When I enlisted in the United States Air Force my recruiter gave me some sage and often repeated advice: “Don’t volunteer for anything.” His advice almost immediately made sense. After we got in-processed and brought to our dormitories the barking drill sergeant called for five strong volunteers. The underwhelming response told me that many of the other recruits had gotten similar counsel. Apparently, however, not everyone did. To the suspicion of all, five fellow-trainees ambitiously stepped forward and were immediately named to latrine crew — for the reminder of basic training it was their job to ensure the well-used bathrooms were spotless.
Standing in direct opposition to that kind of strategy is the attitude the Apostle Peter commands of elders in the church: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Peter 5:2). With a double emphasis the Apostle makes his point negatively and positively — a shepherd needs to volunteer himself for his work and not simply be forced by arm-twisting. In other words, elders need to willingly do the work of shepherding and exercising oversight.
Of course, the Great Shepherd of the sheep doesn’t ask his under-shepherds to do anything he himself was reluctant to do. Christ displayed this willingness in his own ministry: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (John 10:17-18). Christ was a willing Shepherd.
While there are many joys it’s not always easy to maintain a willing spirit in pastoral ministry. First, being a faithful shepherd often means throwing yourself into the muck and mess of sin in people’s lives and relationships. Second, shepherding faithfully takes a lot of time and energy, and sometimes inconveniences and on occasion people who seem all too willing to take advantage of that. Third, faithful shepherding can turn people against you or give them reasons to be suspicious of you and your motives. Fourth, shepherding faithfully sometimes means the blows of wolves and others who want to harm the flock land on you instead, and that hurts a lot. There are any number of less-than-desirable things that need to be done in the ministry, and in the succinct words of Martin Luther an elder must always “be ready to help.”
The old Puritan writer William Ames gave three reasons why shepherds need to be willing and not forced by necessity to do their work:
Because that which is done by constraint, comes not from the heart as from an inward principle, nor from the Spirit sanctifying; and therefore it is not a duty pleasing and acceptable unto God.
Because that which comes not from the heart, and is not done willingly is done only perfunctorily and for fashion sake, not with that diligence and care which God requires.
Because that which proceeds not from the heart and dearest affection of the soul, does not usually work upon other men’s minds, and therefore is not effectual to the edification of the Church, which is the end of the ministry.
The no volunteer advice worked well in my basic training but it’s incompatible with shepherding the flock of Jesus Christ. Members of the church need to know their elders will not simply do what needs to be done, but they are willing to do it.