There is perhaps a fine line between pastoring and pestering. If so, I want to work hard on staying on the correct side of that line. But it is not always easy. One man’s concern is another man’s violation of their conscience. How does a pastor avoid being a bother, even though he is merely trying to be a brother? Maybe one solution is to do a better job at taking people seriously. Perhaps the key to not being a pest is to learn to simply respect people’s right to be wrong. Perhaps. Let me explain.
I love being a member of our church. My wife and I have raised our children here. We have grown in Christian maturity here. We have been loved here (a key to our Christian growth) and have grown somewhat grey here (well, okay, I have). It would be nice to happily die here (but hopefully not during a service). Yes, I am very grateful for the body life at BBC, of which loving and meaningful (because covenantal) accountability is a huge ingredient. But this biblical and ecclesiological ethic can create tensions.
You see, our church takes church membership seriously. We therefore take each other’s professed covenantal faithfulness seriously. We take members seriously. Therefore, we assume that those who join in membership with the body will desire to gather with the body. We assume that church members will gather, unless providentially hindered, when reasonably asked to. This will include gathering for worship, for teaching, for prayer, and even for the more mundane matters, such as our recent AGM (which, by the way, was very well attended—including by our oldest member, who is 93!). But of course, we neither live in a perfect world nor are we a perfect church. And this is where the fine line between pastoring and pestering arises.
Shepherds who care notice the sheep. They notice when they are looking harassed (Matthew 9:36), and they notice when they are conspicuously absent. Good shepherds will seek them out. Good shepherds will care enough to confront and, if necessary, to ask the hard questions. In most cases, at least in my experience, there is appreciation for such concern and, if there is a problem, in most cases restoration to the flock takes place. But not always. There are cases in which, despite loving concern, church members feel that they are being pestered by the pastors. We understand this, and it causes us no little unease. In some recent correspondence with one of my fellow elders concerning this matter, he wrote, “In our pastoring, we are not merely seeking an external conformity to a set of expectations, but rather we desire that a true and sincere heart-work is being accomplished. While it is possible that someone’s heart may be in the right place and yet they may be aloof, it is probably wiser for shepherds to assume that the aloofness is a sign of a heart problem. That’s where the difficulty lies. Not pestering the former [the healthy heart] while not neglecting to pastor the latter [the unhealthy heart].”
So, when faced with this dilemma, how should the elders, along with the membership, respond to a church member who continues to practice an agenda of aloofness? One right response will be to simply take them seriously. Let me illustrate.
A church member consistently refuses to heed the call to join with a Grace Group, or to make Sunday services a priority. In neither case, are acceptable apologies offered. They are not living in gross and open sin. All things being equal, they have a seeming affection for Christ and a seeming appreciation for the church. What they seem to lack is an affection for the church and therefore a lack of desire to assemble with her. The elders ask them over and over about this, but to continue to do so begins to feel like pestering—both by the elder and perhaps by them. Of course, there may be cases where their absenteeism becomes a matter calling for discipline. But in many instances this is not the case. So, how do we respond? What should we do?
I believe that we should take seriously their decision to be aloof. We should respect their dignity by respecting their right to make decisions—even if we believe their choices are wrongheaded. Again, I am not speaking about decisions to engage in what is clearly defined sin (see Matthew 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 5:1ff; etc.). Rather, I am speaking of the decisions to remain somewhat estranged from the gathered body. After several loving appeals, if a member remains distant (I am not speaking about those who live a great distance from the church, and those physically unable to attend more regularly, etc.) then perhaps further attempts to draw them in may cross the line into pestering. That will probably not prove helpful.
We need to patiently take them seriously while taking their profession of faith seriously. We should not assume the worst. Perhaps the member simply needs to grow more in Christ. As the believer matures so does his or her affection for others. What is important to Christ becomes important to the Christian; but this takes time and not everyone grows at the same pace.
Pastors, and congregations, need to remember that only God can grow a Christian. I dare not coerce someone to right behaviour. I need to respect their decision. But this of course applies both ways. The church member who will not gather must respect the wider body that does gather.
For instance, the aloof member should not be offended that their opportunities to serve will be curtailed. Take for example the privilege to serve one another at the Lord’s Table. This is reserved for those who regularly gather with the body. This is just biblical common sense. After all, since Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 11 that the Lord’s Supper has much to do with one’s attitude and relationship with the body of Christ, it would be hypocritical to ask someone to serve those whom they refuse to heed. And if the church member remains stubbornly aloof, one wonders if participating at all in Communion is wise or even safe (vv. 27–30). But that is another matter for another article.
The privilege to serve the church in other ways is, in many cases, reserved for those whose attendance (among other factors) declares affection for the body.
In other words, if church members do not want the blessings of participation, then we will not force those gifts upon them. Rather, we will patiently work with them—to a point—and will wait for them to connect more meaningfully. By doing so, we are patiently pastoring the aloof, thereby protecting them from the duplicity of pretence.
Such judgement calls are not always easy. Pastors don’t have spiritual X-ray vision. We many get it wrong at times. If we do, please tell us. But also, please pray for us. Pray that we will wisely restore the wandering, that we will appropriately use the rod of church discipline on the disobedient, and that we will avoid pestering those whose hearts, though presently a bit aloof, will one day respond to our pastoring.