Success and Good Shepherding

I gave the ordination message for Milan Homola and Josue Gonzales Sunday morning, July 3rd, 2011. In this message, I encourage and exhort Josue and Milan in their lives and ministry callings to define success and leadership biblically and relationally and not according to certain predominant cultural norms.

How do you define success in life and ministry? This was a key question raised at the ordination council meeting for Milan Homola and Josue Gonzales.

Many people today and throughout the ages define success in life according to one or more categories; a few of the big ones for defining success are economic excess, physical prowess and academic progress. While financial viability, physical strength and educational advance certainly have their place, they should not define our lives in terms of what we prize most. Unfortunately, economic excess, physical prowess and academic progress so often do define the lives and views of success for many.

Such values and definitions stand in stark contrast to Scripture. Paul quotes from Jeremiah 9:24 in 1 Corinthians 1:31, where he is challenging the false boasts of the Corinthian Christians. Paul declares, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” Paul calls on them to boast in their relationship with the Lord–the same Lord who reveals his power in weakness and his wisdom in foolishness in the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). The boast in Jeremiah 9:23-24 puts everything in perspective: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness [“steadfast love”–ESV], justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the LORD.” (NIV)

Jeremiah challenges those who boast in their academic or intellectual progress, physical prowess and economic excess to go deeper and define life and success by way of intimacy with God, who although he is all-wise, all-powerful and owns the cattle on a thousand hills, defines himself relationally, as set forth here: the LORD exercises loving-kindness/steadfast love, justice and righteousness on earth in relation to us, for in these things he delights.

Josue and Milan, I heard your hearts the night of the ordination council. I was so struck by your relational instincts and concern for God and his people. I encourage and exhort you to continue defining yourselves in relation to God and intimacy with him, and in exercising his steadfast love, justice and righteousness toward those you serve, for in these things God delights. If you boast in the Lord and in bearing witness to his loving-kindness, justice and righteousness here on earth, you will live and minister well. You will succeed in the midst of fading failures and passing discouragements in ministry, as you succeed with God. Those who don’t define success in life and ministry along the lines described here will have a hard time making it down the road, for their boast is not in the Lord.

Let me go deeper. We live in a church age that values charismatic preaching, cutting edge marketing along with entrepreneurship, and CEO leadership. But do we value good shepherding? I believe those who truly define success the way I have defined it above will approach leadership and shepherding of God’s people in Jesus’ way.

So, what makes for good shepherding according to Jesus? Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:10-13).

Good shepherds are not ravenous wolves: wolves steal the lives of the people.

Good shepherds are not volunteers, who simply donate their time and labor to people.

Good shephers are not hired hands. Hired hands sell their time and labor to the people.

Good shepherds labor to lay down their lives for their people–daily.

Alluding to Ezekiel 34 which he fulfills, Jesus is the good shepherd, who contrasts himself with the failed shepherds/leaders of Israel: specifically those leaders who opposed him and the healing of the man born blind in John 9–the previous chapter. These supposed shepherds were ravenous wolves at worst and hired hands at best. But Jesus laid down his life for the sheep, even this man born blind whom he healed at great cost to himself at the hands of these bad shepherds of the nation. Such acts of sacrificial love led Jesus to the cross at the hands of his enemies, the same enemies of the sheep. Even the man’s parents wouldn’t sacrifice themselves for their son born blind, whom Jesus healed. They were so unlike my own dad.

My dad passed away in May after a long battle with cancer. My dad was not a pastor. He was not a Christian celebrity. But he was a precious Christian minister in his own right, who lived out the name of his parish church–“Good Shepherd.” My dad was a simple man, who was profound relationally. Simple profundity. My dad certainly had regrets about never being able to visit Europe. But he had no relational regrets. In this sense, he died a great success. My dad sacrificed his life and body to get me through school and life, working all hours of the day and night, for my mother, siblings and me. He cared for those from all walks of life with whom he came in contact–letting them know how much they mattered. The world was his parish. God used my dad more than anyone to bring me back to the faith after an intense time of rebellion in my youth. It was not a philosophical argument that brought me back. I could beat my Dad in any debate. It was his love for Jesus–the Good Shepherd–and me. My rebellion was no match for my Dad’s ceaseless and sacrificial love poured out on me. My key verse from my time of restoration from my life of youthful rebellion was John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus came to give each of us life to the full and he used my dad to snatch me back from the hands of Satan the thief who had come to steal and kill and destroy my life.

Milan and Josue, I find you to be men marked by love. Don’t listen to how so much of the surrounding church and secular culture defines success and leadership. Listen to the men who were in the room with you that night in the ordination council meeting. Their values were and are precious to me. Define success and leadership the way Jeremiah and Paul and Jesus define success and leadership–in terms of God’s sacrificial love poured out for others. As you move forward in ministry, listen well to Paul and Peter, who learned a thing or two from Jesus about how to lead and shepherd well. I close with the words of Peter as he exhorts fellow leaders in 1 Peter 5. Josue and Milan, these are my closing words to you. May your eyes and heart be open to your high calling and Christ’s deep love for you and through you to those entrusted to your care:

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:1-4).