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Question: We are looking for a new church. Would you mind answering this question for us: If you were looking for a church, what kind of pastor would you be looking for in that church? I know many things to consider when hunting for a church, but we wondered about leadership and what makes a good pastor. Thanks for your time. – Community Member
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).
The first step is to seek advice. It is wise, humble, and essential because another set of eyes will reveal things you did not consider, and the decision is too big to make without external input. Church life is one of your life’s three most significant spheres, with work and family comprising the other two. We live most of our lives in these interrelated circles, and when any one of them becomes unsettled, it can make life uncertain and even uncomfortable.
When I think about the church question, my primary thought is, “Who do I want to be my shepherd?” I like to frame the church question this way, especially when you substitute the word pastor for the word shepherd. Jesus called Himself the good shepherd, and that speaks volumes about the kind of person He was and the kind of person we need to come alongside us as we lead our lives and family. He’s a competent, caring soul with all the courage necessary to help us mature into Christlikeness. He won’t be perfect as Jesus was, but he will be objectively developing into Christlikeness.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake (Psalm 23:2-3).
We automatically connect the word shepherd to the kind of people we are: sheep. While sheep are not typically a flattering term, it is an accurate one. You cannot trust sheep to meander down the trails of life without the expert care of a good shepherd. The Lord knew this, which is why He gave the church under-shepherds to care for His sheep. Under-shepherds help us do things that are not spiritually intuitive to us. I am not calling you foolish—at least you are not more foolish than I am. But you must receive care from others, which is one of the many things that distinguishes Christians from our worldly counterparts.
We humbly recognize our need to receive care while seeking interdependent relationships, and none of those outside relationships are more critical than the shepherd we want to submit to receive his care. Shepherding care does not mean the church’s lead pastor or the team will be personally pastoring us. That is not always possible, especially if you land in a large church. Of course, the size of the church should not matter. Congregational size is a matter of personal preference. You can receive the pastor’s care regardless of the size, though not always his undivided attention. Paul provided insight on how to care for folks without giving every single person face time.
To equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Ephesians 4:12-14).
The shepherd’s role is not what he does for you but what he provides for you. Though the pastor may not give you his undivided attention, he can offer you expert care. The kind of care he provides for you and others will flow out of the type of person he is and into his immediate sphere that does receive his undivided attention—other leaders in the church. The pastor of a small church and a large church are the same in that they determine the shepherding care the church provides and the sheep receive. Regardless of the church’s size, the church leaders set the attitude, direction, and quality of the care.
A lead pastor’s primary role is to lead by caring for you individually or leading those who are caring for you. If the church has a lot of people, the pastor will equip others to care for you. These individuals will carry out his shepherding vision and direction for the church. Suppose he is a pastor of a smaller congregation. In that case, he may be doing the primary soul care for the congregation while identifying a few core people to come alongside himself to help in the shepherding responsibilities. Either way, the sheep who are part of the local church he leads should be receiving his world-class shepherding care.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).
No doubt the shepherd you find will be wearing many hats, but the main one you want to discern is his soul care hat. With all charity and discernment, you must ask, what is the condition or state of the sheep under his care? How are they doing? If you were to go to an auction where they were selling sheep, you would want to know the health of the sheep. The quality of the sheep will directly reflect the kind of shepherd who was in charge of caring for them. The quality of care is such an essential point that our Good Shepherd will judge His under-shepherds. Of course, I’m not talking about those rogue sheep who sporadically wander into the fold or have a low commitment to the church.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account (Hebrews 13:17).
The Hebrews text is a fearful passage that should motivate pastors to care for their people competently and diligently. Though I am not a pastor, and God will not judge me the same way as a pastor (James 3:1), this verse is a sober reminder of the seriousness of a person’s shepherding responsibilities. We must also not miss the caveat: we must let our pastors pastor us with joy, not groaning. As you assess your pastor, evaluate yourself: Are you a joy for him to pastor? Perhaps asking him would be an opportunity for you to conversate about the reciprocality of partnering with your pastor.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3).
Peter considered the elders to be examples to the flock, another fundamental perspective you look for in a good shepherd. What kind of example is the pastor of the church you are considering? There are ways for you to discern the exemplary care-competence of your potential under-shepherd; it’s his impact on others, including carefully considering his wife and children, assuming he has a wife and kids. His family will provide you with the most accurate assessment of the kind of person he has been.
Though she is personally responsible for how she grows in Christ, there is no question that her shepherd husband has affected her. You cannot live close to another human being for an extended period and not affect that person, whether for the good or bad. What about his children? What are they like? How do they carry themselves, interact with others, and engage in life if they are in their teens or beyond? These things will reflect how the primary influencer in their lives has influenced them. Their dad is the one who has had the most powerful impact on their lives. As you observe his children, what kind of vibe do you pick up from them?
I am not asking you the regeneration or passion for Christ questions. If they have been born again or passionate for the Lord, that is between them and the Lord. None of us can insert salvation or passion into our children because those functions fall within the sphere of grace rather than the works of men. What you are looking for is how their dad has shaped their personalities. You are not looking for perfection in any of these qualities but the presence of Christlike shepherding from their dad. Similar to his wife, what has been his imprint on his children? No sheep exhibits perfection. We all have flaws, but a discernible element of care has affected the person.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies (Psalm 23:5).
These observations are essential because you are not just asking the shepherding question for yourself. Your responsibilities before God are more significant than your unique sanctification aspirations. God has called you to lead your family, which means, in part, making sure you position them to receive the best possible soul care from the various ways the Lord provides. When I think about the local church I attend, one of the questions I ask, which is related to the shepherding question, goes like this:
If I were to die, has my pastor created a culture in our church that would be a safe and nurturing environment for my wife and children to continue to grow in their sanctification? Will my wife and children be safely cared for while helped to fend off the enemies of their souls?
Psalm 23:5 makes the shepherding question much more extensive than who will care for you in the here and now. Who do you want to bring long-term, futuristic care to your wife and children should you die? When you decide on the church where you will plant your family, you will be placing them under the care of a shepherd who will have a present and future impact on their souls.
He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil (1 Timothy 3:6).
Your decision has long-term consequences. Another way I like to think about this question is similar to how I reflect on a surgeon. Let’s say you were going under the knife, or maybe your wife was going under the knife. What kind of person do you want to do surgery on you? How about your wife? Who do you trust to do this? Surgery is not a rash decision, as you can see. You are looking for a person who is competent enough to provide the shepherding care and contexts that Jesus wants your wife and children to have. The shepherding question is one of the most important questions you can ask when looking for a church.
Though the shepherd may know how to preach and lead an organization, his application and practice of soul care will significantly impact you and your family. Paul did not preach in the most appealing or expected ways, but he knew how to care for souls (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). A great orator for a pastor may be a plus, but it is not a must. Even being a world-class CEO who knows how to run a world-class organization is not bad, but his ability to provide personal soul care and soul care contexts will be of utmost importance.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).