The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. (Psalm 23)
I am the Good Shepherd—Jesus. (John 10)
A Threat to the Soul
The pastoral crisis poses a threat.
Something has happened. Something unexpected has impacted the culture of the congregation. It is something that can’t be ignored. The pastor and the leadership of the church are tasked with shepherding—What will they do? How will they respond? How will they ensure the congregation will get through this?
The initial challenge to the pastor is the threat of immediacy. If they don’t respond then someone, or something, will. They will lose control. The narrative will change. The screaming sirens of chaos and turmoil will wreak havoc. The congregation will move off course. And so, all the signals call for an immediate response from the pastor.
Therein lies the challenge. For while the outer circumstances call for a quick response, the inner reality calls for something else. One might say the greater threat lies beneath the surface where the soul of the pastor is left alone and unattended.
So, what’s a pastor to do? How does the pastor care for the soul in times of crisis? And maybe even more, how does the pastor ensure they don’t lose their soul as they respond to the demanding issues in front of them?
There are at least two elements the pastor must be attentive to. The first, an understanding of how the inner life is nurtured; and the second, an attentiveness to three voices.
Time & Space
The nature of the soul is unchanging. It is made for life with God. The psalmist reminds us that our soul longs for God (Psalm 42:1). We are meant to find our source and life in God. The Apostle Paul tells us that when we believe, our life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). We are united with God through Christ. This is secure. And because of that, we learn to live in Christ, “abide in me, as I also abide in you” (John 15:4). All this to say, the soul’s natural place is in Christ with God. This is the source of the pastor’s life and ministry. It impacts their identity, vocation, and day-to-day ministry. And it doesn’t change with circumstances.
But this is not easy in a crisis. For if the pastor is to remain rooted in Christ during times of crisis, they will have to give ample attention to the inner working of the soul. The soul doesn’t flourish on demand. Instead, it is attended to daily. It is nurtured, cultivated, and over time, with roots going deep, it draws on the life and words of Jesus, so that it bears fruit. This is the nature of the soul.
A crisis, on the other hand, operates differently. It demands immediate action. Leadership needs to respond. False narratives are beginning to take shape. Someone must speak. Someone must take charge. If the pastor doesn’t act soon, then disaster will hit (or at least that’s the initial feeling). So, what is the pastor to do?
First, if the pastor is going to remain rooted in Christ during times of crisis, then they must eliminate the secondary demands on their time, so that they can give full attention to critical matters before them. It will mean others will have to be called on for a season, objectives will have to be put on pause, and some regular tasks and responsibilities let go until a new normal can be determined.
What cannot be eliminated are the critical demands of the crisis, the decisions that need to be made, and the priority of the inner life of the pastor. I might also add, after nearly three decades of pastoral experience myself, the pastor would do well to give ample time and attention to the care of their family. There are just too many stories and too many shared experiences that indicate that it is often the pastors family that is left unattended to, and over time, bear the lingering effects of past ministry experiences. Keeping these things in mind—the demands of the crises, the decisions that need to be made, the priority of the inner life, and the pastor’s family—most everything else can be put on hold or delayed.
Second, with time and space at a premium, and the elimination of secondary issues, the pastor can attend to the inner life. But it is not simply a matter of prioritizing the use of time. It is understanding that the inner life cannot be forced or hurried. Attentiveness takes time and space. The kind of wisdom and leadership needed require discernment from the many voices clamouring for attention.
What will still be needed is ample time and space for at least three voices. Voices that not only speak to the crisis at hand, but even more, to the soul of the pastor.
Attentive to Three Voices
The first voice the pastor must attend to is the voice of Jesus. With the energy of the moment, and the demand for action, this voice is often the first one set aside. Yet it is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, that reminds us that it is his voice we must listen to (John 10). Guided by Word and Spirit, we listen to his voice so that we remain rooted in his love, never thinking more or less of ourselves than he does of us.
In the thick and the fray of the crisis there may be times when we feel like we are acting with knowledge and wisdom and things are in control, only to turn the corner and find that we are lacking both control of the situation and wisdom for what to do next. It is for this reason the pastor must attend to the voice of Jesus. For it is in those times and spaces that we hear again,
The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing. (Psalm 23:1)
He is the Good and True Shepherd. The pastor is the under-shepherd. We rely on him no matter the circumstances.
The second voice the pastor attends to is the voice of wise counsel. Through the course of one’s ministry it is good for a pastor to cultivate mentors and mature voices to offer words of counsel, prayerful wisdom, and support. Leading and pastoring can be uncertain and difficult as the pastor searches for direction, and so, support is needed.
But it’s not just for the ministry the pastor needs wise counsel, it’s for matters of the heart. For when crisis hits, it’s easy to find pride take control as the pastor responds with a flurry of action. Or when the crisis extends, and the heart grows weary, it is just as easy for the pastor to lose heart, and find themselves insecure, and questioning their worth and calling. And so, a circle of mature counsellors, hand-picked mentors, and pastors a step or two further down the road, can offer much insight and wisdom.
The voice of wise counsel offers caution and wisdom, encouragement and support. There may be times when the pastor’s counsellors see what the pastor can’t see in their own heart. And with love and grace, they provide a needed voice and ongoing prayer.
Finally, the pastor must attend to the voice of the inner heart. Without ample time and space given to the first two voices, the voice of the inner heart may be easily misunderstood, and difficult to hear. The concern here is the nature of the pastor’s soul. Is it flourishing with a sense of faith, hope and love? Or is it losing its mooring and becoming battered on the high seas?
Often in times of prolonged crisis, the continuous call for action leaves the pastor weary and unable to attend to matters of the heart. Without adequate time and space, and the opportunity to hear these three voices, the pastor will fall to the voices of urgency and demand.
The hardest decision may be the first decision—prioritizing time and space for the three voices.
The Good Shepherd Cares for the Sheep
In the end it is important for the pastor to remember, while they bear great responsibility, they do so only through the Good and True Shepherd. They are limited in their time, knowledge, experience, and ability to control. The Good and True Shepherd is not. Ultimately, they neither lead the church, nor sustain it. They rely on the One who does.
Therefore, their calling, and their response in times of crisis, will only be effectual as they are able to remain in the life and love of the Good Shepherd. There they will find a way forward. More importantly, there they will a soul that flourishes.
Dr. Ric Strangway has served as a pastor for nearly three decades in Canada. Currently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Chair of Continuing Education at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.