O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.
Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise.
Behold, they say to me, “Where is the word of the LORD? Let it come!” I have not run away from being your shepherd, nor have I desired the day of sickness. You know what came out of my lips; it was before your face.
(Jeremiah 17:13-16 ESV)
The most difficult balancing act a pastor does in the ministry is striking the right balance between preaching and shepherding. Because preaching is the public face of ministry, most congregations are looking for a really, really good sermon every week. Pastors who can’t preach their way out of a paper bag don’t generally last very long with their congregations. But the preacher who can grab a group’s attention and hold it week after week will probably be preaching to good sized crowds, no matter how Biblical the message is or isn’t.
There are people bothering Jeremiah in this passage. They are the taunting sideliners who say, “I’ll come to church when the pastor delivers a sermon worth listening to.” Those are people who have already written off the Word of God. They have already forsaken the Lord because they have disconnected themselves from what Jeremiah calls “the fountain of living water.” They aren’t hearing the Word of the Lord quite simply because they aren’t there to hear it, or if they are there, they aren’t there to listen, but only to criticize.
By contrast, Jeremiah has no pretense in his heart about his own oratorical skills. He knows that the ability of the Word of the Lord to go forth doesn’t depend on his ability to deliver it. When presented with the complaint that he really isn’t a very good preacher, Jeremiah replies, “I am a shepherd.”
Jeremiah is also a shepherd/preacher who begins all of it from an attitude of need before God. If more of us who presume ourselves to be pastors would start our day every day with, “Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise,” it would prevent a lot of pastoral train wrecks.
When the going gets tough in pastoral ministry; when they tell you you’re not much of a preacher, and when you hear there are people sitting on the sidelines waiting for you to come visit them because they’ve got one complaint or another, it is really, really easy to say to yourself, “I think I’ll just call in sick this morning.”
Visiting complainers, by the way, isn’t pastoral leadership. That’s putting your finger in holes in the dam. Sure, they’re going to complain. But you visiting most of them won’t stop that. As Jeremiah reminded us, they’ve already decided not to hear the Word of the Lord. A shepherd doesn’t cater to bleating lambs. He doesn’t sit down next to them to give them an opportunity to cry out. What a good shepherd does is he leads them beside still waters and restores their souls. That does mean using the tools in his hand, the rod and staff, effectively. He doesn’t use them to inflict pain. He uses them to lead and to guide.
Jeremiah has answered the number one pastor’s question for himself before turning and asking it of anyone else. This is the question I ask every person I mentor or shepherd each time I sit down with them: “How’s your soul?” He knows how much it hurts to have your congregation constantly complaining and pulling against what you’re trying to do. He knows he’d like to take a sick day. He also knows he’s not going to do it.
Jeremiah, how’s your soul? It needs healing. My soul is broken and my spirit is hurting. Jeremiah, how’s your soul? It needs to be saved. I feel like they are closing in on me from every side, and I’m alone here. Jeremiah, how’s your soul? It needs to praise you, O God. My soul is tired, and I just want to go somewhere and spend time praising you.