There is nothing esoteric about this article. But to some it may seem so. I say that, because I recognize that there are preachers . . . and then, there are preachers! That is to say, among those who are reading this article there may be conservatives, and a few liberals. There may be Reformed, and a few Arminian. There may be large church pastors and small church pastors. There may be those who have great insight into pastoral matters, and there may be some who have very little. There may be pastors who are excited about the ministry, and there may be those who are disheartened. There may be some who are succeeding, and there may be others who are failing. There may be pastors who are in a good relationship with the Lord and their people and, then, there may be some who are not. Yes, there are preachers, and then . . . there are shepherds!
“OK. OK. Get to the point.”
Sure. Some things seem routine to those who are used to doing them, but on the outer edge to those who are not. Nothing could be more foreign to them. That is how it is with the subject of this editorial. To the former, what I have to say will not seem strange; to the latter it probably will. I am suggesting that out of love you ought to shepherd the people of your congregation by approaching them when you suspect that there is something wrong.
“Now wait a minute. Are you telling me to probe into their lives when they haven’t asked me to do so? Isn’t that asking for trouble?”
If your relationship to your people is close (as a shepherd’s ought to be to his sheep), the thought may not seem strange at all. Not only will your congregation know that you care enough to do so, you will also know that they know. They may not always appreciate it, but on the whole they’ll recognize that not only are you doing this because it is your pastoral duty, but also that you are willing to do such difficult things because you care for them.
“But why would I take such an initiative? If I do so, won’t people begin to think of me as a snoop?”
Not necessarily. You see, there is a second thing as well. You must do it properly. In time, you will cultivate proper methods of approaching people. And you’ll do it because you know that to treat a wound when it’s fresh is so much better than waiting until it festers. As Spurgeon put it, “It is easier to crush the egg than to kill the serpent.” If you’re one who hopes that things will go away on their own, you’ll soon find those problems seldom go; instead, they grow!
“Well, I guess that I’ve seen that to be true at times. So, what’s the proper way to approach people about perceived problems?”
I like the way you put it; you just spoke of “perceived” problems. You’re already on the right track. You certainly don’t want to go around accusing people when you only have suspicions. What you think is only how you have “perceived matters.” You may be right. On the other hand, you may be quite wrong. Recognizing that fact is half the secret to pulling this off well—i.e., in ways that honor God and help His children.
Let’s take an example. It seems to you that Larry and Martha have been very unhappy lately. You have noticed this over a period of three weeks or so. Suppose you conclude from the data that you gleaned that they’re having marital problems. What will you do? Forget it? Or deal with it? If you go piling in, cornering Larry after a church service, and say, “Larry, I want you to tell me about it old man. I’ve noticed you and Martha lately, and it seems evident to me that you two must be having marital problems,” you may have made a colossal blunder. If, after that faux pas, Larry decides to tell you, he may say something like this: “Wait a minute, Pastor. Don’t accuse us of any such thing! Sure, we haven’t been as bright and cheerful recently, but it has nothing to do with our marriage. In fact, our problem has drawn us closer together, and to the Lord, than ever before. If you must know, I’ve had a biopsy for cancer of the liver and I am afraid that it may turn out positive.”
How would you feel if you blundered that way? Lousy? Certainly. Sputtering apologies, you’d probably walk away. Now, perhaps Larry should have told you and the elders of the church about his concern so they could pray for him. But he didn’t. And you did no one any good but, possibly, a great deal of harm by accusing them of marital difficulties.
“I can see that. But there wouldn’t have been any problem if I hadn’t attempted to become involved. It seems that it’s probably better to wait until people approach me. What your scenario with Larry does actually proves my point, doesn’t it?”
No, it doesn’t. There’s a right way to approach Larry that in almost all instances will cause no offence. If you follow it, and Larry is offended, it’ll be his fault and not yours. Consider the following. Suppose you phoned Larry and asked him to meet with you for a fellowship lunch. After the meal, over desert, you then say, “Larry, I suppose you wonder why I’ve asked you out to lunch. Well, there are a couple of reasons. It’s always good to meet with church members. I enjoy just talking over things that we have in common—the way we’ve been doing today. That’s one reason that I wanted us to get together. But there’s another too. I want you to know that, in my opinion, you just haven’t seemed to be your old cheerful self lately. Maybe you’re working late, and you’re overly tired. Maybe something’s come up that’s troubling you. I don’t know, and I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess about it. On the other hand, I may be seeing things that aren’t there. It all may be in my head. So, I also asked you to have a fellowship lunch also to raise the matter so that I could offer my help if it’s needed.”
Larry might respond to such an approach this way, “Well, you see, pastor, there is something wrong. I wasn’t going to tell anyone about it until I was sure, but . . .” and then he explains about the biopsy. Even if he doesn’t tell you about it (he and Martha may be “very private persons” ), Larry’s response should (and probably would) be something like this, “Well, pastor, this time I’m glad to say that you’re wrong. There isn’t anything that you need to help us with. But I do appreciate your offer, and if something does come up, I’ll remember to call on you.”
Now, you see, there are right ways to approach a matter. You don’t accuse, you don’t guess. You don’t even assume that your “perception” is correct. You allow Larry space to back off the matter, but you haven’t neglected him. And, if and when, the biopsy is positive, he may want to ask for prayer and counsel.
Does this seem foreign to you after all? If my words haven’t raised a matter that you believe you ought to consider seriously, then think about this. When a sheep has a problem, does the shepherd neglect it? Suppose it seems to be limping. Doesn’t he examine the sheep to see if something is wrong with its leg? If he discovers that it isn’t anything serious, he backs off with a sigh of relief—he doesn’t manufacture problems. But if there’s a genuine injury, he helps heal the sheep before the problem gets worse. Does the sheep think less of him for doing so? Not really. Indeed, in most cases, the experience draws shepherd and sheep closer together. Think again about what I have suggested—then about some members of your congregation who, like that sheep, seem to be limping.