It's an understatement to say that the Apostle Paul faced challenges. In 2 Corinthians 11, he rattled off a list of some of the difficulties he encountered as an apostolic church planter. He was beaten, imprisoned, whipped, and shipwrecked. He experienced sleeplessness, hunger, nakedness, rejection, false accusation, and persecution. His work was literally dangerous. He used the word “danger” eight times to describe it. This list de-romanticizes the apostolic gifting and calling, doesn’t it? And yet, at the end of his vivid description of the suffering he had faced, he makes a very telling statement: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). Everything else refers to his being shipwrecked, beaten, homeless, hungry, etc. There was something beyond these struggles. What could be more difficult to endure than all of that “everything else?” Evidently, of all the challenges Paul faced, the burden of caring for the churches was the most difficult. Paul’s concern for the church caused him anxiety. This is the very same word used in 1 Peter 5:6-7: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” Anyone who has ever answered the phone at 3 am to the sound of someone weeping can relate to Paul. Anyone who has sat with a woman after she’s learned her husband has cheated on her can understand what he’s feeling. Anyone who has driven around town in the dark looking for the guy from their missional community who is strung out on meth can begin to comprehend what Paul is saying. Caring for people is extremely difficult work that has the potential to cause great anxiety.
I am frequently asked: “How to you handle the burden of shepherding people? How do you avoid making people’s problems your own? Where do you find the strength to continue caring for them, even when it’s extremely difficult?” Often, the person asking these questions are being crushed under this burden.
I think there is something healthy about Paul’s anxiety. He continues his thought by saying, “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Corinthians 11:29). We are actually commanded to “weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15). The word “compassion” literally means “to be moved in one’s intestines.” When other people are hurting, we should feel it deeply, too. On the other hand (and I have no idea if this was the case for Paul), I think there is often something unhealthy about the anxiety we feel.
Two False Beliefs that Lead to Unhealth
While there may be many factors that contribute to unhealthy anxiety, in my own life I see two primary reasons I end up feeling the burden of shepherding.
1. I think it’s my responsibility to “save” people.
It’s my job to “fix” them. I need to save this couple’s marriage, I need to ensure that this man overcomes his porn addiction, I need to heal this woman from her sexual abuse. Those statements sound ridiculous because they are never stated that explicitly but are buried under a pile of good intentions and pious justification. Justifications such as: “We are called to bear one another’s burdens,” “We are the hands and feet of Jesus,”and “this is the work I’m called to do.”
What I’m truly saying when I take ultimate responsibility for the well-being of others is: “If they crash, it’s on me. My worth and value is at stake. If this doesn’t end well, it will reflect negatively on me, and I don’t want to look like an idiot.”
The good news, however, is Jesus Christ is the person responsible for the shepherding and care of every person in our church family! He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10). He is the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5), which means he’s the Senior Pastor. He’s the one who indwells people with his Spirit; the same Spirit that raised him from the dead. He is the one who brings about transformation. Let that sink in for moment: It’s the Spirit’s job to care for people and to change people. The amazing thing is that he asks us to join him in that work-not to own that work, but to join that work.
2. I think I can do my part with my power.
The Chief Shepherd is responsible for everyone, but he asks me to shepherd his flock, too. The weight is on his shoulders, while I am given the opportunity to serve him by serving others. Even when I’m clear on this, however, I sometimes end up feeling the burden of shepherding because I attempt to do “my” part in the power of my own strength.
Here are some indicators that I may have slipped into this faulty thinking/belief:
- I am concerned about saying the wrong thing.
- I am uncomfortable with silence.
- I get nervous about heart level conversations.
- Shepherding leaves me completely exhausted.
- I find myself worrying about the people I'm caring for
- I get frustrated (rather than grieved) by a lack of progress
Jesus has, in fact, asked us to join him in his work of caring for his people. But he has also given us every resource needed to do that work. Every resource! He’s given us his Spirit, who supernaturally empowers us for ministry (Ephesians 1:19-20, Colossians 1:29). The Spirit is the wisdom and the power of God, so we lack neither the necessary wisdom or the necessary power to care for others. The challenge for me is to “serve by the strength that God provides” (1 Peter 4:11) rather than “leaning on my own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). Self-reliance is a sure path to shepherding burnout.
Three Helpful Practices in Shepherding
How can we actively engage in the care of people’s hearts without getting completely overwhelmed in the process? How do we avoid unhealthy anxiety, and consider the health of our own hearts as we shepherd others? I’ve found these three practices to be helpful:
1. Repent of my desire to save people in order to make myself significant. This is nothing short of idolatry, and a flat-out denial of the work of Jesus. He alone defines me. I am one with him, and my life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). Additional efforts to prove my worth are an insult to the One True Savior. We must repent of this idolatry and return to worship of the only savior.
2. Affirm that it is the Spirit’s responsibility to change people. Repeatedly entrust people to his care. They belong to him! (Psalm 24:1). I often lift my hands in the air as I’m praying early in the morning for a hurting person, reminding myself that they belong to him, and that they are ultimately in his hands. I can trust him to do all of the things Jesus said he would do: convict, teach, comfort, remind, and glorify Jesus.
At the end of a hard meeting or a heavy phone call, pray and entrust the person into the Spirit’s ongoing care. Make it clear to God, yourself, and the other person that you are trusting the Holy Spirit to be the one to bring about transformation in the person’s life.
Worry and anxiety are often a sign that we believe our identity is in question. “If this doesn't work out well, it will impact my worth and value.” Casting all of your anxieties upon him means affirming that the outcome of any shepherding situations we find ourselves in will have no impact on our identity. I find this prayer helps me affirm the Spirit’s work and my identity. I pray:
This is your responsibility, not mine. This is in your hands. I trust you to work. Regardless of what happens, I will entrust this person to you, and I will entrust myself to you. I will not be anxious, feeling that I must perform in order to be significant or worthy. My worth and value comes exclusively from the work of Jesus and through my connection to him. I cast my anxieties upon you, because you care for me, and because you are responsible for them and for me. This is your job and I trust you to do it!
3. Pray and ask the Spirit to speak to you concerning the people you shepherd. “What do I need to say? What questions do I need to ask? What scriptures might be relevant?” Then, pray and ask the Spirit to fill, empower, and speak through you. My flesh (Romans 13:14), my “old self” (Ephesians 4:22) hates to depend on the Spirit. It is filled with pride and desperately wants me to look smart, to appear as if I have it all together. Total dependence on the Spirit puts me in a place of humility, and gives me greater energy and clarity for the task at hand.
Peter’s words to elders should serve as a fitting closing word to anyone involved in the shepherding and care of others. May the Spirit fill us for the task at hand!
I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. - 1 Peter 5:1-5
Abe Meysenburg serves as a pastor and elder with Soma Communities in Tacoma, WA. After living in the Midwest for most of their lives, he and his wife, Jennifer, moved to Tacoma in the summer of 1999. In 2001, after working as a Starbucks manager for a few years, Abe helped start The Sound Community Church, which then became a part of Soma Communities in May 2007. Twitter: @AbeMeysenburg.