The Pastor’s Dilemma of Balancing the Prophetic Voice with the Shepherd’s Hand

The prophetic voice of a pastor is forth-telling, speaking the truth even when it is difficult. The shepherd’s hand of a pastor is caring, gently dealing with issues in love. As a pastor, I find it challenging to balance the prophetic voice with a shepherd’s hand.

Truth alone can become dry orthodoxy. It’s painful, like scrubbing your kids with steel wool to get them clean. The dirt will be gone, but a gentler approach would accomplish the same goal. Conversely, love alone can become sappy sentimentality, which is deadly, like feeding your kids only cotton candy for sustenance. My oldest son would live off cotton candy if I let him, but he wouldn’t live well.

There are situations where a prophetic voice is needed more than a shepherd’s hand. For example, many years ago, a member criticized my wife in front of everyone for how she led worship.

“That wasn’t real worship! How terrible!” This member then added a few other choice comments about my wife.

I responded, “There are plenty of other dead churches in this town who would welcome another corpse if you don’t like it here.”

My words were more steel wool than cotton candy. Reflecting now, I was too harsh. Though a response was warranted, mine was overblown. How can a pastor be assertive—prophetic even—without losing the posture of serving others in love?

Too little assertiveness, and you lose your ability to inspire. The prophetic voice enables a pastor to give direction to a church. When you neglect this voice, people are no longer challenged to move. Inspiration lacks where forthrightness is absent.

Too much assertiveness, and you lose your ability to relate. The shepherd’s hand helps a pastor give comfort to the congregation. Gentleness enables healing. Shepherding protects and guards the flock. Without this gentle hand, the shepherd can weaponize the pastoral office and be the cause of hurt.

Balancing assertiveness requires high levels of discernment. One of the greatest dangers young pastors face is leading without longevity—because discernment, like wisdom, only occurs through the maturation of time. Such was my mistake. My quip about corpses and dead churches came from a clever wit detached from wisdom. My mind was working ahead of my heart. 

  • Without discernment, assertiveness is inconsistent in intensity. You can become too prophetic and lack a loving spirit. Love is sacrificed for a harsh truth.
  • Without discernment, assertiveness is inconsistent in frequency. You can become too gentle and lack inspiration. Truth is absent and replaced with mawkishness.
  • With discernment, assertiveness is clear. You gain clarity as a pastor by balancing the prophetic voice with the shepherd’s hand.
  • With discernment, assertiveness is helpful. You guide others to maturity when you balance a prophetic voice and a shepherd’s hand.

You likely have a default—or preferred—posture as a pastor. Some will use prophetic words before a loving presence. Others will do the reverse. The key is to be both assertive and discerning. What about the member who insulted my wife? She never returned to the church because of my retort. There’s something about a gentle answer turning away wrath, I believe.