The Hearts of Our Shepherds

Sunday’s service at our church featured an interview with our Shepherds (elders) in place of the usual sermon.

“The Hearts of Our Shepherds,” was aimed at providing opportunity for these men to share some of the themes dominating recent meetings, along with some of the more personal desires and prayers that each of them hold for our congregation.

By all counts, it was meaningful.

The interview closed with me asking each Shepherd what we, his church family, could pray for on his behalf. These men of God offered responses like wisdom and clarity, opportunities for greater influence with non-Christian friends, renewal within our church family, and significant personal spiritual growth.

Prior to praying, one Shepherd turned the question back toward me.

What could the church that I serve pray for me?

Springboarding off of a few of the Shepherds’ ideas, I described the burden that exists within leadership. There is a pressure involved in the awareness that many look to me for direction or inspiration or steadiness. Many times, however, I aim to provide these, with less confidence than I wish in my own abilities, focus, or strength.  It feels like the job could always be done better.

Even as I spoke these words, I was seeing in the congregation educators, healthcare workers, managers, social workers, financiers, and more. I felt a measure of guilt as my eyes beheld them and my mouth shared those words, as if I were suggesting that my role of leadership was “so important” that I needed extra support to bear it, as if I faced unique challenges that require unusual backing.  No such sentiment existed within me, but something that I couldn’t identify rubbed inside me in that moment.

Reflecting later, I found myself considering my ministry role in terms of task lists and skill sets.  All those people I’d noted have their own similar loads to carry within their own roles, and they aim to possess highly developed skills and to execute their tasks with integrity and excellence that demand discipline and focus.  Of course, I regularly set myself toward such goals within my job too, but it dawned on me that this was not at the heart of my prayer request.

So what was?

Queue up our weekly Small Group.

That evening’s text for discussion was John 15:1-11. After our usual “telling of the story”, we zoomed in on the text by using JB Phillips’ paraphrase:

1-8 “I am the real vine, my Father is the vine-dresser. He removes any of my branches which are not bearing fruit and he prunes every branch that does bear fruit to increase its yield. Now, you have already been pruned by my words. You must go on growing in me and I will grow in you. For just as the branch cannot bear any fruit unless it shares the life of the vine, so you can produce nothing unless you go on growing in me. I am the vine itself, you are the branches. It is the man who shares my life and whose life I share who proves fruitful. For the plain fact is that apart from me you can do nothing at all. The man who does not share my life is like a branch that is broken off and withers away. He becomes just like the dry sticks that men pick up and use for the firewood. But if you live your life in me, and my words live in your hearts, you can ask for whatever you like and it will come true for you. This is how my Father will be glorified—in your becoming fruitful and being my disciples.

9-11 “I have loved you just as the Father has loved me. You must go on living in my love. If you keep my commandments you will live in my love just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and live in his love. I have told you this so that you can share my joy, and that your happiness may be complete.

In sharing the portions of that text that spoke most personally to us, one group member noted that the first eight verses are heavily metaphorical, except for one blatant-as-can-be line:

For the plain fact is that apart from me you can do nothing at all.

And that quick comment decoded my earlier thoughts.

In any role, there are skills to be had and honed. Effort and excellence, organization and output–these are all relevant to discussions of successful leadership and efficient productivity, and I find myself intrigued and interested by such dialog.

But in matters of lasting fruitfulness, the type which ripples through eternity, an infinitely higher concern is connection to Jesus.

Is our connection to him substantial enough that his life flows through us?

That is the only question needing an answer and the only goal requiring a pursuit.

If it is, then the possibilities for life-giving impact on our world are as vast as God Himself. Anything less shrinks life to where the best I can hope for is an appearance of success, suggested by personal pleasure perceived or social recognition received.  An anonymous quote I read said, “Without Jesus, one can be certainly be successful.  But being fruitful is another thing altogether.”

I think that is the rub I felt on Sunday, and if I could rephrase my clumsy prayer request to be more accurate, that’s what I’d say:

Pray that I so connect with Jesus that His life flows freely through me, bearing much fruit.

Amen to that.