Rev. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan.
After the shock of the first few consistory meetings is over, and the elder takes stock of his gifts and calling, he ought to be busy getting to know the flock under his care. He already knows them partially. Now the knowledge must increase in both breadth and depth. Aside from other essential labors to qualify himself for the work (see the following articles, God willing), he must come to know the sheep.
No one will disagree that without this knowledge an elder is really impotent for the work. Consistories resolutely refuse to nominate for office any member who has recently joined the congregation. He may have served well in another congregation. He may have many gifts. His gifts may be greater than those of officebearers currently serving or nominated. But they will not propose his name to the congregation. He does not know the congregation.
As an elder, each man must be familiar with the needs of the sheep and lambs under his care. Because he needs to be friendly, a nice person, and the members will like him and be comfortable with him? Of course. But more so because he must represent Christ, who knows His sheep; is good to them; is their Friend (Prov. 18:24). The sheep like Him very much. And Christ is familiar with every one of His sheep.
“I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep…. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them….” (John 10:14, 27).
The Good Shepherd’s knowledge of His sheep is an eternal, electing knowledge of love. Why, the Father gave Him the sheep according to that decree of love. So Jesus lays down His life for them, redeeming them. He “giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Having done so, He comes very close to them. He calls them to come to Him. He leads them out, goes before them, holds them in His hand, speaks to them (John 10:3, 4, 28).
If the elder represents Christ, He must love the sheep first. Loving them, He “gives his life” for them, comes close to them, leads them out, goes before them, speaks to them. How great a love! How impossible a work! Pray for grace!
Christ’s knowledge of the sheep is also familiarity with them. In John 10, Jesus meant more than His and His Father’s electing knowledge of the sheep. He meant that he was familiar with them. Our shepherd knows all about us. He understands our physical needs, our spiritual wants and infirmities. He’s familiar with our past, our hurts, our scars, our limps. He’s very well aware of our desires, our discouragements, our disappointments. Because of this, He’s able to succor us in time of need (Heb. 2:18). How sad if He did not know us. How hesitant we would be to come to Him if it were so.
Good elders will also want to become very familiar with the sheep under their care.
They’ll know the names of them all. In the smaller congregations there won’t be one he doesn’t know. In the larger congregations, he’ll at least know the names of them all in his district. The little ones too. Especially them. Jehovah calls all of his sheep by name (Isaiah 45:3,John 10:3). The beginning of the elders’ work is to know the sheep by name.
It’s not that difficult to learn the names. It takes only a little effort. Sit down with the church directory each week. Take out the list of the names under your care before church in the consistory room. Pray for their needs. Quite soon you will know them all.
Know their occupations, their special needs, their weaknesses, their families, and their family history. Know their sorrows. Understand their joys and rejoice with them. Above all, know their spiritual needs. You are shepherds of souls! What do the young people think about confession of faith? Are the children spiritually minded? Do they participate in catechism? Do they know their lessons well? What kinds of discouragements may the family be facing? What pressures may threaten their marriage? Are there financial struggles? Are the single members content in their way? Does the childless couple rest in God’s will? What kinds of friends and acquaintances do they have?
To accomplish this takes great effort. But it’s all worth it and will be blessed by God. The kind of effort I’m thinking of includes things like:
1)Talk to them after church. Go out of your way after church to talk to the families and individuals under your care. It’s easy to remain in your comfortable group without ever venturing out to meet and speak to the flock. That’s not faithfulness to the Good Shepherd who has called you to care for His sheep. Besides, how appreciative the sheep are to hear you asking about their needs, in a gracious way talking to them about school, or the sermon! What to talk about? Perhaps you could read the Beacon Lights or Standard Bearer on Saturday evening so that you can ask them if they’ve seen this “very interesting article.” By all means, seek them out and find out their needs. What better time to start than in the social hall after church?
2)Make notes in your personal church directory. You need to remember specifics. Jot notes about occupations of young people, girl-friends’ names, future plans, items you’ve discussed with them. You shouldn’t forget that this one’s son’s wife left him, or that one’s grandfather in another town is dying of cancer. Jot down what you could ask them the next time you see them. Remember to follow up on a conversation you had with them a month ago. You have an interest in remembering the special needs and circumstances of the flock. When you visit the family on the regular family visitation, these notes can be in front of you.
3)Visit with them personally. If it’s possible, ask the clerk to assign your family visits to the families in your district. Elders must make the family visits profitable by preparing for the visit. Especially they do well when they think about the specific visit they will make, keeping in mind the unique needs and circumstances of the home they come to.
4)Talk to them spiritually. Remember you represent the good Shepherd. There is nothing wrong with talking small talk with them. But let’s not hesitate to show interest in spiritual things, and in their spiritual needs. This is more difficult. But elders who are praying for the spiritual needs of the flock will be able to do this. The sheep will love you for this. Believers will anyway. That the others won’t, doesn’t matter.
5)Pray for them regularly. The elders’ meetings include prayers for the saints under the elders’ care. Those prayers are vital in the labor of the elders. Remind your pastor and fellow elders who open and close these meetings to make these prayers petitions for the sheep. In addition to this, we elders ought to pray privately. Take the church directory. Look at the names of those under your care. Think of their specific needs. Pray. Be an advocate. Bring their needs to the Great Advocate (I John 2:1). We love the sheep. We pray for our own children. Praying for “our” sheep should be naturally part of our work as under-shepherds.
6)Call them. Don’t forget that even a brief telephone call can be used by God to encourage the saints in their needs.
7)Pray for genuine love for them. The only thing worse than no concern is feigned concern. Only God can help us truly love the sheep. No one may accept nomination who does not love genuinely. God answers prayers by deepening and purifying it.
8)Discuss with your fellow elders what other items could be added to this list.
The profit of elders’ faithfulness in this respect is that God will bless it for the good of the sheep to the glory of their Shepherd. I remind us once more: the need for our faithfulness here is not that the people will like us; rather, that they will love Christ. Because we represent Christ to them, our love for them and our care conveys the love of Christ to them. That we love them assures them of Christ’s love. We must make that plain. I pray that we love the saints personally. They may know that. But I pray fervently that the saints know God’s love for them. They must know that. The better we know the sheep, the more powerful a tool we will be in God’s hands to bless.
What importance and benefit is there that we know them by name? That they may know that we care for them! That God knows us by name is indication that we’ve found grace in His sight (Ex. 33:12, 17). They must learn something about God through our work. His grace is known to them in part through our work.
Besides, getting to know the people of God in that way helps us to see problems before they become so severe there is little that can be done. Your knowledge of the flock will help you anticipate problems rather than react to problems. We desire no less for our own children!
Then, the sheep dare to come to you. They have seen your interest and know your sympathetic heart. Trust has been established. If they have become your friends, they will come to you as a kind and sympathetic friend and able counselor.
Do elders sometimes lament that few members of the congregation come to them with their needs? Does the minister become overloaded with the pastoral care of the flock? One reason may be that the sheep just don’t “know” the elders and the elders don’t “know” the sheep. In the same discourse in which Jesus said, “I know them,” He also said: “The sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” Do they hear the voice of Christ in your voice? See the love of Christ in your heart? Sense the wisdom of Christ in your mind?
God help all our elders who love Him and His Great Son. May He use us, strengthen us for the work, and bless the flock under our care.