Last night, we had the privilege and honor to ordain a new pastor and two new deacons at our church. Here is the manuscript (not transcript) of my sermon(ette) from last night.
While it is easy to miss the forest for the trees, it is also easy to miss the trees for the forest. The forest is made of so much more than merely trees. There are birds, squirrels, woodchucks, streams, flowers, foliage, ferns, nests, eggs, deer, and maybe even a big foot or two. There’s an entire eco-system that makes a forest a forest. But it is easy to see the forest and miss the trees. There are spruce trees and maple trees, pine trees and sweet gum trees, oak trees and beech trees, sycamore trees and elm trees. If one concentrates on the forest too much, he may ignore the trees, but if he only pays attention to the trees, the forest goes unnoticed.
The same could be said about pastoring. It is common for pastors to look at the church, the gathering of the people together and focus on that. He focuses on the service, the administration, and basically the big picture. He can easily forget that the church—the flock—is made up of individual sheep. Some sheep are strong sheep while others are weak. Some have more needs than others. Some are more talkative than others. Some are old, some are young, some are middle age. Some are matured believers, while others are new-born Christians. Some have experienced traumatic backgrounds, while others seem to have grown up in a what could only be described as a near-perfect family. A pastor can so easily focus on all sheep that he forgets about the things that are required for the church as a whole.
While, this makes a good argument for a plurality of pastors, as a pastor, the Bible calls upon you to pay attention to both the flock and the sheep, the church as a whole and the member as an individual. And so, my hope and prayer for you as you join the pastorate is to share some shepherd knowledge with you, and that as you grow as a pastor, you will pass on your shepherd knowledge to others.
Solomon wrote, “Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds,” (Proverbs 27.23, ESV). In the next few minutes, my hope is to pass on why it is critical to know your flock well.
If you do not know well the condition of your flock, you will not be able to practice your ministry well. Pastors do not practice in generals. They practice in specifics. In my eighteen years of pastoring, I have come across those people with whom I must speak gently, while others with whom I must be abrupt and unrelenting. I will say that there are more of the former than the latter. But the only way I got to know that was by spending time with them as individuals, outside the church services.
If you continue on in the pastorate for any long amount of time, you will find those in the church who seek out for your good, those who seek out for your demise, and those who simply seek out to be yes men or women. If you practice in generals you’ll not know who these are. You can find yourself blindsided by those who seek your demise, or by the yes-men and women who allow you to fall into sin.
As I stated before, there are different sheep with different needs. Some of those sheep will seem fine on the outside and have all the right things to say, but inwardly they struggle. Inwardly they are weak and fainthearted. Inwardly they are hurting. If you do not practice your ministry in specifics, geared toward the individual member, you may never know.
If you do not know well the condition of your flock, you cannot practice your ministry well, but neither can you pray well. It is not a good thing for anyone, especially a pastor, to pray in generals. We are to pray in specifics. However, if you or I do not know that Jane Doe is dealing with anxiety or that John Smith is struggling to understand the Bible in a certain area, how then do you know how to pray for them?
Pastors must rely upon prayer. A praying pastor is a powerful pastor. A powerful pastor may preach powerful sermons, but it is not his sermons that make him a powerful pastor. It is his prayer-life that makes him a powerful and great pastor. If you hope to have a thriving pastorate, be a pastor that prays for his people in specifics.
Listen to your people when they speak. Watch their faces. Notice their body language. Do they tear up when speaking about a subject or a loved one? Do they shift their weight when confronted about an issue? Do they cross their arms when speaking about a situation? Those are cues to pray. Pray for them and if appropriate, pray with them. I say, if appropriate because the person may not yet be aware of their own feelings, actions, or understandings. They would not understand why you prayed as you did. There could also be the possibility that you misunderstood their body language, which would be revealed later as you prayed and continued to pay attention.
If you do not know well the condition of your flock, you will not be able to practice well, pray well, and finally: you will not be able to preach well. Sermons on Sundays are not general lectures. They are not conference speaking engagements. They are sermons directed to a people that you know and a people that you love. Brian Croft, senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church and founder of Practical Shepherding, wrote:
As you prepare to preach God’s word, you should have your people in mind. Think about the difficulties they are facing, the challenges in their lives right now. How does God’s word from this passage minister grace to them? As questions like, “How does this truth relate to Joe’s marriage? How does this characteristic of God speak to the pain Margaret is feeling after losing her husband? How does this passage help Sarah care for her home more faithfully, help Doug deal with is difficult boss, or minister to Sally, who just found out she has cancer?” A pastor should have specific people on his mind to help him apply the truth of God’s word directly to the unique situations in his congregation.
That doesn’t mean that you call out their name or their situation from the pulpit, but that you apply it in such a way that they can grow and learn from God’s Word. If you don’t know your sheep, you cannot preach in such a way. The people need doctrine, but they also need direction. They need specific preaching to specific difficulties with which they deal.
While, I started out by saying that both the forest and the trees are in danger of being ignored, it is the trees that are the easiest to forget about. It is easy to put off the phone calls and visits for more urgent matters. But you weren’t called to pastor matters; you were called to pastor your people. While you cannot know them perfectly, nor can you know them totally, you can know them well. “Know well the condition of your flocks, and pay attention to your herds,” (Proverbs 27.23, ESV).
 Brian Croft, The Pastor’s Ministry, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2015), pp. 46-47.