We elders are called to rise above our own personal reaction to people’s outward presentation of themselves and go deeper in trying to understand and minister to them. Yet, as human beings, we are so limited by the external: a person’s appearance, personality, social status, financial resources, or past interactions and behaviors. It is so easy for an elder to assume, “Of course I treat everyone the same.” But if we are honest, this not always the case.
We are easily drawn to some people more than others, but giving preferential treatment and inconsistent attention creates an integrity issue for shepherds of God’s people. I have seen it in others and in myself.
The Lord speaks directly to this in James 2:1-9. As leaders we absolutely must go deeper than appearances in our relationships with people, because our superficial judgments will usually be dead wrong.
Examples from the hockey world
When I was chaplain for a local professional ice hockey team for a number of years, I discovered how easy it is to be fooled by the outward appearance. Ministering to hockey players was similar to ministry in the local church. By faith, I know professional athletes have inward spiritual and emotional needs, but you wouldn’t think that when they are on the ice banging away at each other.
Contrary to common perceptions, most pro players I have met can be gentlemen and very polite. We have had many in our home and know that firsthand. One even played classical piano music! He came to most of our chapel services.
Another was outgoing, friendly, gregarious—and a Christian. People were drawn to him, for he was very likable.
Let me describe some others. One was six-foot-four and rugged, with a somewhat hardened look about him. The first time he came to chapel, he sat at the opposite end of the table with a scowl on his face and asked straightforwardly, “How do you know Jesus was really God?” I figured he was just trying to nail me with an argument. My answer didn’t change the look on his face, and it didn’t seem to convince him. I invited him to lunch one day and discovered he had trusted Christ as a young boy, but no one ever followed up on him when he moved away to play hockey in another town. His live-in girlfriend was raised in a Christian home, where her father, who was a leader in the church, ran off with another woman in the congregation. This young man, it turns out, was genuinely interested in learning more about the faith he once experienced.
Another player met me in the hallway one day outside the locker room. He was the “enforcer” for the team, the one who fights against the other team’s enforcer to protect his own teammates. He was new to the team, so I had not met him before. With his chiseled body and his face covered with welts from the previous game, he stopped in front of me and glared straight in my eye, about twelve inches from my face. He said nothing—he didn’t even blink. Other players milling about stopped to watch. He was known as a troublemaker, not very well liked because of his wild, undisciplined life off and on the ice.
The atmosphere was tense. Looking down at his clenched fist raised up to stomach level, I silently prayed for help! I must have been motivated at that point by the Spirit, for without thinking I formed a fist with my hand and brought it down to hit the top of his fist playfully, just like a fellow might do with his friend. He then did the same to me, smirked, then walked off! I let out a sigh of relief.
A short while later he showed up at the chapel service. He sat quietly until the end, then lingered around, obviously wanting to talk. I invited him out to lunch, and for ninety minutes he told me about his life, his failed marriage, and his six-year-old son he hadn’t seen in two years. He was hurting. And he said he was tired of making a living by fighting. Underneath the unlikable, hardened fighter image was a man who was struggling with the deeper things of life.
Another player was clearly the sort who was the “big man on campus” in his college days. He carried this aura into the pro ranks, strutting around and flirting with the women (he was married). He had a way of making you feel he was doing you a favor by talking with you. He wouldn’t let me get past the exterior, so I don’t know the real person underneath. Something in me wanted to write him off because of his arrogant attitude. But, like the others, I know there is a story behind his face, a human heart and soul.
Hockey players are humans who struggle with real issues in their lives that are often covered over by the surface things. We may be drawn to some, but not to others, and miss out on the real person underneath each one. The same is true in the church.
Application to the church
Despite external appearances, most people struggle with various issues of life—and the Great Shepherd wants to minister to them. As under-shepherds, we need to get below the surface with people to find out where they are in their spiritual life and walk. We simply cannot settle for increasing the volume of doctrinal teaching or pounding the pulpit harder and expect profound, real change in people’s lives by some sort of spiritual symbiosis. We need to get to really know them.
To put it another way, we cannot afford to allow ourselves to be drawn to some people to the neglect of others, based on external criteria. Some are wealthy, some are poor; some are great conversationalists, some stutter; some handle themselves well in social settings, others do not. Some are of a “higher” social status, others of a “lower” status in society. Some may have “grated” you wrong at some point in the past, others may have always complimented you. Some pray in a very flowery way using all the “right” words, others stumble along awkwardly. As elders, we are called to shepherd them all, even ones we don’t personally “like.”
How can we do that? Here are some steps to consider:
First of all, some self-evaluation is in order. As an elder, ask yourself the following:
- Do those with money in my local church get preferential treatment over others?
- Do some voices carry more weight with me because they are louder or more repetitious?
- Do I look for “good pray-ers” (eloquent of speech) to pray at important events?
- Do I spend more time on Sunday mornings (or any other meeting times) with certain people on my social or socioeconomic level?
- Do I ever meet with others for lunch or coffee, or visit in their homes just to find out how they are doing?
- Do I secretly feel that my status in the world translates into status in the church?
- Do I cover up my partiality with biblical-sounding rationale?
- Do I delegate ministry responsibilities based on externals, rather than on spiritual giftedness?
In one local church the elders regularly visit believers in their homes, dividing up the congregation between them. For more on this, check out the video teaching series Toward a Shepherd’s Heart and Routine Shepherding.
During meetings of the church
In one church, the deacons took the initiative to relieve the elders of their Sunday morning service-oriented duties to free them to shepherd the flock by greeting, talking, praying with, and just spending time with the people. Nothing is more encouraging to the believers than to see an elder off to the side praying with someone.
Small group ministry
Consider small group ministry, following the example of the early church, as a way to get to know the believers on a more personal level. Small groups give elders an opportunity to get to know others below the surface (see Teaching in Small Groups to learn more). Indeed, it is difficult to know them when the only contact comes from casual interaction in large group settings.
The bottom line is that to shepherd God’s people, we must go deeper. This takes time, energy, and sacrifice. Otherwise, we are left with evaluating their spiritual needs based on the superficial. But the effort to reach deeper with people is rewarded with the joy of ministering to them in their real need.