The conversation flowed warmly, until the potential church member looked at me and said rather gravely, “The pastor of the church I attended for many years would visit me at least once every couple of weeks. We would just sit for two or three hours at a time and catch up on what was going on in our lives and what was going on in the life of the church. I really hope that I can expect the same from you.”
Though surprised at the sudden turn, I knew I needed to steer the conversation toward reality.
“Let me ask you a couple of questions,” I said. “How many members attended the church you were a part of?”
“We had, at most…50…maybe,” he replied.
“And how many staff members other than the pastor did the church have?”
“None. He was the only one.”
“Did he have an office at the church? Did he have responsibilities to equip people? Was he expected to lead the church?”
“He had a little office, but there really wasn’t much to do. I mean, the deacons pretty much ran everything, you know, like it is supposed to be done.”
“Ok. Just so we are both on the same page: your pastor was not expected to have any office hours because he did not truly have any church leadership responsibility except for preaching and pastoral care for 50 people, correct?”
“That’s right. You know, you sure do ask a lot of questions.”
“Well, the reason I’m asking is that I wanted to get a clear picture of where you were coming from with your expectations. I also wanted to let you know that I can promise you that holding tightly to those particular expectations will ensure that I will disappoint you greatly.”
He did not say anything but looked very displeased.
I continued with my explanation. “We have a few hundred people to lead and minister to. At that size, one person cannot do it all. Not only would that be unhealthy, it would be impossible. We understand that the lead pastor cannot have a personal relationship with every person in the church, but every person should have a relationship with someone. That is one of the reasons we emphasize getting involved in a smaller group for Bible study. It is where the larger faith family creates the deep, lasting personal friendships, and the group makes “big church” feel small. I am not at every visit, every funeral, every wedding, every birth, every crisis and every event. Would I like to be there? Certainly. But again, not only would that be unhealthy, it would be impossible.
“It’s been said that it is the difference in being a shepherd and a rancher. A shepherd is hands-on with every single sheep. A shepherd-rancher can only be hands-on with a smaller number of sheep and leads other leaders in shepherding the larger group. At our size, we must embrace that reality. I have talked to many people over the years who want all the benefits of a larger church but want the individualized attention from the lead pastor that comes from a much smaller church. It is just not possible to have them both.”
He looked at me sourly. “Well then, how do you see your role as a pastor? I mean, how do you see that anything you just said as being biblical? Jesus said that he was the good shepherd, not the good rancher. And if you were following in his footsteps, you should be a shepherd too. After all, Jesus spent a lot of time visiting with people.”
“I am not denying my role as a shepherd,” I replied. “I’m only saying that it involves much more than giving long-term, individualized attention to every sheep in the flock. The biblical responsibility I bear is to equip the saints – the followers of Christ – for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12). That biblical mandate itself points to the fact that I do not do it all; I cannot. That is why I use the term ‘shepherd-rancher.’ The church should be equipped to the point that if something were to happen to me, everything would continue without a hitch. And though I do counsel the hurting, meet with those in need and visit others to just catch up from time to time, much of my time is spent investing in faithful people who are able to pass teachings and truth along to others (2 Timothy 2:2).
“Not only that, when a pastor is seen as a hired hand who does the ministry instead of the primary leader and equipper for ministry, a consumer “what’s-in-it-for-me” mindset will develop. I am not interested in making more consumers; we need more servants. I won’t settle for customers when we must raise up soldiers. People who are not willing to serve are people who are not truly following the example set by Christ.
“And to your point: yes, Jesus did spend time with many different people, but let’s not forget that he spent the vast majority of his time with the 12 disciples teaching and equipping them for ministry. My ministry is a success when I have equipped others to do everything except for the things that only I can do.”
“Well,” he grumbled. “That kind of approach doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard of before. And I don’t think I like it.”
This conversation happened a few years ago, but it was not the only time I (and other leaders I know) had discussions in the same vein. With the resuming of in-person services (and the general apathy that has settled over much of the Christian population), I have been having more conversations with leaders regarding the role of ministry in equipping others during the present season as we look ahead to what is to come.
In many of these conversations, the same contrast emerges: leading as the hired-hand shepherd who is expected to do all the work of ministry alone or leading like a shepherd-rancher who equips people for the work of ministry. As I mentioned earlier, I am of the conviction that, at times, a lead pastor does give individual attention to members of the flock, and it is possible to connect with members of a much smaller congregation individually, but it is impossible for one leader to build a deep relationship with each person if the church is even approaching a moderate size.
(The metaphor of the shepherd and rancher is not original to me. A far better and more thorough explanation of it can be found from multiple sources including this article.)
I thought about that conversation with the “would-be” member recently when I was talking with a friend involved in ministry at the church where her husband is one of the pastors on staff.
When I asked her how ministry was going, she said, “It’s going so much better now because I have established some boundaries. There is no way I can be available to all the people all the time. I am much more effective when I am investing deeply in a smaller number of faithful individuals than always spreading myself thin with the crowd. When I am trying to be all things to all people, I am not able to use to the fullest the gifts God has given me. When I try to be all things to all people, I can’t be who God has called me to be.”
I have met many ministry leaders who never find any degree of freedom from the “close-to-the-pastor/leader syndrome.” (Click here for more details on this debilitating disorder.) Because of the expectations placed upon some leaders, they become frustrated, overloaded and burned out. As a result, the church does not grow spiritually because people are not developing and exercising the gifts God has given to them to build up the church, and progress will stall because the main, limiting factor in growth is pastoral care.
Thankfully, the friend I mentioned knows that she cannot be fully accessible to everyone at any given moment. Those individuals she invests in have a higher degree of access to her then the random complainer or the ever-present energy vampire. Even if there were no toxic individuals at all involved, there is no way that every person who wanted access to my friend would have their needs met equally. In the words of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone” (Exodus 17:17-18). When a leader is overburdened with responsibilities that can be delegated, both the leader and those being led will suffer. Unlimited availability leads to limited influence.
In addressing the potential lack of growth that occurs when a leader limits the reach of pastoral care to himself, I have heard some pastors make statements along these lines: “When I do not know the name of every person at my church, then it is time for me to plant a new congregation from this one because God has called me to be a shepherd to the people, and the shepherd is to ‘call each sheep by name.’” I am not calling into question the heart of people who say such things. There is no doubt that those pastors are highly relational and truly desire to consider every detail of the individuals’ lives they shepherd. But by their own admission, leaders who adopt that approach are not able to deeply minister to a larger number of people.
No single person – be it a pastor, ministry leader, or otherwise – can be expected to be everywhere at once for everyone at any time. Early in my career as the lead pastor, I took a one-day road trip to a neighboring state. I left early on Saturday morning and got back home Saturday night. The next morning at church, one of the members said to me, “Oh, I drove by your house yesterday and noticed your car was gone.”
Not as though it was anyone’s business, but I answered, “Yes I took a quick road trip yesterday. Just needed to spend a little time out of town.”
What came next was the type of classic, guilt-tinged response that certain types of church members have bandied about for time immemorial. “What would have happened if somebody had needed you then? What if someone had a wreck, or had an emergency surgery or was experiencing a family crisis? You probably should not go too far away on your day off in case someone needs you.” Unfortunately, statements like this are more common than you might realize.
I am mindful of another friend of mine who is an associate pastor. Because of the lack of staff, my friend was given multiple responsibilities in leading the church. As time went on, those responsibilities increased, and he was spread too thin and was forced to give an ear to every voice that cried out for positive or negative attention. When he reached the point of being exhausted and experienced negative impact upon his family and friendships, he realized he needed to establish some boundaries. Sadly, when he began drawing lines, some church members began to complain that he “just could not deal with the pressure of leading.” This was not a true statement. My friend could deal with leadership pressure, but not with the pressure of leading a large church in a way that placed human expectations, not biblical truth, at the center of the methodology.
Leading with wisdom is a continual challenge, but out of the many things I have learned about leadership over the years, I know that there some things a leader can do to manage time and refocus priorities…
Spend more time pondering God’s Word than the complaints of humans. When human complaints conflict with God’s commands, do not compromise.
Never miss an opportunity to explain how the organization is being led and to clarify why it is being led in that way.
Celebrate God’s work in others as they exercise their gifts to build up the church.
Take great care to whom you entrust yourself because you can only invest deeply in a few individuals at a time. They might not all work out, but prayerfully consider and enthusiastically pour time into faithful people.
Pray for wisdom to know the difference in a truly lost sheep and a marginal sheep that just likes to wander and get attention. Go look for the one lost from the ninety-nine, but don’t neglect the care of the ninety-nine because you are always trying to deal with that one problem sheep who continually drains you and the rest of the flock.
Be present, walk slowly through the room and love on as many people as you can, but remember that even Jesus did not heal everybody.
Recognize that the source of leadership conflict may be a personality issue, an organizational dysfunction you inherited, or it might be due to things far beyond your control. But I can look back knowing that I could have avoided many leadership problems had I followed one word of counsel: I should have been a rancher.