As a pastor, I live at the intersection of two Scriptures with regards to my relationships with people in the body. Both are from the gospel of Luke:
Why is that you are looking for me? Did you not know I would be in my Father’s house? Luke 2.49
What among you, if he has a hundred sheep and lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the pasture and go after the one who is lost until he finds it? Luke 15.4
The first Scripture is when Jesus’ parents discover He is not with them, and go back to find Him still in the temple. They find him teaching and answering questions, already about His Father’s business. The second is from Jesus’ teaching about the good shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after the one lost sheep.
Since the very language of “pastor” is shaped by the imagery of shepherding, Luke 15.4 is obviously relevant to pastoral work. When you are a shepherd, there will be times when you see people that you love falling away from Christian community, and you will have the opportunity to go after them. You will also have times when people will walk away, and you keep right on doing what you are called to do, accomplishing the Father’s business of proclaiming and teaching the gospel. “You know where I live, you know what I do, and you know where I’ll be doing it.” There are times when you keep on offering your life blood’s for the sake of the sheep, and trust God to work in the one gone astray.
It takes great discernment to know when Luke 2.49 is supposed to be your model and when to follow Luke 15.4. And there are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes, it is just the right thing to drop what you are doing and leave the sheep that are well to go after the one. There are also times and places in ministry when uncommitted people act immaturely and indecisively, and you give them the space to roam. Not cutting them off, not assuming the worst, not getting angry—just doing what you are called to do, knowing that they know where you are and how to get to you when the time is right.
I have a sixth sense, even as the ministry continues to grow, to know who’s there and who’s not on an average weekend. I’m attentive that way, and, it’s just my gift. Like the pastoral version of Wolverine, I can sniff people out because I know my sheep. Here’s the tricky part: you absolutely cannot live your whole life on the chase, because people are always leaving, people are always on the fence, people are always pulling away. And the worst thing in the world for the churches that we lead is to create a culture where people are too co-dependent on relationships with us. On the other hand, you can’t become cynical and emotionally distant—because if you are a pastor, even if by necessity the group you are called to directly shepherd is relatively small (leading leaders, etc.)—you are always going to have people for whom you are willing to walk away from the “importance” of your ministry and go after them.
I can’t resolve that tension for you and don’t even strive to resolve it prematurely in me, because that’s why this kind of work requires the Spirit—there are not hard and fast rules for such things. I write this not in hopes of solving anything so much as naming a dynamic we don’t always have the language to name, as pastors living at the intersection of Luke 2.49 and Luke 15.4. I don’t think you should feel guilty for when you don’t feel led to drop everything and go after the one because of the work you have to accomplish at the temple. But neither do I think Luke 2 can become the standard response. If we are in sync with the heart of the shepherd, there will be a time and a season for both.
Part of the distinction might lie in this: people always need to be in Christian community, but of course walking away from a community is not the same thing as walking away from Jesus Himself. The question often comes down to this–is the person who is walking away in danger, of shipwrecking their faith or harming themselves? Or is there a way that this time of wandering might even be the Spirit working in them? This is why this job doesn’t just require seminary degrees, experience, and/or skill in interpreting the Scriptures. It requires careful attention to the Master’s voice.
(part two to follow)