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Real vs. Virtual: Reflections on the Work of Pastoring

Joe Olkowski

As my children grew, they became involved in multiple sports. All of them played baseball. Coincidentally, my son also began enjoying video games. One of his favorites was a baseball video game. From time to time, he would exclaim with breathless excitement, “Dad! I hit three home runs!” I would say, “Good job, Buddy!” However, I harbored a secret thought: so what? Let’s see you do that on a REAL baseball diamond. Hitting homeruns virtually is just not the same as hitting a real round ball with a round bat really far.

As a pastor and shepherd, I can have the same attitude. I expect God’s pat on the back for something that is not that big of a deal. His rubric measures what is real instead of the virtual successes. So, what does he want from me?

Overall, he desires faith. On one hand, he wants me to be a person of faith. I BELIEVE Jesus to do what he says he will do. On the other hand, he wants me to be faithful following him. He wants me to use my time, talent, treasures, honor, values, and goals for his glory. I obey. 

Jesus always loved seeing people of faith and faithfulness. He cared less for the pretenders who just played a religious video game. To the successful stewards in the parable of the same name, the Master said, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21). I am longing for that moment to hear it from his very mouth. I want to see that my labor for him counted as gold, silver, and precious stones instead of wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor. 3).

Evaluating Pastoral Priorities

Well, ok, that sounds great! But what am I supposed to DO? There are multiple priorities. Most pastors are stretched for time. The decision becomes even harder when we are faced with good options. Some tasks will not get done if we don’t do them. Or, they get done poorly. Pastor burnout is real. Could it be that we have been distracted by other (even good) things? The answer will seem simplistic. In fact, I admit thinking that very thing when I heard the answer years ago. Let’s jump into Acts 6.

Luke recorded the first incident of conflict in the church,

“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’” 

The church was growing especially numerically. Therefore, needs grew, too. We do not know how accurate the Hellenists complaint was, but it seems to have been taken seriously. The amount of resources funneling into the church needed some administration. Who decides who gets what? Frankly, generosity looks like a good problem to have as people were selling off their assets and laying the funds at the apostles’ feet. Regardless, the issue of distribution needed to be addressed. This was important! If not resolved, a divisive spirit could have easily arisen. The Twelve made a call: serving tables was not their job. They were dedicated to prayer and the Word.

If one stops reading there, it can sound a bit arrogant. In reality, it was just a statement of fact. We should keep reading. Seven godly, Spirit filled men will be assigned this task. These qualifications prove that the issue was important to the Twelve. These seven men were not just warm bodies filling a role. The Twelve re-assert their role to pray and study the Word. Both groups were needed for the church. The primary roles of the pastor and shepherd are prayer and the Word.

Reshaping Our Focus

I know, this is easily said but not easily done. If you are like me, time and expectations have laid jobs outside of prayer and the Word at your feet. It’s nice being the hero, too (if I’m honest with my motives). I have the training and the experience. I can do the job better. And, are not all those extra tasks what I’m paid to do anyway? How do I change my job description mid-stream?

I’ve been on this journey for years now. I was tired of church as usual. I was tired of following the latest church fad only to discover it didn’t work in my context. I focused on the virtual instead of the real. Am I there yet where my focus is on prayer and the Word? No, but I’m better than a few years ago. Here is how.

  • Decide. Are prayer and the Word your priority? Determine to make them so.  Start praying! Defend your own time in the Word! We cannot shepherd where we are not. Whatever your leadership structure, share and encourage your burden to a few, and then grow the circle. Live and model prayer and Word priority.
  • Expect a journey. We and our churches have grown to expect us to do everything. This will take time. Don’t be discouraged if your church doesn’t get it in a month or even years. The best time to plant a tree is ten years ago. The second-best time is today. Get started.
  • Delegate. This is not just a good management principle. Can someone else do the task? If not, can you train someone to do the task? For example, our church could use some new window blinds, as the old ones look pretty ratty. Previously, I would have made the calls and handled it myself. I decided to ask two faithful ladies to get some quotes.  I told them our priorities. We were all nervous. They did a fine job. By giving them the opportunity, their faith stretched. We hope to have new blinds by summer.  Delegating does not mean the task is unimportant. When tasks are handled by others, sheep grow. Shepherds can stay focused on prayer and the Word.

While the Lord was working in my heart on these issues years ago, I did discover a couple of resources. Read Old Paths New Power by Daniel Henderson. He not only goes into more detail, but he explains how to pray according to the instructions found in the Lord’s Prayer. A related resource is 64Fellowship.com. There, you will find like minded pastors. I look forward to my weekly prayer time with these leaders every week.

Prayer and the Word are not big or small church issues. They are ALL church issues. They are real instead of virtual.

Joe Olkowski is campus pastor at Zion Church of Petroleum Valley in Karns City, Pennsylvania, where he has served since 2007. He graduated from Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He and his wife Trish love ministering in a rural setting. He's a bi-vocational pastor and works in local high schools as a substitute teacher. Joe & Trish have three adult children.