Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)
The apostle penned those words to the Ephesian elders during his farewell visit with them. In context, the words offer a sober warning and encouragement. There will be wolves in the Ephesian church who will devour all the sheep they can. To combat them, the elders will need to watch over each other as well as watch over the precious blood-bought flock.
Wolves roam the sheepfolds of our day as well. They not only feed on sheep; they feed on pastors, too. Which raises an important question: Who watches over the soul of your pastor?
It’s typical for many senior pastors to regard another pastor in a different church or city as “their pastor.” At its best, this practice represents a good approach to honoring more experienced pastors who have meant a lot to us. It’s fine to have “spiritual fathers” or “fathers in the ministry.” We pay homage to their investment in our lives and we continue to enjoy their encouragement, counsel, and guidance. That’s a good thing. A fresh outside perspective from someone who knows us but isn’t bound by our context can help us see things we might otherwise miss. Praise God.
But the pastors who only receive spiritual care from pastors in other churches actually place themselves and their churches in a vulnerable position. Pastors in other churches have no meaningful authority in our lives and the lives of our local church other than the authority we voluntarily assign them. “Pastor Jones” in the next city can’t “pay careful attention to our lives” the way the Bible insists in Acts 20:28. In fact, the text assumes that all the other elders lovingly work together to watch over the lives of each individual elder.
The careful attention commended here requires at least four things: proximity, intimacy, vigilance and equality. Proximity gets defined as serving together on the same elder team in the same congregation. We can’t phone this in or do it online. It’s close care. Intimacy gets defined as regular, loving inquiry into each other’s life. Not only are we to watch our own life and doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16), but apparently so are our fellow elders. They are to inspect our manner of living and our doctrinal teaching. After all, the wolves that Paul prophesies will come will “come in among you [the elders]” (v. 29). Keeping watch requires vigilance. In other words, the watchfulness Paul commends is an ongoing watchfulness. It’s not a matter of checking a list once a year or even once a month. “Careful attention” is ongoing attention. The only persons who can give ongoing attention to a pastor’s life are other pastors who live, work, and serve by his side. But for any of this to happen, the pastor must labor beside equals — other elders who have as much authority and responsibility in the life of the church. Without equality, a pastor can “pull rank” or create distance between himself and the other leaders in ways that make this watch care impossible. And many do. But if all the elders have equal share in the ministry and in the responsibility for watching one another, it becomes more difficult for any individual pastor or elder to avoid the careful attention of the others.
So, pastor, who watches your soul? Who has proximity, intimacy, vigilance and equal standing in making sure you continue faithfully in the things of Christ and in making sure no wolves sneak into the church impersonating true pastors? A pastor needs pastors just like the rest of the sheep. Those shepherds who have been without shepherds have most often become as “harassed and helpless” as the shepherdless sheep our Lord saw in Matt. 9:36. Pray that the Chief Shepherd would send shepherds for the shepherds!