How Can a Session Shepherd Its Pastor?

by Lawrence Eyres

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 29-31

The assumption of this article is that pastors are sinners still, and that ecclesiastical jurisdiction includes by inference, counsel, exhortation, encouragement and criticism, positive and negative—all short of, but preventive of, judicial discipline. There are no devices to accomplish this end either directly mandated in Scripture nor required in the secondary standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Nevertheless, the Presbyterian form of government, by its very nature, militates against one-man rule in the church. We ministers all need the counsel of those who share with us rule over the household of God.

The need for shepherding pastors is not without Scriptural support, if not by open declaration, yet by inference. Acts 20:28-31: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [or bishops], to shepherd the church of God which He has purchased with His own blood. For you know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn you with tears.” Were these ruling elders, to be distinguished from ministers? Dogmatism on either side is unwarranted. But surely teaching was encompassed in “ shepherd the church of God....” And it is likely that many of those elders were selected and groomed for office under Paul’s personal oversight. Still he could prophesy that some of them would “rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.” The Apostle, speaking prophetically, tells us that the selection and installation of ministers cannot be infallibly done! And he reminded them that he had warned them of the danger even while he was among them (Acts 19:8-10).

The Apostle stresses matters concerning the need of pastors throughout 1 Timothy: “But if l am delayed, I write that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house[hold] of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (3:15). It would seem that Paul, as in 2 Timothy, was grooming Timothy to succeed him, not as an apostle, but as a leader in the churches of Europe and Asia when he would finish his earthly course. Thus - “Take heed unto yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those that hear you” (4:16). Solemn words. Mysterious though it be, Paul suggests that both the conduct of the minister and the content of the message is not altogether separate from his salvation! “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine...Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning [their sin being confirmed by two or three witnesses] rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest may also fear” (5:17,19-20). We can draw the following conclusions from these verses: (l) Vs. 17 sets high value to the teaching ministry—background for the following. (2) Vs. 19 warns against entertaining trivial criticisms against Christ’s minister. (3) Vs. 20 requires public rebuke of a minister who degrades his office through flagrant sin (See Galatians 2:11-21.) Underlying the whole passage is the assumption that Christians—even men with proven gifts—have within them the seeds of all evil and need to guard themselves, and be guarded, from these sins!

In summary, our pulpits should be occupied by gifted and proven men, though they are sinners still. Even Paul himself was moved to revised his estimation of Demas. (Compare Colossians 4:14 with 2 Timothy 4:10.) And while serious sin in ministers should be met with judicial discipline, preemptive action on the part of his fellow elders is also necessary. My concern is: What mechanisms are needed for the prevention and forsaking of those subtle sins that confront pastors in their high and lonely calling? Or to put it differently: Are the sessions of our churches adequately shepherding their pastors?

Ministers are primarily under the jurisdiction of their presbyteries. Some OPC presbyteries have pastoral oversight committees. Also a visitation committee has a measure of responsibility in this area. But is this enough? For example (as has happened too often in our churches), a pastor attempts to counsel a woman in his congregation. He begins with the highest of motives, but as time goes by, an emotional bond develops and he becomes involved in censurable behavior that brings grief and shame on him, to his counselee, the church and the honor of Christ. Presbytery committees are remote at best and are sentenced to deal with such offenses after the fact. Who is close enough to intervene in time?

Other dangers call for close and prompt attention. We are hearing about “burnout” in the ministry. Who is there to care and sense the onset of such problems? Who is there to observe problems within the pastor’s family, problems that, if not dealt with early, may have devastating consequences? Indeed, the minister’s eminent position can become lonely. He needs advice to be sure, but he also needs loving, understanding friends. There are numberless stressful situations that can, at the least, hinder his usefulness, and at the worst, bring him down. Who is there to listen, to understand, to encourage and to pray with and for him in his need?

I must confess that a godly wife is a gift from heaven in such situations, but his fellow rulers in the church are there for problems such as these, even as they, with the pastor, are there for the needs of the congregation. And here is one reason for the conviction that all elders are undershepherds of Christ (see Peter 5: 1-4).

But first, let me underscore a general rule that must be observed in all such dealings. The rule is strict confidentiality! That is not to say that confidentiality must cover sins or crimes that ought to be dealt with by either ecclesiastical or civil authorities. But unless circumstances clearly dictate, divulging confidence is a breach of the Ninth Commandment. “A talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter” (Proverbs 11:13). “A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims foolishness” (Proverbs 12:23). The range of confidentiality is broad, but a man who doesn’t know the difference between what must be said and what should be held in confidence ought not to be an elder.

A second requirement has to do with how the pastor sees himself. The minister of the Gospel is a servant. In former generations the pastor may have been looked on as the master. Any member of the congregation who questioned or disagreed with him was regarded as disagreeing with God. Thankfully, this era is passing (although we may now be in danger of going too far in the opposite direction). The minister needs to know that he too is a sinner, capable of misreading the Word of God, having within his own flesh the root of every sin. Just as Christ humbled Himself to be our Redeemer, so the minister of the Word must be “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath…” “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” “Let this mind be in you which also was in Christ Jesus” (James 1:19; Matthew 20:28; and Philippians 2:5).

And now for three mechanisms by which sessions may shepherd their pastors: The pastor should seek the counsel of his elders. It is for him to proclaim all the counsel of God, but he ought to accept counsel from his session. They are out there in the congregation. They can better judge how he is coming across. It’s wrong for elders to sense dissatisfaction with their pastor’s preaching till the tension builds to where they “blow up.” They should not belong to the “club” which never says anything until they can criticize. He needs to know when he is being effective. An ounce of encouragement is worth a pound of criticism. I once (and only once) had an elder who would, from time to time, stop by my office and ask how the next Sunday’s sermons were coming along. I’d tell him, and then he’d say, “Let’s pray about it.” I would suggest that every session should periodically set aside some time for discussion of the pastor’s needs and concerns. After a good exchange, let them join him in prayer before the throne of grace.

The next mechanism is not something mechanical: it is an “ad hoc” sort of thing. The pastor ought to take the initiative whenever he feels the need to seek advice in personal problems with regard to the church, with respect to his family—indeed, anything that burdens him. True, he should be discreet in this lest he be perceived as running to them whenever he faces the least difficulty. But I know how it feels to work and pray and see nothing changing. I’ve known times of depression that lasted for months due to my sense that the church I was serving was in a rut it couldn’t climb out of. So, when a pastor delivers his soul to his people and nothing changes, what is he to do? At such times, he needs loving and understanding friends!

Finally, there ought to be certain elders who can sense the on-come of problems in the pastor’s personal or family life before he is sufficiently aware of them. It’s difficult to know how the selection should be made—that is, which elders have the gifts and graces to deal delicately, yet lovingly and firmly, with emerging problems in their pastor’s life. It could be a sub-committee, or one or two of the pastor’s own selection, who are allowed the liberty to approach him privately when real flaws of any sort first appear. But a godly, fatherly man who has lived through many times of testing and can use a gentle touch that works more wonders than an iron fist, can be a god-send and a conveyer of wisdom to a man of God who has no prior experience. This person or sub-committee should report to the pastor first, and to the session only when circumstances require.

These are not last words on a subject that has been dealt with for generations, but first words on a crying need within the church of Jesus Christ. I would recommend that presbyteries set aside an evening within a stated meeting to study and “brainstorm” on this subject. The need is there, but setting up a program is not the answer. This is a spiritual matter more than an organizational one. It deserves serious consideration.

[Lawrence Eyres has served the Orthodox Presbyterian Church during most of its history as a pastor and as a home missionary. He is also author of a fine study entitled The Elders of the Church, published by Presbyterian and Reformed. He is now living in retirement in Janesville, Wisconsin.]