As a freshman member of the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Corps of Cadets, I had the same rank designation as every one of my peers, a fish with only a last name. As “Fish Philley,” one of my many daily responsibilities included greeting upperclassmen as our paths crossed on campus.
The acceptable greeting was to quickly stand at attention and sound off with a traditional Aggie “Howdy!” followed by the upperclassman’s title and last name. In order to successfully address higher-ranking cadets, knowing the actual names of each upperclassman was imperative.
By the end of fish year, I knew nearly a thousand names. That same concept continues to benefit my ministry today.
While describing Himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). Even though Jesus didn’t have a 100% retention rate, a strong connection exists between the sheep who are known by their Shepherd and the ones who follow Him. Jesus’ sheep were not just a number. They were fully known.
The pastor’s role as under-shepherd within the local church should reflect the same. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus knows His sheep by name. As an under-shepherd, I should know my sheep by name as well. I strive to know the names of every single church member because I believe it’s indicative of how well I truly know them. I also believe it’s an indicator of how well they may follow me in carrying out the Great Commission.
Knowing the names of our sheep is part of our calling as pastors. It’s a required discipline. It took a disciplined effort for me to know the names of nearly a thousand upperclassmen, and the same is true in ministry. This has nothing to do with a gift of memorization, but everything to do with praying for the souls I am called to care for and watch over (Acts 20:28, Hebrews 13:17).
Praying for my families cultivates a heart connection that rote memorization can never achieve. I can’t remember a season of ministry that has not included membership list printouts postered on a wall in my office. These lists help me put names with faces while also serving as a guide for intentionally praying through our member families. They include pictures with names of every adult member and have ranged from dozens to hundreds.
I then systematically pray for each member after sending a weekly email to a set number of households asking if there is anything I may pray for them about. This is a way for me to get to know my sheep while also being welcomed into their lives in a unique way. If you have 52 families, that’s only one per week. Even if you have 624 households, that’s only 12 per week. You can realistically know their names and pray for your entire congregation every calendar year.
If you’re new to an area of ministry, this can be overwhelming. So set clear expectations at the outset. Share with your people that you are going to do everything you can to get to know them, but let them know it will take time and that you will be depending on their gracious patience. Remind them you will probably need them to reintroduce themselves at every interaction until you learn their names. There’s a sweet spirit of unity that results from this type of mutual humility.
What if you’ve been at your church awhile and still don’t know the names of some of your people? Initiate a conversation and ask for a gracious reset. Commit it to the Lord in prayer, then sincerely share with your people that you’ve loved serving them, but you’ve been convicted that you don’t know them as a shepherd should. This type of vulnerability will be refreshing and it should encourage them to lean in closer as you get to know them.
I want to encourage you to know their names. The better you know your sheep, the better shepherd you can be.
This article originally appeared at the SB Texan