One day you and I will need to give an account to God (Luke 16:2, Hebrews 4:13, Romans 14:12). But as Hebrews 13:17 makes clear, pastors also will need to give an account not only for themselves, but for the souls they were given to watch over:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, since they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account, so that they can do this with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”
Pastors have been given the responsibility of soul-watching. It’s a serious undertaking - it is a difficult enough task to watch your own soul! But there it is in Scripture - a core task for pastors, ordained by God. Yet as I have been reflecting during these unsettling times, my heart has been troubled as I consider the people I know who are in churches but aren't known by their pastor. People whose souls aren’t being watched.
These people aren’t “flaky” or “fringe” or whatever other labels might be hastily applied. Those who come to mind are in larger churches and seem to have slipped through the cracks. While they have been faithfully attending for many years they have little to no relationship with their pastor (or any of the pastors on staff). Tragically, I can easily imagine them disappearing and their absence never be noticed.
If they were to die this week (not to be melodramatic but the pandemic makes this eventual reality more real), I don’t know what the pastor would say at their funeral. It would be heart-breaking but believable to hear the words “Jane and Doug attended our church for 17 years, but unfortunately I didn’t know them that well.” That doesn’t seem to be the picture that the Bible presents.
Church size can make soul-watching challenging, but it can’t be an excuse. Surely if a church grows beyond the capacity of the pastor/s to do what is Biblically expected then something needs to change. Can this responsibility be delegated to Bible study leaders? Perhaps, and I have seen this suggested but I would ask the question - how many Bible study leaders have been trained and taught to consider this their responsibility?
The unnoticed souls whose story prompted me to write this aren’t are faithful but not high profile Christians. They’re not particularly extroverted. They would happily serve if asked and encouraged, but the churches are large enough that this doesn’t seem to need to happen.
But the command in Hebrews 13:17 isn’t for pastors or shepherds to keep watch over the loud sheep, or the energetic sheep, or the sheep who take initiative. All sheep are in need of care by the shepherd God has placed over them. It saddens me that this isn’t happening.