Lost shepherds in the city

Lost shepherds and waiting sheep

The Rt Revd Rennis Ponniah, the Vicar of St John’s-St. Margaret’s Church, and Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Singapore, gave an insightful message to priests and ordinands recently that was excerpted in the Diocesan Rt Rev Rennis PonniahDigest(Nov 2010). He was reminding the church of what it meant to be an Anglican priest in the church of God –the classical role of Anglican priests. Over the years, this has been greatly eroded, obscured, obstructed, and pushed aside by the pressures arising from expectations of congregations for their priests to function like CEOs. The result: lost shepherds in the church, and the consequence – more lost sheep waiting in the pews for their shepherds to do what they are truly called to do, and other sheep leaving for other pastures. The irony is that members want their priest to act like a CEO so that the church would grow, but the outcomes are exactly the opposite: priests and lay leaders suffering burnout and members leaving because they soul care has been ignored.

Lost shepherds can find themselves

What he said so accurately reflects a clear and present danger in the other churches in Singapore too, not just the Anglican. The unbiblical expectations members have of their pastors to be like CEOs,  reminded me of what Goh Keng Swee and his team of systems engineers did to the Singapore education system in the 1970’s (they killed its soul, and teachers felt lost). What Rennis said would resonate with many pastors in this land. The same has already happened in urban churches in the United States too. Shepherds today, like the ones at Christmas, need a fresh and heavenly revelation of who God is. They need to eagerly seek the One in Whom they can find their true self and calling.  Here is an excerpt of his message:

So much is expected of the priest in the modern city – chairing meetings, organizing major projects, replying emails at the speed of smartphones and sometimes initiating financial ventures – that it becomes easy to lose our way and neglect the major tasks of our calling. The affirmation of men and meeting the expectations of our congregation for dynamic leadership and management can become our priorities instead of pleasing God through our faithfulness to our calling. As one of my clergy colleagues recently remarked, “If there is a parable to describe our modern situation, it may well be entitled the ‘Parable of the Lost Shepherd.’  The hundred sheep, safely in the fold, wait hungrily for their shepherd to find his way back to them.”

We do well therefore as priests to heed the call to vocational holiness – to being true to the central tasks of our calling. What then is our vocational calling as priests? In a word, I would say that our call is not to run an organization or meet people’s felt needs, but to build a community of disciples. I often have to remind myself, “I am not running a church, I am building a community.” With this in mind, the key vocational tasks of a priest can be identified as:

1.     Preaching / proclamation of the Gospel

2.     Discipling/teaching and equipping bands of people

3.     Interceding/shaping and leading corporate prayer and worship services

4.     Pastoral care and spiritual direction(ie the role of the “wise man” in the Old Covenant)

5.     Leading the people out in mission and community service

6.     Oversight of the flock and governance.

The greatest threat to fulfilling our vocational tasks is our management responsibilities in our urbanized parishes. I am not saying that management work is not needed in priestly leadership; however, they should not stand in the way of our primary tasks. This is clear in the early account of the early church where the apostles found themselves diverted from their vocational calling because they were personally managing the task of food distribution to the needy. They learnt to delegate this task to others in order that they may give their “attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). Sadly, priests today may be delegating away their primary vocational tasks, while focusing on secondary ones. We are farming out the task of pulpit preaching to frequently-invited guest speakers, and the task of intercession to church intercessors. We are called to “prayer and the ministry of the Word”. We are called to “attend to God” in prayer and the study of His Word, and then to minister to people out of the strength of His presence. Are we attending to the needs of men (emails and mobiles) but ignoring our Lord (eg. Prayers and devotions)?

11 thoughts on “Lost shepherds in the city”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. The modern pastor would be unrecognizable to the ancient ministers of the church. They assumed that to be shepherds meant to dwell with sheep in the fields, not administer a Ranch delegating the hard work to “cowboys” while sitting back at the “Big House”.

    We fail today it seems to seek to have all the congregants growing in Christ and living in the reality of union with Christ. We’ve replaced that with trying to look cool and be the cheer leaders of the church.

  2. Religion, like other contemporary secular industrial organizations, need performance metrics. The Shepard and their helpers need a career path, other wise we will be unable to “attract” talent.

    As the boundaries burr, it should not be surprising that there is little difference between organizational hierarchies and respective executive offices. After all, we mould our Churches with our needs and wants through the contribution of our resources.

    The pastors will reflect more and more the constituent needs rather than the original master franchisor.

    Is this a problem?

  3. Time to return to the Biblical ‘church’ blueprint?

    It does not take a theological school graduate to see that we have deviated much from what the ‘church’ should.

    The key question(s) is: Are we brave enough to acknowledge that we have deviated? And are we willing to make the necessary (and probably painful) changes?

  4. Wonder who will attend a church without worship teams and concert quality bands. Similarly if the pastor is less than a skillful orator, will there be an assembly – what about having a one message pastor, will there be anybody there?

    Perhaps we have evolved the modern model – a uber mega church, well capitalized with well paid professional staff.

    Obviously money is the key to everything – more people more resources. Like all Man’s idea, it is not perfect and if pursued without wisdom, there is ultimate madness.

    Just like the bankers on Wall Street, accumulation of money becomes the ultimate measure of competence and technical expertise. Prosperity gospel is in season!

    1. Hi journeyman, the majority of churches in the world(more than 95%) are small churches under 100 with none of the features you mentioned. It does show worship goes beyond what money can resource. The church, in spite of its many and major flaws, is still the hope of the world.

  5. Blogpastor – more interesting ratio would be – what % of people go to small church?

    Using Singapore, the 7 largest independent churches probably have about 100,000 people attending – assume 10% of Singaporeans are Christians – this would account for a third. Think this number is growing quite rapidly.

    The past and current church model is flawed – we need a church 3.0

    Hopefully that with your seeking a flash of inspiration will zap you soon and we will see church3.0 created.

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