Know Your Flock Before You Preach
A wise pastor-teacher seeks to share their life with and take time to know those they preach to.
What does it mean to be a good teacher?
I read recently that a good teacher is not just someone who knows and communicates their subject but who genuinely cares about their students, knows their students, and seeks to make what they teach accessible and helpful to the individuals they teach.
So it is with a wise pastor. A wise pastor-teacher doesn’t see their role as simply teaching the Bible. Rather, they teach God’s living Word to the flock entrusted to their care; those with whom they share their lives and take time to get to know.
Wisdom from Proverbs
There is wisdom for shepherd-leaders in Proverbs 27:23: “Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds.”
The given reason for this instruction is future-focussed; a well-cared-for flock will provide resources needed in the future.
For pastor-teachers, the reason for knowing the condition of the flock is also future-focussed; to best prepare them for their eternal future. In eternity they will be our joy.
Writing to those with whom he had shared both God’s Word and his life, Paul wrote, “For what will be our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when He comes? Is it not you? Indeed you are our glory and joy.” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20)
Literally, Proverbs 27:23 says “Know well the face of your flock; set your heart on the herds.”
In the Bible, to know someone’s face is to really know them, their characters, their temperament, conditions, quirks and so on. This takes time. It will be costly. It involves prioritising spending time with them. It means getting up from our desks and deliberately engaging with them.
Pastors in a former generation tended to spend their mornings in the study and the afternoons/evenings with people. Spending time with people in their homes seems to be less common now. There may be understandable reasons why that is so, but a wise pastor finds ways to “know well the face of their flock.”
Loving the flock
Spending time getting to know those entrusted to our care is an act of love.
It fuels our prayers as we prepare to preach. It shapes how we teach as we adapt and apply our teaching to their needs. The better we know the flock, the more likely they are to listen to us.
As in all things, our Lord Jesus is our example. He says: “I am the good shepherd: I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep…My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.” (John 10:14, 27)
Our Good Shepherd models the loving and “knowing” connection between a shepherd and the flock.
Charles Warr, a Scottish pastor, related how his ministry was “helped beyond words” a year into his first pastorate:
“One day Mr. Arthur Caird...looked in to see me. He was always perfectly groomed, and as everyone said of him, was just as nice as he looked. After some desultory conversation, he ran his hand over his silver hair, turned on me his kindly eyes that always had a twinkle in them, and delivered himself of some flattering and heart-warming words about my first year's ministry at St. Paul's. Then he paused and after a short sentence went on: "Yes, everything in the garden's lovely - or nearly everything."
"I waited, now a little anxious. Arthur Caird rose and came over to me and laid a fatherly hand on my shoulder. "My boy," said he, "the garden's still waiting for the blossoming of one flower without which the garden of no minister can be perfect." Another pause, "I know we're not everything we ought to be, and no doubt we need a lot of scolding; but we'd all be a great deal better than we are if only you would try sometimes, instead of lecturing us, to show us that you love us!"'” 1
Charles Warr records, “These words were a turning-point in my ministry.”
Many of us are grateful for the ministry of Tim Keller. He had something similar to say:
“If you put in too much time in your study on your sermon you put in too little time being out with people as a shepherd and a leader. Ironically, this will make you a poorer preacher.
"It is only through doing people-work that you become the preacher you need to be – someone who knows sin, how the heart works, what people’s struggles are, and so on. Pastoral care and leadership (along with private prayer) are to a great degree sermon preparation. More accurately, it is preparing the preacher, not just the sermon. Through pastoral care and leadership you grow from being a Bible commentator into a flesh and blood preacher.“ 2
I was listening recently to an interview with some experienced pastors. It was suggested that three connected tasks demand the time of a pastor-teacher: preaching/teaching; people-work; and leading/admin. A wise pastor, it was recommended, gives a third of his time to each of these tasks, each task relating to and serving the others.
- To preach effectively involves knowing the people to whom we are preaching.
- Knowing the people fuels our love for them and shapes our prayers and our preaching to them.
- Our preaching shapes the minds of the people we serve.
- Knowing them helps us to know how to lead them.
- Their knowing us, helps them to follow our lead.
“Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds.”
May those of us entrusted with shepherding the precious church of our Lord Jesus grow in “knowing” the condition of the flock entrusted to our care.
1 The Glimmering Landscape, Charles Warr, Hodder and Stoughton, p.117
2 Preacher-Onlys Aren't Good Preachers, timothykeller.com/blog/2009/10/15/preacher-onlys-arent-good-preachers