A wee-little sheep breaks through a fence and runs away. But unlike most parables, his shepherd doesn’t find him (Luke 15:1-7). This little sheep wanders to and fro, far away from home, and eventually stumbles upon another flock. From that moment on, another shepherd is given charge over his life. Imagine the first shepherd picking up his cell phone and saying to the new overseer, “Hey, friend. There are a few things you should know about this wee-little sheep…”
I have no idea whether shepherds use cell phones while wandering across lush plains, but consider this point: shepherds should cooperate with other shepherds, churches with other churches, in order to wisely love the sheep entrusted to their care.
In our very mobile society, where people rarely stay put for long, you shouldn’t be surprised when a Christian stumbles through your church’s front door carrying baggage full of junk from his past. In caring for the hurting sheep, a pastor can go it alone, with nothing but what the new member tells him, or he can informally cooperate with another pastor to better care for this sheep.
CHURCHES COOPERATING: EXAMPLES
Let’s think about a couple of real-life examples.
A struggling member moves to another church. In many ways, this is the simplest and most straightforward example. A Christian who is struggling relocates to another city or state because of a job. He starts going to another church. The pastor knows there is a long history of problems, so he calls this sheep’s previous pastor to get some background and advice.
Mediation between family members. Parents are not getting along with their adult children. The parents and the kids are members of different churches. Pastor Bob is getting one side of the story from the adult kids; Pastor Jim is getting the other side from the parents. Both pastors can persist in their one-sidedness, or they can take the simple step of picking up the phone and calling one another. The pastors act as mediators between family members, with either one or both pastors involved.
A husband and wife separate. A husband and his wife are in a difficult marriage, and things are not going well. For whatever reason, one spouse separates, which often means physically moving out of the home. He or she starts going to another church, maybe in a different city or even a different state. You can choose to deal with just the one spouse in your congregation, or you can extend a hand to the other spouse, inviting them to re-engage in the marriage. His or her new pastor wants to help, and his newness to the issues makes him a little green. Both pastors talk in order to make sure they are on the same page about how to handle the marriage and move it toward reconciliation.
An adult child strays from the faith. A mother and father in your church are burdened for their agnostic adult son. He enters a crisis, and begins searching for answers, but he lives nowhere near his parents. The parents—or often their pastor—call a pastor-friend who lives and works near the adult child. “Can you do a hospital visit?” “Can you meet up with him and talk to him while he is struggling?” “Can you invite him to church?” This seems like a good opportunity to help a non-Christian who is not doing well. Maybe this is an opportunity to help him see God in the midst of his suffering?
A single woman grows interested in a man she meets online. Guy meets girl on-line through a dating service. She doesn’t know if his story is legitimate or not, but she sure hopes so, because she desperately wants to be married. She’s vulnerable, and her pastor knows that. Online dating services provide an opportunity to create a persona which may or may not match up with the real world. The guy says he belongs to First Baptist in the neighboring town. Her pastor calls his fellow pastor in order to protect his sheep: is this guy the real deal or is he faking it?
These are just a few of the many examples of informal, gospel-minded cooperation between churches. Shepherds talk to one another—as long as they have good cell-phone plans.
SIX PRINCIPLES FOR STICKY SITUATIONS
How do we navigate sticky situations like these? Six principles can help guide us.
1. A pastor should know his sheep and lovingly shepherd them through life’s challenges (John 10:14-18; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Are your leadership meetings more about maintaining church programs than shepherding hurting souls? Are you more concerned with putting on a good Sunday show than knowing your flock personally? If so, and another pastor calls you for shepherding help, he won’t get very far. He’ll ask you about someone in your church and you might see that person’s name on a list, but you’ll have nothing to say. Pastors should follow the example of the Good Shepherd, who not only knew his sheep, but was willing to lay down his life for them.
2. There needs to be like-mindedness about the gospel and other core doctrines (1 Cor. 15:3). Without a high view of Scripture and a keen focus on the gospel, ministry philosophies will be fundamentally different, which makes cooperation much harder. If the other church cares more about paying the bills or meeting felt needs or granting a divorce than they do about salvation, eternal hope, and the centrality of Christ in all things, then cooperating together just won’t work.
3. Here is yet another reason to promote church membership. Imagine a Christian landscape in which nearly all Christians had been taught and understood that being a Christian meant being a church member. This sort of cooperation between churches would be a lot easier. But to the extent that Christians float around as free agents, never committing anywhere, the examples cited above become more unrealistic. Keep encouraging everyone who walks through your doors to join a church, whether yours or someone else’s.
4. The church leaders need to trust each other (Acts 15:36-41). It goes without saying that if the leaders don’t respect one other, not much can be done together.
5. Use relational resources wisely. Weak sheep tend to over-consume relational resources without much consideration for the other sheep. They demand time. They tax pastors. They burn people out. Pastors should wisely coordinate time, energy, and effort. If Pastor Bob is talking with Jeannie this week, Pastor Jim doesn’t need to talk with her, too. There are plenty of other hurting people who need a few minutes of the pastor’s attention.
6. Don’t be afraid to over-communicate (Prov. 25:11). If multiple churches and multiple people are involved, miscommunication and assumptions can quickly wreak havoc with the process. So communication, though time-consuming, is essential to facilitating reconciliation. Imagine a husband and wife who are separated and attending different churches. In helping them, I typically have regular talks with another pastor, a counselor, the husband, and the wife. And if they are ready, I’ll also do couples counseling.
7. The weaker sheep are indispensible (1 Cor. 12:22). As hard as it sometimes is to bear with Christians who are weak, immature, and struggling with life, the apostle Paul reminds us that the weaker parts of the body are indispensible. This is a good reminder to every pastor to endure in the very hard work of caring for God’s sheep.
SHARE THE WORK
Several months ago I was helping a couple in a troubled marriage, and the wife’s new pastor (from another church) called me. He said, “I’d really like to know how your elder board is thinking about this situation.” The pastor worked at a Bible-believing congregation in another state.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I want to make sure my counseling falls in line with how your elders want to exercise oversight over this marriage.”
Wow. I’ve been pastoring for a while, but I’ve never had a pastor from another church make a statement like this. It was clear that this man gets cooperation. And as I came to find out, he was also gracious and gospel-minded. If your church believes the same gospel as other churches, that should encourage this kind of friendly and informal cooperation.
Pastor, think about a difficult situation that you are shepherding right now. What steps could you take to cooperate with another gospel-minded church that might help both you and those you are shepherding?
Deepak Reju is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. He has a PhD in biblical counseling from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.