Richard Baxter ministered in Kidderminster in the mid to late 17th century and his model of oversight of the flock is as relevant today as it was then. The size, mobility and diversity of parishes has changed dramatically, requiring a change in method but not the model. People are still people and the gospel is still the gospel.
Baxter begins by considering the different needs of the souls in his care. He divides people into six broad groups (or class in old English). It is worth remembering that he wrote for fellow pastors and not for his congregation. He would have phrased things differently if he had his flock in mind.
Baxter puts the needs of the unconverted first. The compassion of the pastor compels them to seek the lost. Baxter divides the lost into two groups:
- We must labour, in a special manner, for the conversion of the unconverted.
The work of conversion is the first and great thing we must drive at; after this we must labour with all our might. Alas! the misery of the unconverted is so great, that it calleth loudest to us for compassion.
- We must be ready to give advice to inquirers, who come to us with cases of conscience; especially the great case which the Jews put to Peter, and the gaoler to Paul and Silas, ‘What must we do to be saved? ’ A minister is not to be merely a public preacher, but to be known as a counsellor for their souls.
When he turns his attention to the converted, he divides them into four groups:
We must study to build up those who are already truly converted. In this respect our work is various, according to the various states of Christians.
- There are many of our flock that are young and weak, who, though they are of long standing, are yet of small proficiency or strength.
- Another class of converts that need our special help, are those who labour under some particular corruption, which keeps under their graces, and makes them a trouble to others, and a burden to themselves. Alas! there are too many such persons. Some are specially addicted to pride, and others to worldly-mindedness; some to sensual desires, and others to frowardness or other evil passions.
- Another class who demand special help are declining Christians, that are either fallen into some scandalous sin, or else abate their zeal and diligence, and show that they have lost their former love.
- The last class whom I shall here notice, as requiring our attention, are the strong; for they, also, have need of our assistance: partly to preserve the grace they have; partly to help them in making further progress; and partly to direct them in improving their strength for the service of Christ, and the assistance of their brethren; and, also, to encourage them to persevere, that they may receive the crown.
All these are the objects of the ministerial work, and in respect to each of them, we must ‘take heed to all the flock.’
This order makes good sense because eternal salvation is the ultimate goal of ministry. The farthest from Christ, and so nearest to hell, must come first, for their need is the greatest. The strong come last, because they are able to feed themselves and are not in peril. Jesus taught Peter, James and John, with the other nine disciples, as he went about his ministry as the good shepherd, seeking and saving the lost. Evangelism and mission first. Discipleship is done on the way.