My Dear Shepherds,
As it happened, I was in the middle of a conversation with a seminary student about the differences between a life in academia versus the pastorate when my phone pinged with a text message. While my young friend took a call, I read the message: “We’re celebrating quite a milestone at [our company],” Jennifer wrote. It was their firm’s tenth anniversary. “I often remember that poignant conversation you had with Chris and me during which you said that we might have to live without a paycheck for a while and trust the Lord to provide.” They had been wrestling through whether to start a consulting business and she had been anxious about such a big step. Her message went on, “I cannot explain how much your words were God himself speaking to me. I felt it physically … ‘LISTEN!’ Thank you for shepherding us that evening.”
I showed my young friend the message. “That’s why it is so great to be a pastor,” I said.
Pastors spill countless words, but we all learn that once in a while God allows us to say one thing—one Big Thing—which turns the rudder of someone’s life. “I think you should consider seminary.” “It’s time for you to set things right.” “God isn’t mad at you. He’s like the father in Jesus’ story who sees you a long way off and is filled with compassion for you.”
To make an apt answer is a joy to a man,
and a word in season, how good it is! (Prov. 15:23 ESV)
Pastors don’t have a corner on the apt answer, but we do have an advantage. People, especially our people, believe that we speak for God and, crazy as it seems, they are right, if we are careful.
We hope all our pastoral conversations are thoughtful and wise, but some become pivots. Some are in italics. Occasionally, you might utter something that is practically plaque-worthy. Boiled down, well-worded, and as true as true can be. They’ll never forget exactly what you said. More often it takes a whole conversation, even a series of conversations, clearing a trail forward like western explorers cutting their way to the sea.
Don’t take any pastoral conversations for granted. You don’t have to be as poetic and profound as Isaiah, but we have descended from the company of the prophets. So don’t stoop to shoot-from-the-hip advice, wisdom’s imposter. Your gut may not speak for God.
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. (Prov. 15:11 ESV)
Or as The Message puts it, “The right word at the right time is like a custom-made piece of jewelry.” Such gilded words may not be planned but they are no accident. God arranged that appointment and invited you. Pray before and during each one that you might clearly hear both your friend and God’s Spirit. Pray for restraint, curiosity, and Christlike insight. Pray that you might find footing in Scripture. Remember: God’s word through us doesn’t always come in declarative sentences. Judging from Jesus’ example, he favors questions and observations. Don’t talk too much lest the important words are lost. My friend Shelly told me once, “I refuse to talk faster than I can pray.”
Often the Lord keeps secret from us how significant our words are till, say, ten years later when someone says, “You said something to me once ….”
Be ye glad!