Usually, in this space, I busy myself telling you what to do. That is, I try to point you to the specific assignments given by the Lord in His Word, to men holding the offices of elder or deacon. I try to highlight some attitudes and duties often overlooked by common custom in today’s churches, and challenge you to be shaped and formed (“reformed”!) by the Word rather than by custom.
Now I know (and do not dispute) that elders are called to specific and formal acts of encouragement, rebuke, admonition, warning and instruction. In many of our churches, for example, annual home visiting is required. But it strikes me that people don’t often expose their hearts, their inner beings, in the context of a formal family visit in their living room with 2 elders present and Bibles open on their knees. To find out what people are really like, to be able to see them accurately, it is necessary to observe them not only in their homes, but also as they function from day to day, as they talk with others, as they make choices in life, as they conduct their business, as they talk to each other.
So, I want to challenge you to a kind of ministry that doesn’t fit into a specific category of Biblical assignment or formal “family visiting” custom. In fact, one might be hard pressed to find a specific text in Scripture upon which to hang this task (although the Biblical word for the work of elder in Acts 20:2 “overseer” is very comprehensive and surely encompasses what I am about to propose).
I want you to walk around the church.
No, I don’t mean that you should merely take a physical stroll around the building’s perimeter. I mean instead an open-eyed observation of the people, the programs, the Sunday School classes, the conversations out in the lobby after church and the like. In short (and I quote my dad here), I want you to keep your “eyes and ears open and your mouth shut”! so that you may observe God’s people living before His face.
Let me tell you a story that might inspire (but may frighten) you.
Not so long ago, someone came up to me to thank me for some counsel I had given years ago. What her problem was and what my advice had been I can scarcely remember. The remarkable thing about the incident was the “how” of my ministry to her. Apparently, she had caught me on the way to my office after a sermon. We were in the hall; I was “brain dead and bone weary” (as usual after preaching), and she snaked her way through a crowd. We had perhaps 60 seconds of conversation. I apparently “shot from the hip” with my best counsel at the moment, and asked her to call me later for more discussion of the situation and for prayer. She never did, and I forgot the encounter.
But my counsel, though brief and unremarkable, was Biblical, and she took it to heart. She now testifies that it changed her life. And that amazes me.
My point? No formal “counseling” session occurred. The circumstance did not come up in a formal family visit, nor even an “appointment” aimed at soliciting Biblical counsel. It just “happened” (Calvinists, of course, don’t buy that) in the hallway, while I was “walking around.” In the course of a 20 pace journey to my office, I was able to minister God’s Word and God’s healing grace. And that, my friends, is quite remarkable.
No, I’m not suggesting you join some “spy ring” of pastoral care, deliberately I trying to “lure” unsuspecting people into revealing life’s secrets during coffee time after church, or while waiting in the parking lot for family members. Rather, I’m suggesting that you (particularly elders but also deacons) remember that you don’t “put on the hat” of office only when you enter the pew reserved for you, or pick up the collection plates at the ends of the I morning offering. You are “in office” when I you’re drinking coffee, when you’re at home, at work, orin McDonald’s with your kids. In short, when you’re “walking around.” And therefore, you must keep your eyes and ears open.
Allow me to offer you some suggestions to start you thinking:
1) Go out a different exit door next Sunday. Maybe even sit in a different part of the church sanctuary.
Speak to people with whom, in the course of your routine, you don’t usually visit. Go up to folks at church and introduce yourself. Ask questions about their life; really try to get to know them. (Tell them about your life, too, so that it doesn’t look like an interrogation!) You’ll be amazed at how a little investment of time and genuine loving interest in people will pay pastoral dividends down the road.
2) Visit unannounced, humbly, and without great fanfare, some of the classes or meetings that take place in church. Observe what the teacher or committee member is doing right, and later on tell him or her so as to encourage. If you note glaring weaknesses, deal with them by praying diligently for the individual, and then praying for an opportunity to discuss the matter with a soft heart.
3) Listen carefully to conversations as a father would listen to the communication of his children. You’ll likely be able to detect patterns like short-fuse tempers, foul language habits, and whether the individuals respect others as imagebearers of God. And, you’ll be able to see whether your people possess an operative Biblical world-view view of life.
4) Listen carefully when you are asked questions. Remember that a “brief conversation” could well have long-term consequences, so take seriously each encounter. And I include in that especially the queries of children and the casual encounters with teens. Kids seldom ask for appointments; they live life on the casual side. But that doesn’t mean their questions are insignificant, or that they won’t remember what you tell them in a casual encounter.
5) Finally, but no less importantly, be visible among the flock in some of the informal times of the church’s life. Go to the softball games of the church team (even if you don’t play). Attend the church picnic or some barbeque supper. I often find that, once ordained to office, too many office holders withdraw from much of the church’s life, perhaps fearing that too much knowledge of the individuals in the church might make pastoral love and care more difficult. In my experience, the opposite is the case. The more you know your own sinful weaknesses, and the more you know the flock-warts, sins and all, the more your pastoral love will provide the kind of care that Christ the Good Shepherd wants the lambs to receive. If you make a serious effort to minister while “walking around,” several things will happen. First, you will be truly blessed as you come to know the unique gifts of each individual member of the flock of God. Second, you will become much more sensitive to the real world issues your people struggle with, issues that often don’t come up in family visits or pastoral appointments. And finally, you will be able to “catch people doing things right”! That is, you’ll be able to see the living God at work in ways you never thought possible. I can’t tell you how humbled and inspired I become when I hear a member of the flock of God rebuke her child kindly, firmly, and Biblically in the supermarket aisle, particularly when she doesn’t know I’m on the other side of the green beans. I stand amazed at what God does among the covenant community.
That is after all, what the Psalmist means when he challenges us to see God’s hand in the daily things of the church’s life:
“Walk about Zion, go around her, count her towers, consider well her ramparts, view her citadels, that you may tell of them to the next generation. For this God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end” (Psalm 48:12–14).
Dr. Sittema is pastor of Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX, and a contributing editor of The Outlook.