The means of grace found in the life of the church are most effective when they are employed in the context of discipleship. God has brought us together with other believers so that we can benefit from one another as we join our spiritual gifts for the purpose of Gospel ministry. Discipleship is a means of grace that enhances the impact of all the other means of grace, which means the body has to be joined together in spiritually-minded relationships in order to benefit from body life.
God has also designed shepherding to be a means of grace in the life of his people, which is to say He had delegated authority to mature believers to lead the people of God in Christlikeness. This means of grace is intended to feed our souls as we are supplied with truth from seasoned students of the Word. It also protects our souls from unbelief through the loving vigilance of tested believers. And it leads our souls towards Christlikeness through the stable influence of proven Christians. This is why the shepherds of a church have to be engaged in the lives the sheep.
Discipleship and shepherding are necessities for a faithful ministry. There are few who would contend with this principle, but there are many who struggle to put it into practice. Our hearts often recoil at the sacrifice required to engage in someone else’s life, and our culture is set up to discourage any kind of meaningful relationships with other people, let alone spiritual relationships. There are innumerable distractions, stumbling blocks, and challenges to discipleship and shepherding in our lives. However, out of all the impediments to discipleship and shepherding, there seems to be one particular challenge that commonly plagues eager shepherds—getting started.
A common question I receive from the men in my church is, “how do I start having spiritual conversations with my wife?” Really, the question is: “How do I start shepherding my wife?” Similarly, I often get questions from men training for ministry (or fresh in ministry) that reflect one common frustration: “How do I get into these people’s lives so that I can shepherd them?” As often as I get this question I am reminded that there is no secret answer for how to build healthy relationships. People are different, situations are varied, and relational dynamics can change over time. In other words, there is no cookie-cutter solution for how to initiate profitable and sustainable discipleship relationships. That being said, there are a few principles that will help you along the way.
The foundation for a healthy shepherding relationship is love, which is to say you have to be committed to the spiritual good of the people you are discipling. Paul lays the groundwork for this point in Ephesians 4:15:
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” (Eph 4:15)
There is much that could be said about this verse, but for now just focus on the fact that we are to speak the truth “in love.” From a biblical perspective, love means that we prioritize the good of another over ourselves. We prefer them over our desires, comfort, and preferences. This is the essence of love, and it is essential if we want to initiate healthy discipleship relationships with those around us. If they are going to respond when you speak the truth (especially hard truths), they must know that you love them.
This kind of love begins in your own heart. If your aim in shepherding or discipleship is to make people less burdensome to you or to make them more useful for your purposes, that is not love. You must sift through the mix of motives in your own heart to make sure that you are speaking into people’s lives out of a Christ-like desire for their good. Additionally, you must demonstrate this love to people over time. Through your attentive care, careful prayers, and thoughtful interactions, they should see humility not hubris. If you want to initiate a discipleship relationship with someone, begin with love.
In addition to love, make sure that you are learning about the person with whom you are engaging. The helpfulness of your shepherding in someone’s life is what makes it compelling, and you will only be helpful to them if you learn where they are at. Rehearsed answers and regurgitated principles don’t work in personal discipleship. The whole point of getting involved in someone’s life is to help them to see how the truth of God intersects with their specific life circumstances, common temptations, and besetting sins. If you don’t know anything about them it will be impossible to speak coherently to any of the issues that matter the most for them. Again, the apostle Paul helps us with this concept in 1 Thessalonians 5:14:
“And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” (1 Thess 5:14–15)
There is much that could be said about this paradigmatic verse—over the years it has probably been the single most impactful verse in the Bible on my own shepherding ministry. For now, just notice that in order to obey what is required by this verse you must know something about the person you are shepherding. Do they need admonishing, or encouragement, or help? Or maybe it is some combination of all three! If you want to sustain spiritually oriented relationship you must listen, observe, and learn about the people you are discipling.
One final thought needs to be considered as you seek to initiate helpful shepherding relationships—at some point you have to lead. The language of shepherding is really just an illustration for spiritual leadership; it vividly depicts that kind of influence our authority should have on those under our care. So, if we love those around us and learn about their lives, but we never speak the truth to them, use our influence to guide them, or lead them toward Christ-like change, then we are not shepherding. At some point you have to actually lead people in obedience of the truth in order for shepherding to occur. The apostle Peter’s charge to the elders of the church reminds us that, by nature, shepherding requires us to be spiritually proactive in people’s lives:
“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.” (1 Pet 5:2–3)
Love people, learn about them, and lead them toward Christ. This won’t solve every relationship issue in your church, nor will it warm every cold congregant toward your ministry. However, it is helpful to remember that we have to love those whom Christ has entrusted to us in such a way that we see their needs and make every effort to meet those needs. I suspect that if you patiently follow this pattern, you won’t have a problem finding people who want to come to you for shepherding—you’ll have a problem trying to find the time to shepherd all the people who want to come to you.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.