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:

Pastor, God Grows Churches

God is LoveWhen I finished writing this post I had a toss up over what its title should be. So here is the alternative heading: Pastor, Neither Men Nor Methods Grow Churches. Theologically I am hugely indebted to Gerald Bray. This is true in part because in addition to being a world class scholar and superb writer he endeavours to make difficult theological concepts not only accessible but applicable and pastoral (see these two recent posts, on mixed-sex friendships and the Bible). In addition to the above, Bray is delightfully witty. These attributes were recently on display when Bray was asked a question about the church growth movement.

Bray asked us to imagine a conversation taking place soon after the events of Pentecost in Acts 2. A man says to his friend, “Hey, did you hear about Peter’s new church in Jerusalem?” “No,” replies the friend. “He’s doing incredible work there: 3000 conversions last week. It’s still really early but I heard he’s going to start offering seminars to outline his ministry model and impart strategic tips.” “Amazing. Do you know what books he’s been reading: Julius Caesar or Philo? Maybe Plato’s Republic.” “Let’s be honest, it’s definitely Julius Caesar. Everyone knows when he came to Rome it was a city of stone but he’s left it a city of marble.”

Bray’s point was simple. Peter’s sermon in Jerusalem resulted in 3000 conversions, but that incredible success had very little if anything to do with Peter. He was not a dynamic leader, visionary, or master strategist. In fact, he stumbles his way through the Gospel accounts and falls at the last hurdle—only to be graciously reinstated and commissioned by Christ. Peter did actually go on to write two books, or letters (1 Peter and 2 Peter), which tragically omit his secrets to successful ministry and church growth. Or did they? “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3). “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Paul puts it another way, in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, “God gave the growth…neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” 

Bray’s imagined conversation, which I have taken liberty to embellish, highlights a few related and dangerous trends in the church today. One, which I have highlighted in its own post, is the overemphasis of secular leadership principles. But it is a short step from enshrining corporate gurus to treating pastors in the same vein. Today coming from almost every corner, from social media to conferences and seminars, church leaders are being called to imitate more successful church leaders. As one friend often says to me, ‘Everyone is trying to clone success.’ This is because we wrongly attribute growth to men and women, to human strategies and ministry paradigm shifts. We forget what both Peter and Paul express clearly above: God grows churches. We forget what is evident in Acts 2: God saves sinners. Listen to F. F. Bruce on the latter passage, “Their numbers were constantly increased as more and more believers in Jesus were added by Him to the faithful remnant. It is the Lord whose prerogative it is to add new members to His own community; it is the joyful duty of the community to welcome to their ranks those whom Christ has accepted.” As John Piper often reminds us, ‘The one who does the work gets the glory.’ Therefore, even if only unwittingly, when we ascribe the growth of a church to men or methods we rob God of his glory.

Let me bring another passage from Acts to mind. In Acts 8, Peter and John lay hands and pray for the Spirit to descend onto the Samaritan believers. This episode is theologically laden so I will tread lightly. But notice how one bystander reacts. Observing their success, for the Spirit comes upon the Samaritans, Simon offers Peter and John money saying, “Give me this power” (Acts 8:18-19). Peter’s rebuke is fierce, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God” (8:20-21). I wonder if those would be Peter’s words for many today. Do we really think we can buy power or success, in the form of ministry strategies and newfangled models? Can we create growth through the imitation of powerful leaders and growth gurus?

Grace alone sola gratiaA few years back I showed a video series titled Echoes of the Reformation, to offer a crash course in reformation history and theology at my church. It was filmed as a table discussion between Al Mohler, Kevin DeYoung and Trevin Wax. In the session on Sola Gratia (grace alone), one of the speakers says, “You’re not the centre of all things. You don’t have to be the center of all things. And you’ll never have the joy that you can have in Christ until you realise that that burden is not meant to be yours.” The danger today is that when we make men, strategies and models the centre of church growth we inadvertently begin to think the same thing about ourselves—that we are responsible. This is not merely an unbearable burden but an impossible and crushing expectation. Subtly, I wonder if it is the reason church leaders and pastors believe growth can be created or manipulated. Hear DeYoung, in the same video mentioned above, “If I know how to grow this church using means other than preaching the Word and prayer then I’m aiming at something different to what God desires.”

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

Pastor, Imitate The Apostle Peter

When I began the pastor series I had nothing more than a handful of anaemic drafts and almost no direction. I have appreciated interacting with readers (often pastors) about those posts and thought that I was finished with them. But over the past few weeks I have been mediating on 2 Peter. Yes, there is a New Testament book titled 2 Peter, somewhere in the wilderness between Paul’s epistles and Revelation. Rereading this short epistle I have been struck by the apostle’s pastoral heart, particularly on display in 1:12-15. My intention for this short post is to unpack those verses.

PastorBefore we get to 1:12-15 let me offer a few comments on the epistle’s historical setting, which also shapes our understanding of what it means to be a pastor. 2 Peter seems to be written to combat theological error. This is implied as early as 1:16, where Peter refers to “cleverly devised myths.” These inventive errors are likely what lies behind Peter’s exhortation to live a certain way (1:3-11). He reminds them of his authority as an apostle (1:16-21), which he later extends to Paul (3:15-16). This authority is contrast with “false prophets [who] also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you” (2:1). We cannot say precisely what these false teachers were preaching but 2 Peter 2 warns against licentious immorality, possibly being presented hand-in-hand with the denial of Christ’s promised return to judge (3:3-4). To summarise, Peter was writing in order to correct dangerous heresy that was poisoning the church’s faith, distorting their lives and witness (3:17-18). As Paul wrote in Titus 1:9, one of the elder’s functions is to refute error with sound doctrine.

It is with the above purpose or situation in mind that Peter wrote, “I intend always to remind you of these qualities [1:5-7], though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in the body, to stir you up by way of reminder…And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things” (2 Peter 1:12-13, 15; see 3:1-2). These verses are very unlikely to find their way into a church leadership seminar. They are not visionary or gripping. In fact, they are a little boring and uninspiring. But we should pay careful attention to this apostle’s aspirations. A few years ago I remember hearing a sermon on legacies. The preacher, a bishop over a large diocese and pastor of a church bordering on megachurch status, urged us to consider what kind of legacy we will leave behind. All these years later, I am struck at how far that man’s aspirations were from Peter’s. Aware of his imminent death (1:14), Peter outlines his desired legacy, his aspirations for the congregation he would soon leave behind.

“I intend always to remind you”

The word “remind” occurs throughout 2 Peter. The apostle understood his ministry as one of repeatedly calling Christians back to the simple truth. Even though they are established in their faith (1:12), he makes it his mission to continually remind them. The comfort and challenge of this observation is that Peter did not feel the lure of innovation, novelty and trends. I imagine most pastors are tempted by all of those and many have succumbed to them. But Peter saw his task as a pastor as teaching and reteaching. Of course, this does not mean Peter majored in the basics or that he was content with spiritual immaturity (see 1 Peter 2:2-3; also Hebrews 6:1). Yet he did not feel the need to move outside of the revelation of God in Christ, and all its entailments, promised in the Old Testament. Peter’s example is liberating. Pastor, imitate Peter by reminding your people of the truth and urging them to live in ways consistent with it.

“To stir you up”

In the verses preceding those we are focusing on, Peter lists a set of qualities or characteristics (1:5-7). These are to be added to our faith (1:5), as we depend on God’s gracious power and pursue godliness (1:3-4). But notice what Peter says about those qualities in 1:8, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful”. While the presence and propagation of godly characteristics mean productive Christian living, Peter delivers an uncomfortable point about their absence, “Whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (1:9). The Christian is incomplete apart from these things, perhaps even lacking assurance (1:10-11), therefore Peter seeks to stir his congregation up by way of reminder (1:13). It is important for us to note that he does not whip up fervour by something other than the truth. Godliness is inseparable from the gospel. We must hold these first two points together, for Peter did not desire mere morality. He longed to see believers so gripped by the gospel truth that their lives were utterly transformed.

“So that…you may be able to recall these things”

Finally, Peter’s did not aspire to be remembered. As we have seen above, his message pointed away from himself and translated into Christian maturity not personal recognition. There are no ambitions beyond that. Peter’s legacy was only that once he had put off his body his congregation would remember Christ. Admittedly I am venturing beyond what the text says when I imagine that Peter would happily have been forgotten. Because it was never about him. Pastor, what do you aim to leave behind? Does it hurt that you may not be remembered, that they might never name a youth hall or library after you? If it bothers you then seek to imitate Peter, as we meet him in 2 Peter. Here is a desirable, noble and God-honouring legacy to aspire for: that your congregation will be able to recall the truth you taught and continue living that truth out. Soli Deo Gloria.

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