Shepherding is one of the world's oldest professions. References to a shepherd's work dot the Scriptures. Israel's God is likened to a shepherd. Several of the Bible's greatest men (Moses, David, and Amos, for example) were shepherds in their younger years. And the word shepherd is the root, of course, of the word pastor in the New Testament. We think of it as a religious word. Ancients thought of pastor as a business word.
A shepherd's job description was rather simple: to guide sheep to places where they will be healthy, safe, fed, watered, and profitable (their wool, their milk, and—sometimes—their meat). All of us who went to Sunday school learned that shepherds do not drive sheep (only butchers do that), they lead them. And they do it patiently.
Psalm 23 is the ultimate description of the competent shepherd. Here the shepherd is God himself.
"Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need," the writer begins. Because of him I rest and graze in green pastures. I am refreshed by quiet waters. I am guided into safe pathways. And I am not afraid in the face of danger.
When predators appear, I am defended by my shepherd's rod. If I fall into a crevice, I am rescued by his staff. Should I be injured, I am doused with his healing oil. And, best of all, I am sure that I shall be so-shepherded for ever and ever and ever. In other words, my shepherd is absolutely, unswervingly faithful. The work of a shepherd was known to almost all ancient people. It was the biblical model for would-be Christian leaders. When Paul met with the leaders of the Ephesian congregation, probably for the last time, what most concerned him about the church's future? Their spiritual safety, their cohesion as followers of Jesus.
"Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock" (Acts 20:28-31).