“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me”
I had just spent the evening preaching to a group of college students from the University of Chicago at their Fall Retreat. The topic of the retreat was discipleship. After sending the students off to a time of personal prayer and reflection, I sat down with two of my friends and former colleagues from InterVarsity. As we spent time catching up, one of them asked me about my transition from IV to pastoral staff had been going. As I recounted the ups and downs of this change, one of the things that I kept coming back to was how much I missed the level of soul-care and development that InterVarsity gives to its staff workers. I realized that, after a weekend of talking about discipleship, I was missing that same kind of discipleship in my own life.
In his book Building a Discipling Culture, Mike Breen says that disciples of Jesus are people who dedicate themselves to being life-long learners of Jesus. Furthermore, they engage in mission by intentionally teaching others to be life-long learners of Jesus as well. For the disciple of Christ there is this ongoing process of learning and teaching others. It is a compelling picture of what discipleship can and should look like in the church.
But this is where I struggle. As a pastor, it is our responsibility to build up, encourage, and train the people that God has placed under our care. In essence, we are to be disciple-makers. There is a high calling to the “teaching others” sphere of discipleship. Yet, I am finding that when it comes to our own development as disciples, such intentionality is not always there. In the language of church leadership development we often talk about helping people become “self feeders” in terms of their spiritual life. What we mean by this is that we want people to move from being passive, spiritual sponges to becoming people who actively seek out opportunities to grow and put into practice what they are learning.
However, often this language of “self feeding” leads to an image of discipleship and growth that is highly individualistic: “It’s all up to me to ensure that I grow.” Yet when I look at Scripture, the model that I see is not one of the Lone Ranger disciple, but rather of a tight-knit community of believers who walk together, encourage each other, and train one another as they pursue the mission that God has given them. There is a balance of pouring into others and being poured into BY others: a willingness to teach and a hunger to learn.
And it is right here that I find myself falling short. As a pastor, I’m missing being poured into by others. When I worked for InterVarsity there was an intentional effort, as an organization, to build community among staff workers. Just as we were encouraged and empowered to “go and make disciples” we were also poured into and cared for as disciples. The result was that ministry was extremely dynamic and life-giving.
Yet, since I’ve transitioned to pastoral staff I feel I have really been missing that piece in my life, and I worry that the language of being a self-feeder might be at the root of it all. As pastors, people who are charged with being leaders in the church, I think that the assumption is that we are already “self feeders”: that we know exactly where to turn for our own growth and discipleship. But here is my confession: I don’t. I don’t know exactly where to turn. I’m in a denominational structure that I don’t understand. The church leadership team works hard, but I feel like we are all moving so fast I don’t even know when or where I can slow down and just “do life” with my fellow pastors.
I don’t say this as a criticism. As a leader, I see this as a reminder that I need to step out and seek those opportunities out, and I realize that I could be placing more of a priority on this in my personal life. But I share this simply as a way of expressing how unprepared I was for the level to which this would be lacking in my new position. Many times during my seminary career and during my years in InterVarsity I would hear pastors and professors talk about how serving in pastoral ministry can be one of the loneliest positions in the world, but it never really sank in until now. And I’m realizing just how much I need it.
But on another level, I think this is a keen reminder of how vital it is to be discipled as we disciple. After all, we cannot give away what we do not have, and we cannot disciple if we do not know what it means to be discipled. So, over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be taking some time to talk with people in my life who are in pastoral leadership and looking for relationships/networks/resources through which I can be developed and led even as I seek to develop and lead others. But I’d like to open this comments section to the rest of you: if you are in leadership in the church, whether as paid staff or as a congregational leader, what relationships have you cultivated that are truly life-giving in terms of your spiritual walk? Who do you look to, spend time with, and learn from as you grow as a disciple?