A Pastor’s Heart: Like a Mother, a Shepherd, the Savior

A young pastor who feels he might be out of place in leading a church sent me a note the other day. With the constant demands upon his time and the unending situations that call for wisdom and patience, he’s feeling like the fellow who was eaten alive by a school of minnows. He wonders if he’s cut out to be a pastor.

He said, “I hear people talking about those who have the heart of a pastor. What exactly is that?”

Great question. I’ve pastored seven churches over 42 years and preached in another two hundred, but have never been asked that until now.

Perhaps a pastor’s heart is like what someone said of art (and a lot of other things!): “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.”

My friend Chris was grieving over the reassignment of their church’s associate minister and his family to a new congregation several states away. Recently in the church hallway, she was passing one of the women on the church staff. The minister said, “Good morning, Chris. How are you today?”

Chris burst into tears.

With that, the minister pulled up a chair and gave Chris the next 30 minutes of her day. In telling me about it–and expressing her wonder at such sensitivity and kindness from the staff member–Chris said, “They must teach this in the seminary.”

No. They don’t. It’s what a pastor’s heart looks like.


I’m tempted to say that one either has a pastor’s heart or he/she doesn’t. But it’s probably not that harsh. The Lord who specializes in giving new hearts (Ezekiel 36:26) can surely tweak the heart of a willing servant to make it even more loving and gracious.

Rudy French is a preacher, an evangelist, and, with his wife Rose, a member of the Southern Baptist Mission Service Corps. At this moment, he’s on a mission in Korea. The other day, Rudy sent along this note.

“I was teaching a cell group made up of young mothers. At the end of the session one of the ladies asked if I would pray for her friend’s three-year-old daughter who had a brain disorder. I started to pray and she interrupted to ask me to wait. She wanted to call the mother and have her bring the child to me.

“When they arrived, we all circled the child and placed our hands on her. I began by saying, ‘Lord, you know a mother’s heart.’ And at that moment, something quite unexpected happened.

“All the young mothers in the group began crying. I mean, they were sobbing and pleading with God to help this child. I too began to weep and could not speak at all.

“For the next five minutes, we all just cried together for the plight of this young mother. When I could finally speak, I simply said, ‘Amen.’

“God does know a mother’s heart and now I think, so do I.”

Perhaps that’s as good a definition as any: a pastor’s heart is the heart of a mother.

This must have been what God had in mind when He said, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13).

My friend Tobin Perry says, “The pastor’s heart is the heart of a shepherd. He has a special sensitivity for two groups: those not in the fold (the unbelievers) and those straggling inside the fold (wayward believers).”

No one better exemplifies the heart of a pastor than the Lord Jesus Himself.

Jesus had a mother’s heart. Overlooking Jerusalem, He saw the fate awaiting the Lord’s people and said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! The one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37).

In every church–alas, among the leadership of half the churches in America–there are those without mother’s hearts. They would have said to the Lord, “Jerusalem has brought this on herself. She knew what she was doing. She deserves the judgment she’s getting.”

They call this living in the real world. Rather, it’s rank heathenism.

Jesus had a shepherd’s heart. When a Samaritan village would not allow the Lord and the disciples to enter, James and John said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from Heaven and consume them, as Elijah did?” Jesus rebuked them, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of! For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:51-56).

Among the leadership of many churches today, you will find the sons of James and John. “Those welfare queens and drug pushers ought to be nuked. They don’t deserve anything from the good people. I’m opposed to our church handing out groceries to the poor and the deadbeats. Jesus said we would always have the poor with us.”

They call it being responsible citizens. Rather, it’s hard-heartedness, perhaps even a form of cruelty.

A mother’s heart. A shepherd’s heart. The Savior’s heart.

What do they have in common? Mercy.

It’s all about mercy, friend.

Once, sitting across the breakfast table from Dottie Rambo, I asked which song she had penned had been most used of the Lord. “That one’s easy,” she smiled. “He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.”

That’s mercy. It’s what a mother does, it’s what drives a shepherd, and thank God! it’s what the Lord poured out on you and me. (Titus 3:5)

Mercy is the quality of seeing someone in a mess of their own creation and having your heart break for them.

“Mercy triumphs over judgement” (James 2:13).

Clyde A. Walker wrote a hymn which formed part of the background music of my childhood. From sixty years back, I can still hear the Chuckwagon Gang singing, “Justice Called, But Mercy Answered.”

The heart of a pastor? In a word: Mercy.

In two words: Jesus Christ.

“Father, let me not try to lead your people and minister to them without the tender heart of a faithful pastor. Otherwise, I will bruise the sheep. Amen.”

11 thoughts on “A Pastor’s Heart: Like a Mother, a Shepherd, the Savior

  1. Joe, I don’t know what you’ve been eating lately, but you sure have been writing absolute masterpieces. You have pinpointed what I believe to be the missing ingredient in 21st century pastoral leadership. Too much corporate, heartless leadership and not enough spiritual, heartfelt shepherding. From one seminary professor’s perspective, I believe that a lack of a shepherd’s heart is the main root cause of short pastoral tenure, and short pastoral tenure is the main cause of churches in our denomination experiencing plateau and decline. To say is positively, increasing the average pastoral tenure in our churches would directly impact church revitalization and church turnaround.

  2. Well done. Reggie, I wonder about adding the ability to teach the church to have that same heart of a shepherd.

  3. I appreciated reading this piece. My husband is a young pastor with a shepherd’s heart; but it would seem that the churches we’ve ministered in do not appreciate that. Reggie, I would respectfully disagree with the “lack of a shepherd’s heart being the main root cause of short pastoral tenure”.

    In our experience, the churches have been rebellious, stubborn, prideful and have refused to deal with sin. The pastors have not been supported (due to congregational models of church governance) by the denomination. We switched denominations to a presbyterian model and have found the same problems. I know that there are ‘good’ churches out there; but in our short 10 years of ministry/married life together; we have only served in one and even that one had struggles. The sheep do not want to be shepherded. What does one do when dealing with “wolves in sheep’s clothing”? What about when they are in leadership (elders of the church)? How does one blend the authority with the gentle heart of a shepherd? I would really love to hear wise perspective on these issues.

    • I stumbled on this article today and read your comment. Did anyone ever reply to you? I can’t see any replies and it grieves my heart to think you posted this four years ago. I hope and pray you were given loving support for both you and your husband and that your ministry together has been blessed these past years. My husband and I serve a two-point charge. One of the churches is definitely stubborn and full of pride and does not want to be shepherded. The other, thankfully, does but it is a struggle to serve the first congregation – it wears us out emotionally, physically and spiritually and leaves us feeling hurt and frustrated. I don’t know if you will ever read this, Sheri, but I will be praying for you.

  4. Being a single mom, there are many times I cried to the Lord with nothing else but tears utterance of my son’s name for wisdom, protection, etc. The Lord answers a mother’s prayers for sure.
    Lord, I am a mother and you know my heart!

  5. Dear Paula; I hope you will see this. Thank you so much for your prayers and words of understanding.
    Nine years have passed since I wrote that comment and we have since experienced other churches; the most recent being 6.5 years in a church that began sweet and ended sour, just 2+ months ago. I may as well have repeated my words from 9 years ago.
    So your words and prayers are still relevant and timely.
    I will pray for you as well, Paula. May God bless you & your husband as you serve Him, faithfully administering God’s grace to those He has placed in your care.
    May we keep our hearts tender.
    ♡ Sheri
    P.S. I nearly forgot – Yes, Brother Joe took my question and addressed it a short time later in an article here. I’m sure it would speak to your heart (and mine again) to read it.
    We continue to thank God for him and his ministry. ♡

    • I’ll try to find that article and repost it. (What I’ve learned is that when one ‘old’ article ministers to someone, there are probably many more who could benefit from it.) Stay tuned.

    • Dear Sheri,
      God’s hand is so obviously in all of this. I can’t even explain why I would respond to a comment from nine years ago … but to hear from Joe this afternoon and discover that you did read the comment is one of those amazing little miracles that only God could work out!
      Looking forward to being in touch.
      Blessings to you,
      Paula

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