What a Pastor’s Heart Looks Like

“Father, forgive them. For they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).

They were killing Jesus.  They would run up and spit on Him, then back off and laugh and call Him blasphemous names.  They would quote His words back to Him and dare Him to come down from the cross and prove Himself.

They were mean-spirited and ugly and hatefilled.

Jesus loved them.

As they killed Him, He prayed for them.

That, my friends, is a pastor.  A shepherd.  A lover of God’s people.

The heart of a pastor is a thing of wonder.

Something inside me wants to say preachers either have hearts of a pastor or they do not.  And if they do not, they should reject every invitation from search committees to become pastors because it’s a perfect set-up for disappointment on his part and disaster on theirs.  The preacher who can deliver a fine sermon but who is unavailable and ineffective during the week one-on-one should ask the Lord to show him other ways to use his gifts and calling.

The pastorate is not for him.

On the other hand, I imagine a large segment of pastors have dominant urges to study and preach, but with a minor, if you will, in the actual pastoral work. Even so, any minister of the Gospel without a strong appreciation for the people of God and his accountability to God for their care and nurture is missing something essential in his makeup.

Case in point.

Hunter and have wife have been family friends for many years. But from our frequent conversations over the last few years, Hunter’s pastor seems to have been AWOL the day Heaven handed out the quota of “pastors’ hearts.”  (That would be one per person, presumably.)

For reasons unknown, he did not get his.

Hunter says his pastor insists he received a calling from God and a love for God’s word. What he missed out on, however, was a love for God’s people with the accompanying desire to see them prosper in Christ.

I grieve about this, however, because Hunter and his family need a pastor now as much as ever in their lives.  My friend is being brought down by a terminal disease.  We’re told he has one year to live at the most. (Joe’s note:  Hunter died not long after this was written.)

The hospital where my friend has been treated is some miles away from their small town. But their pastor has been mostly a no-show.

A close friend of mine who  serves a church in the area has been calling on Hunter and praying with him and his wife.  One morning this week, Hunter’s neighbor, an 84-year-old pastor of another denomination, walked into the hospital room at 8 o’clock. He ministered and prayed with Hunter the way pastors do.

Two hours later, I walked into Hunter’s room.  After an exhausting weekend of ministry, I had driven 200 miles the night before in order to spend a few minutes with my friends who are going through the darkest valley of their lives.

It’s what pastors do.

It’s what people with “pastors’ hearts” do.

It’s that simple.

Ministers without pastors’ hearts–tell me if that’s not an oxymoron!–look for excuses not to make these trips.  “I ran by but you were asleep.”  “We prayed for you in staff meeting.”  “My car has been giving me trouble.”  “Those hospital rooms are so small and I know you’ve had a lot of company.”  “I’ve not been feeling well lately.”

My friend Hunter is being ministered to by three men of God each of whom has the heart of a pastor: my minister friend in that city, the next-door neighbor (the 84-year-old), and me.  (I baptized Hunter and his wife decades ago and we have maintained our close friendship ever since.)

With no false modesty, I gladly confess with a grateful heart that when the Heavenly Father called me into this work at the age of 21, He gave me a heart of a pastor.

The contrast with the compassionless pastor grieves me deeply.  Were such a minister to ask for advice–which is not going to happen–I would urge him to pray the Lord either to open up some other field of service more appropriate to his gifts or to grant him the heart of a pastor.

Question:  What does a minister-with-a-pastor’s-heart look like?  How can we recognize a real pastor when we see one?

–Instead of looking for excuses not to be at the hospital to minister to the family who needs him, a real pastor looks for ways to make it happen. Rising at 4 am to make a two-hour drive in order to arrive before surgery?  No problem.

–The distance is irrelevant to a real pastor.  If necessary, he will hitchhike to get there.  He is determined to bless his people in the name of Jesus.

–The minister with a pastor’s heart will not do a cost analysis to determine if he should go. You know the drill:  “What benefit would come from my visit? and is it worth the time and trouble?”  Such reasoning is insulting to the Holy Spirit who can take nothing and make something, can turn a spoken word or a human touch into something eternal and glorious.  The shepherd with a pastor’s heart is a true servant of the Lord and is devoted to His people.

–A true pastor will not “check someone off his list” after he has made the visit. He will continue to pray for them and keep in touch with them, by phone or emails or personal visits. His caring is genuine; his prayers are the real thing.

–A true pastor will not have to tell you he’s one.  You will know if within five minutes of his entering the room.

A child had been killed in a hit-and-run accident and the family was beside themselves with grief.  The community overflowed the church to share the family’s pain during the funeral.  The young pastor told me later, “That service was the hardest thing I have ever done.”

I said, “All right. I have a question.”

“In the middle of that gut-wrenching experience, when your heart is breaking and your soul is crying out to God for help, did you have the feeling that I would rather be here doing this than anyplace else on earth?”

He looked surprised, as though I had found out his secret.

“That is exactly how I felt.”

I said, “You, my friend, have a pastor’s heart.”

Now, keep your heart and guard it well.

Sin of any type will soil the heart.  Rebellion will deaden its sensitivy.  And a refusal to confess and forsake the sin will begin to encase the heart in a protective callous.  Before long, the minister who showed such promise and blessed so many people is on his way to becoming a professional.

The worst thing a called man or woman of God can do is to become a professional–to see this as a job, to do it for a paycheck, to go through the motions, to work for advancement and the approval of his superiors.

You must not let that happen.  The day you can minister to a family burying a child and not weep with them, you are becoming a professional.  “Weep with those who weep; rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12).

The moment you can stand at a bedside of a dying saint and not share the family’s tears, you are becoming a professional.

“Jesus wept” (John 11:35). 

Our Lord Jesus was a Good Shepherd, a Savior with a heart that hurt for the hurting. “When He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

Thank God our Savior has a shepherd’s heart.  “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are…” (Hebrews 4:15).

I rejoice at having such a Pastor in Heaven.  I so want to be a shepherd like Him.