I learned a lot in seminary, I learned theology, Greek, Hebrew, how to craft a sermon and even how to read music, and I worked hard and got good grades. And while I was in seminary, I was discipled and mentored by some of the godliest men I know. I served in the special needs ministry, I taught Sunday School, I said yes to every opportunity to preach, in other words I did everything I could in order to prepare myself for pastoral ministry. But try as I might, I never learned how to shepherd.
I am not saying I was clueless, I knew the things to say, the passages to quote, even resources to recommend in certain situations. I did everything I could to prepare myself to be a gentle and effective shepherd, but as the old boxing saying goes, everyone has a plan until they get hit. No amount of study prepares you for the first time you hear someone tearfully confess a serious besetting sin (especially if it has been expertly hidden for years) or the first time someone breaks news to you like their new born child has a life threatening condition and the doctors have no idea what is causing it. Really the only way you can prepare for those situations, that I can think of, is by mail.
One of the greatest resources we, as the church, have are the letters that faithful shepherds from throughout church history have written to those they were shepherding, counseling, evangelizing and discipling. But I fear these letters are drastically under read.
As I prepared for ministry, I was given a list of works to read that would help me prepare. Things like Lectures to My Students by Spurgeon, The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges, The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter and Pastor to Pastor by Erwin Lutzer, and all of these books are worth reading, and I wholeheartedly recommend them. And new works on the practicalities of pastoral ministry are coming out all the time, and many of them are very helpful (I particularly recommend On Being a Pastor by Alistair Begg and Derek Prime).
But what all of these books have in common is they help you make the best plan possible, which may or may not survive getting hit. Having a plan is important, and I am in no way downplaying the value of these and similar works, you ought to read them. But you ought to read letters too.
While reading collections of letters won’t give you experience in shepherding or discipleship, they will show you how seasoned pastors shepherded and discipled (and comforted, taught, corrected, admonished, exhorted etc.) their people.
If you ever played a sport at a moderately serious level you probably watched film of the greats of the sport to try and see and then learn what made them so great. Whether it was Cal Ripken’s swing or Greg Lloyd’s hand fighting technique or Barry Sander’s change of direction, watching them on video allows you to observe the little things they do; the dip of the hip or the turn of the wrist that makes the greats great.
In the same way when you read the letters of John Newton or John Brown of Haddington or one of the other great faithful shepherds of the past, you can observe the subtle turns of phrase they used to make people feel loved in the midst of correction, or how they bring the gospel to bear in all kinds of situations, and how they get to the gospel by paths you may never have thought of.
There is no shortcut to becoming a good under shepherd of God’s people. It requires prayer, being saturated with scripture, the humility to be in discipleship relationships with faithful shepherds who are more experienced, and frankly experience. You should be a better shepherd today than you were yesterday. And part of that improvement is constant learning and preparation. If you have never made reading the letters of faithful men from the past part of your preparation, I’d strongly encourage the title of the next book you read starts with the phrase “The Letters of.”