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On Being Sheep before Shepherds: Reflecting on Forty Years of Ministry

Bill Sukolsky

The reflections that follow are highlights from remarks Rev. Sukolsky offered to group of rural pastors at the Project on Rural Ministry's annual conference in Grove City, Pennsylvania, on September 10, 2021.

Over the last forty years, I have served in two congregations in rural communities, each of different size and culture, and am now on the cusp of retirement. One passage of Scripture has been especially formative in shaping my life to live and serve as a pastor – 2 Timothy 2:1-8. Though I am now Paul’s age when he wrote his letter, I find I am a perpetual Timothy, hoping to still “grow up before I grow old,” a challenge I received many years ago.2

Paul’s words in verse 7 comfort and confront me: "Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this" (NIV). I’m grateful to describe several of those reflections, in the hope that they will encourage you as you continue your faithful labor in the rural church, even as my time in vocational pastoring is drawing to a close.

We Are Sheep Before We Are Shepherds

I am grateful that Paul began verse 1 with these words: "You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus."  One of my daily lessons is this simple truth: I am a sheep before I am a shepherd. To be strong in grace is to increasingly rely on the mercy and power of God shown to me through Jesus Christ. It is the moment-by-moment recognition that ministry in our congregations will only flow out of the deepening realization that in Christ we are loved before we love, served before we serve, pastored before we pastor. To be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus counters the continual temptations and sins of guilt, pride, despair and anger that too often stain the fabric of ministry.

One of my daily lessons is this simple truth: I am a sheep before I am a shepherd.

B. Sukolsky

My life has been a constant struggle to live out of my identity as a man in Christ; to believe that my relationship with the Lord is not contingent upon how well I lead, or long I work, or deep I preach, or large my congregation becomes. I need Paul’s words every day: "be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus." I am continually learning that there is wonderful mercy and kindness in Jesus, who has called us through his death and resurrection to be God’s children before we are called to be pastors. He saves, he justifies, he sanctifies, he glorifies those who turn to him. In my Reformed tradition, we learn the Heidelberg Catechism, written about 500 years ago. I find myself daily reciting its first question and answer:

Q. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.3

The Pattern of Sound Teaching

To be strong in grace lays the foundation for the pastor’s role described in verse 2: "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others." We who pastor are called to faithfully communicate the truth of the gospel to our people. It is the “pattern of sound teaching…the good deposit” that Paul referenced in 1:13-14.

Though we may come from different traditions, with sharp disagreements, a common belief in the gospel is to characterize our pastoring. We convey that truth from one person to the next--preaching to change lives one person at a time. We teach and love people--not projects, not problems. We pass along life, equipping people to pass life along to others. That our congregations are often small doesn’t change this calling; it actually enhances it. We see more clearly who we invest in, and how we are to value each person entrusted into our care.

The Centrality of Relationships

Paul’s command also reminds me that at its core, pastoral work is about relationships. I am forever grateful that, since my conversion, I have always been in groups with other men, as well as with my wife and people in our home. We began out of desperation for friendship--loneliness, especially for pastors and spouses, is an ever-present realty. But it has continued because we’ve realized it is essential to experience the gospel. Elsewhere, Paul puts it this way, “we loved you so much that we shared with you not only the gospel, but our lives as well” (1 Thess.2:8).

Even in the midst of difficult seasons of life, I am grateful that we made room for others, and that others have made room for us. It rarely “just happened.” We have always sought it out. I have found it to be especially necessary to spend time with other pastors – learning to be vulnerable together, sharing life and heartaches, as we seek the welfare of each other’s ministry. Doing so has built and created my character and faith.

But these lessons did not always come easy.

I remember laboring for many years in one of the congregations, praying for revival and renewal, yet seeing little change. When a new pastor came to a nearby church, I reached out to him. We became friends, and as we met and prayed together, his congregation almost immediately blossomed, while we continued to struggle. I could feel resentment and despair creeping into my soul, until I remembered John Wimber’s admonition. He said something like this: “Someday you’re going to be pastor of some small church, and a new guy is going to come to town and his church is going to grow and yours won’t. Who are you going to be to him, Saul or Jonathan?”4

His reference to those Old Testament characters set in contrast their responses to David, responses which reflected their hearts--Saul’s to curse, and Jonathan’s to bless. After several weeks of struggling, I went to my friend, and offered to be his Jonathan. That choice deepened our friendship and shaped my heart and life. Though little changed in my congregation, much changed in my spirit as we followed Christ together.

Enduring in the Hard Times

"Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets in-volved in civilian affairs--he wants to please his commanding officer." Because we soak in a culture of self-fulfillment, and given the propensity of our own sinful nature, I keep thinking that life is supposed to be smooth and easy. Verses 3-4 anticipate what every day reveals: ministry hardship is a reality. Though our experience is nothing near to what Paul and Timothy endured, or what brothers and sisters around the world are now enduring, it is hardship none the less. I continue to learn that in hard times, we continually decide who we are going to follow. Will we be good soldiers, living under the authority of our commanding officer?

I can remember like yesterday an event over 30 years ago. We had just bought our first house, and I faced a really difficult pastoral decision, with significant personal and congregational implications. In the hardship of those moments, as I wrestled with fears of alienating people, even possibly losing my position, I read Gilbert Meilander’s “On Bringing One’s Life to a Point.” One sentence arrested my heart: “The truth we understand is the truth we stand under.”5

Pastoring, especially in our rural communities when everyone knows everyone and everything, entails the call to live with consistency of conviction. Standing under the truth we understand is living with increasing integrity--the integration of faith and life--especially in the hard places. Integrity is not living in perfection; it is living from a new direction. In that instance thirty years ago, by God’s grace, with great anxiety, I followed the orders of our commanding officer. The hard decision was the right one, and though life was harder for several years, we knew the Lord’s presence. Meilander’s words have ever since shaped and convicted me as I learn to soldier with Jesus.

The Ability to Pastor Hurt

"Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor's crown unless he competes according to the rules." Paul’s athletic metaphor in verse 5 brings to mind images of commitment, teamwork, and training. But in my life what has most shaped my reflections on that verse was another comment by John Wimber.6 He was touring the Pro Football Hall of Fame with Bill Glass, an All-Pro defensive end with the Cleveland Browns in the 1960’s. Glass pointed out that the most common characteristic of athletes in the hall of fame was not talent, passion, or work ethic but the ability to play with pain.

Wimber said that is also true of pastoring, and over the years I’ve realized he was right. I am not taking about succumbing to bullying, managing conflict, or suffering the consequences of our own decision-making. I am describing the realization that ministry entails an increasing willingness to pastor when we are aching. Jesus said the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep--he did for us, and we who are under-shepherds are to do so for others. To lay down our lives is to be prepared to pastor while we hurt.

Pastoring hurt means entering into the heartache of our people, carrying their burdens with them. It means loving others even as we face struggles in our marriages and with our children. It means planning and working on a shoestring budget, with not enough help, for too long a time. It means preaching when our own sins and guilt snag and shame us as we stand to speak the words of life. In those times of pain, the healing doesn’t come through denying its reality, or dulling it through self-medication; it comes through embracing the grace described in verse 1. Over the years, I have especially found that grace to keep playing, to keep pastoring, in spite of the pain, through the stories of others--past and present--who have pastored Christ’s church. Those pastors, the dead and living, remind me that playing in pain is simply the calling to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Sowing in Hope

That third metaphor in verse 6 is agrarian: "The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops." In our rural communities, farmers are all around us and among us. I am convinced that farmers are among the hardest working people on earth. The physicality of their labor; the time, sacrifice, uncertainty, cost of all that they do; the unrelenting demands of the cattle and fields day after day, season after season are unlike almost all other vocations.

I think Christ’s constant use of agricultural references are not simply a concession to his culture. It clearly reflects something about the nature of the Christian life, and especially pastoral ministry. Like farmers, we sow and reap, learning to trust the life of the seed, in the uncertainty of our circumstances, with no control over the events that drastically affect our fields of labor. Like farmers, so much of our work entails embracing the rhythms of the seasons, working hard through long hours, repeating tasks without guarantee of the crop.  

And as farmers endure out of love for the beasts and soil, so does pastoral ministry continue as we love those the Lord has entrusted to our care. Loving our people in the midst of the labor places us to share in the fruit of the crop--changed lives for Jesus’ sake.

Pausing to Reflect

No wonder that Paul makes his demand in verse 7: "Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this." Reflecting is more than skimming blogposts, reading books, attending conferences, following podcasts. Reflection occurs as we embrace what our traditions describe as spiritual disciplines. They are practices that we see in the life of Christ, repeated by pastors through the history of the church.

A spiritual discipline, as John Frye reminds us, is “engaging in practices that make space for God to work.”7 It is consciously choosing to embrace rhythms of living that let us draw near to the Lord who is always near to us. To paraphrase Dallas Willard, the grace in which we stand is opposed to earning, not effort. We all make choices in response to Christ’s call. 8

Common to soldiers, athletes, and farmers are regular patterns of behavior that make possible their work. We who pastor are the same. The great irony is that we who teach others to draw near in prayer, to learn the word, to be diligent about rest, to exercise self-control with our resources are often the very ones who are most likely to not listen. We become like starving waiters carrying delicious food to hungry customers, like impoverished stockbrokers who make millions for our clients. I’ve discovered that Arthur Wallis was right: “Most of us have godly desires and ambitions that are not beyond our spiritual capacity, but are beyond our spiritual disciplines.” 9

The Power of Spiritual Disciplines

There have been times of very real burn-out in my life over the last 40 years, when I came perilously close to walking away from ministry. They have almost always corresponded to seasons in which I refused to make space for the Lord to work. Sometimes I thought that life was good and didn’t need the disciplines; other times, when life was hard, I didn’t want the disciplines.

In God’s mercy, he brought me back from the brink each time. And each time, the road to forgiveness, repentance, and healing was paved with renewed practicing of the disciplines, of making space for the Lord to work. The disciplines weren’t the ends, but the means through which I encountered the grace and mercy of God.

In An Unhurried Leader, Alan Fadling quoted Bernard of Clairvaux’s 12th century insight into pastoring: 

 The (one) who is wise, therefore, will see (their) life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then (offers) the overflow without loss to itself…. Today there are many in the church who act like canals; the reservoirs are far too rare….They want to pour (this stream) forth before they have been filled; they are more ready to speak than to listen, impatient to teach what they have not grasped, and full of presumption to govern others while thy know not how to govern themselves.10

If pastors are reservoirs, not canals, then the disciplines are the tributaries through which the Lord fills us. They are the means through which we can draw near to Him in worship, affection, and repentance. They not only make space for God to work in us, they make space for God to work through us as we spill over into the people around us.

If pastors are reservoirs, not canals, then the disciples are the tributaries through which the Lord fills us.

B. Sukolsky

Taking the time, making the time, to reflect will help us flesh out the truths of 2 Timothy 2:1-7. Ultimately, it will lead us to "remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel." In verse 8, Paul brings back before Jesus, and his grace and mercy. Remembering Jesus means it is ultimately it is not about us in our pastoring, or the circumstances of our congregations; it’s not about our abilities and struggles, our strengths and weaknesses. It’s about Jesus.


1 John Wimber, conference message in the 1980’s.

2 Heidelberg Catechism, Question/Answer 1, https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/heidelberg-catechism

3 John Wimber, conference message in the 1980’s.

4 Gilbert Meilander, “On Bringing One’s Life to a Point,” First Things, No. 47 (November 1994): 31.

5 John Wimber, conference message in the 1980’s.

6 John Frye, Jesus the Pastor (Gradn Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000),103.

7 Dallas Willard, “Live Life to the Full,” Christian Herald (APRIL 13 2001). https://dwillard.org/articles/live-life-to-the-full.

8 Arthur Wallis, unknown

10 Alan Fadling, An Unhurried Leader (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 30.

Bill Sukolsky is the soon-to-be-retired pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Waynesburg (ECO) and a member of the PRM's Appalachian Cohort.. A 1981 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, he has served two mid-sized congregations in rural communities over the last 40 years. He and Karen, his wife of 43 years, have three married daughters, and four grandchildren.