Pastor, You Are A Shepherd Not A Rancher

Writing at Mere Orthodoxy, Jake Meador quoted these words from a friend, “I’m a shepherd…When my flock gets so big that I don’t know all their names, I’ve become a rancher. Once I’m a rancher, it’s time to plant a church.” Though Jake’s post was about the pastoral limitations of megachurches, recently made apparent in the Village Church’s delayed follow-up to a serious pastoral issue, that quotation struck a chord. I have heard presentations on church growth encouraging pastors to act like ranchers. Instead of desiring the office of elder, some church growth specialists urge pastors to aim higher, to become ranchers.

ShepherdWhen I set out to write this short post it was my intention to write a satirical piece about a textual variant in 1 Peter 5, or perhaps one of the pastoral epistles. Because while the word for shepherd and its cognates are fairly common in the New Testament, closely associated with eldership (Acts 20:17, 28), the idea of a rancher who works at a higher level is completely absent. Strikingly, even when the New Testament uses the word ‘overseer’, from which we get our word bishop, it appears to be nothing more than an office in the local church (1 Timothy 3:1-2), barely distinguishable from that of an elder (1 Peter 5:1-4). This is not the place to discuss questions over hierarchical leadership structures, though New Testament support for them is admittedly scant.

Returning to the question of shepherds and ranchers, you might be interested to know that other Greek words for shepherd existed in the 1st century. The Septuagint, or Greek Old Testament, uses two related words to translate a rare Hebrew word (Amos 1:1; 2 Kings 3:4). Both Hebrew and Greek have a common word for shepherd, as well as rarer words suggesting something more than a shepherd. Therefore in English the prophet Amos is described as a “herdsman” (Amos 1:1) and Mesha king of Moab is called a “sheep breeder” (2 Kings 3:4). If I am honest, I have not done nearly enough work in thinking about these words. But from my quick survey it seems that despite words connoting ‘rancher’ or ‘manager’ being available to the writers of the New Testament they stuck with simple shepherding.

The church growth literature tends to overcomplicate ministry. For starters, the word pastor in most English translations is actually the Greek word shepherd (Ephesians 4:11). As I have already alluded, this office is closely related to two other words: elder (1 Timothy 5) and overseer (Titus 1:7). Not only does rancher not feature in this nexus but it is a nebulous as well as unbiblical word. Obviously, we can use language or analogies that are not explicitly biblical, as long as the concepts are. But rancher is neither. I have previously written about the pitfalls of analogies, specifically the analogy of a lifeboat for the local church. You might accuse me of subscribing to a legalistic and inflexible regulative principle. But words and ideas have consequences.

ShepherdLabelling pastors ranchers results in a few things, of which I I will mention three. These may be implicit or unwitting, and I am not saying they are inevitable, but in my opinion they are hard to avoid. Firstly, it creates tiers among church leaders, beyond those God has given. Similar to the view that says youth ministry is a stepping stone to real ministry, I imagine that elder or pastor could be viewed as an inferior role, before one can be promoted to rancher. Secondly, and related to the first, churches that need ranchers – rather than mere elders – convey success and growth. Small churches have elders. But big churches need ranchers. Which ministry would you rather be a part of? Which title would you rather have? Thirdly, with my limited knowledge of what ranchers actually do, I know that it is less hands on. If working at a higher level in the local church, or becoming a rancher, means doing less pastoral ministry then we have not merely mangled the biblical description of elder but abandoned it entirely. Anyone who desires the office of rancher, should move to Texas.

An entire post could be written on 1 Peter 5:1-4. But I will make only passing comments in conclusion. The apostle Peter calls himself a “fellow elder” (5:1), which seriously challenges any notion of working at a higher level, ascending a hierarchy. The office of elder is inseparable from witnessing to Christ’s work (5:1). But it is not limited to organisation, leadership or theological direction. Elders are to shepherd the flock (5:2) and set an example of mature Christian faith (5:3). I am not sure that either of those things can be done from a pulpit, or as a rancher. Peter mentions the appearing of our “chief Shepherd” (5:4). Listen to what Jesus said about this description, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). Pastor, you are a shepherd not a rancher. Do not aspire to be a rancher, especially if it means becoming less of a shepherd than the model provided by Jesus.

If you enjoyed this post there are a few more in this series:

A Note on Analogies

After the publication of my previous post critiquing Andrew Heard’s lifeboat analogy for the church, it was suggested to me that I develop some of my thoughts on analogies, or illustrations, in general. However I cannot pretend to have mastered the use of analogies; in my own preaching, I use them very sparingly. Briefly, in writing, I have explored an abused illustration from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (“He’s not safe but He’s good”) and Jesus’ parable of the field, but those are not detailed studies in the praxis. So in this short post I will merely summarise some thoughts on illustrations I have borrowed from the appendix to Pierced for Our Transgressions.

Their purpose

AnalogyThe authors of Pierced write, “An illustration works well when it corresponds closely to the biblical idea it seeks to explain. Translating an unfamiliar concept into everyday terms can bring clarity and perhaps also a certain vividness and immediacy. It brings our world and the Bible’s world together, and puts us and our lives into the picture.” Illustrations function as useful bridges helping us understand something strange or peculiar by something familiar or easily understood.

The dangers

As we read above, illustrations are useful, but they can also be misleading. The thrust of my previous post is well summarised in Pierced, “Illustrations never correspond to reality at every point, and it is at the points of difference that they may mislead.” However, the authors continue, “The fact that an illustration does not correspond with reality at every point does not mean it will always mislead; merely that it ought to be used to illustrate only those aspects of reality with which it does correspond.” Therefore we must be aware of an illustrations deficiencies, which can confuse and obscure, the opposite of their intended purpose.

Though they are addressing the atonement, Pierced reads insightfully for any illustration, “Even if we choose (wisely) to illustrate just one aspect…we must take care we do not inadvertently distort other closely related themes…To avoid being misunderstood, we need to consider the specific strengths and weaknesses of any given illustration: what it captures well, and where it might fail.” On the topic of church, since that was my concern with Heard’s illustration, the lifeboat analogy distorts other aspects of the church’s mission by overemphasising evangelism at the expense of maturity. Obviously, those are closely related but – in my opinion – the lifeboat overlooks or redefines the importance of godliness and service by conflating maturity with evangelism. While the lifeboat illustrates the desperate urgency of the church’s mission it places far too little emphasis on the biblical emphasis and zeal we should have for maturing, tested, and transforming faith in Christ.

The authors of Pierced then call preachers to take care that their analogies are not pushed too far so that they inadvertently illustrate the wrong thing. As I said previously: there are better illustrations that inform us about the mission and shape of the local church as well as our place in it, so we should be cautious when an illustration not found in Scripture dominates our understanding. “To repeat: it is the points at which they fail to correspond to reality that are liable to mislead.” Should every Christian’s primary concern be the lost, hauling them up from the deadly waters, rescuing them from a Christless eternity? Yes, we should zealously long to see as many as possible saved. But, no, it is not the primary point of the church’s existence; it is one of them.

The careful approach

PreachingI think Pierced ties all of the mentioned dangers up well, “The risk of [overstretching an analogy] is increased when we are attempting to explain something complicated, for no single analogy will be up to the job.” I acknowledge that Andrew Heard was speaking at a conference on church growth, allowing for a selective approach. However, the church and Christian life is complicated, even when honing in on a single component, such as evangelism. As for most things, one analogy can only successfully illustrate part of the truth. I think that is why we are given such an abundance of them in Scripture. It is not enough to merely be aware of our analogies’ shortcomings; we must temper and supplement them with others.

In conclusion, and to stave off despair, “We may be tempted to throw up our hands in frustration and concede defeat…no illustration is perfect, if by ‘perfect’ we mean it corresponds with reality at every point.” But that does not mean every illustration is invalid; we are not doomed to mislead with every analogy. We must recognise where they fall short, and ask if those deficiencies are unhelpful; make sure closely related concepts are not obscured; and resist overextending this great God-given tool.

Some Misgivings about Andrew Heard’s Lifeboat Analogy

In a recent conversation about the latest Generate Conference, a friend shared his reservations about an analogy Andrew Heard deployed in almost every session. If you are unfamiliar with it, the idea is this: an unprecedented maritime disaster has struck and you are the captain of a rescue vessel sent to the affected area. The bottom line for measuring the lifeboat’s success is the number of people on-board, souls saved. As Heard repeatedly emphasised: you should never reach a point when you are satisfied with how many have been rescued. And if people are dying you cannot be too concerned about the comfort of those already in the lifeboat. Rather, each person brought up from the waters needs to join in the task of rescuing others.

Texas Sept 2013There are undoubtedly many positive uses of this analogy, and Heard utilises it fluidly, from challenging Christians in the church who grumble when evangelism is persistently urged, to pastors who have become heroically pessimistic and satisfied with underperformance, stagnant ministries whose battle hymn is: ‘We are being faithful.’ The analogy provides a much-needed reminder of what is at stake: those who have not come to Christ will die without him. We must be more concerned for those still in the water than those who have already been rescued. Perhaps its most valuable application is its stress on the activity, read ministry, of those on-board. We should not rely on an exhausted team of workers, inches from burning out, when we can join in the operation, making it further reaching and far more successful. But I worry that an overdependence on this analogy in articulating the identity and purpose of Christ’s church could be harmful.

My friend expressed hesitation toward the analogy on the basis that despite the litany of analogies found in the New Testament that describe the church – body, temple, household, and family, to name a few – we do not find one remotely similar to the lifeboat. Therefore, as a preliminary point, it cannot be our primary analogy for describing the church or understanding its mission. Yet, for Heard, the analogy seems to influence and express his thinking at a number of points. While everyone knows that metaphors are pliable, I think we would do better in understanding and employing the numerous biblical metaphors about the church. Metaphors are also admittedly imperfect, meaning their use can be unhelpful, even misleading. So below I want to highlight a few of my misgivings.

Rescued souls need care

As I argued in another post, Can Satan Grow the Church?, exploring Jesus’ analogy of the field and the weeds: the size of a church can be very misleading. A church can be bursting at the seams, yet full of those who do not actually belong to Christ. What Heard’s analogy subtly implies is that we simply need to get people on-board, into the church and committed to reaching others. Yet this overlooks the fact that many who have been brought in will be in desperate need of further resuscitation, attention and care. It is no use having a boat full of: spiritual corpses; barely living and bedraggled souls crawling back towards the waters of sin and death; and others whose only appearance of life is their zeal for those not yet in the boat. To add to the analogy, the deck needs to be packed full of paramedics checking the vitals of those rescued, issuing care, and strengthening them for the task.

Rashly appointing the ill-equipped

Building on my previous concern, fixing our focus on those not yet in the boat will mean viewing those in the boat as little more than tools for that task. But tools need to be fashioned, after they have been cared for. In fact, people are more than mere tools or pragmatic partners in reaching the dying. Though Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 3:6 against appointing new converts concerns elders, I believe that it can function as a more general caution against hastily placing people into ministry roles, since even those who are being assessed to serve as deacons must be tested (3:10). If we overemphasise the need for reaching outsiders we will fail to prepare our people for that task or – and this might be worse – we will cease seeing our people as partners and begin to treat them like tools.

Real danger of unbiblical measurements

This last point is one that I hope to develop at another time. Fruitfulness in the Christian life, from my reading of the New Testament, is rarely tied to conversions but is almost always about character and Christlikeness. My fear for the lifeboat analogy is the unbiblical evaluation of Christians: pragmatism over personal growth. If we believe that the church is first and foremost a means for saving souls then that will be how we evaluate souls on board, by their usefulness in the mission. While maturity results in making the gospel attractive, it cannot be reduced to service and must certainly not be restricted to a Christian’s evangelistic zeal or efforts. We should desire transformation, godliness, opposition to sin, and lives of worship.

Church underwaterThis post is written generally as a caution against making any metaphor a controlling one, especially when it is not explicitly found in Scripture. But, more specifically, I am writing this post as a call for discernment. Is the church primarily a lifeboat with the mission to rescue as many people from death as possible? I am not sure that it is. Especially not when the result is an emphasis on those outside of the boat at the expense of those within. I do not have an analogy to offer in place of the lifeboat, but we would do well to start with those provided for us in the New Testament. Nor do I think we need to throw this analogy overboard. It is useful, especially to illustrate some of those things mentioned at the opening of this post. But, in my opinion, it is not the best or most helpful analogy for understanding the identity and purpose of Christ’s church.