Some of my favorite and most challenging descriptions of pastoral ministry come from the twentieth chapter of Acts and Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders. Here Paul the planter and pastor is bidding a final farewell to the elders at a church he loves. And in verse 28 he comes to what I believe is his description of the heart of pastoral ministry. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”
Paul tells us here about the pastor’s calling, and as he does that, he turns to the metaphor of sheep and shepherds. The pastor is an overseer or shepherd who cares for a flock. At the heart of ministry is this: the pastor is a shepherd called to tend sheep. But it’s important for the pastor to remember—not just once, but again and again—that the sheep are not his. He is merely an under-shepherd who labors on behalf of the Head Shepherd. This flock—these sheep—don’t belong to the pastor. They don’t exist for the pastor. They belong to God and exist for God. The pastor is to tend to them, to care for them, on behalf of God. However else a pastor relates to his sheep, and whatever else he does for the sheep, he must first care for them.
But here is what I have been pondering over the past few weeks or even months: The temptation among pastors to use the sheep instead of tend the sheep. As I travel far and wide, I encounter churches that seem to be accomplishing remarkable things, or at least that intend to accomplish remarkable things. Many of them have set some of those infamous BHAGs—big, hairy, audacious goals. They’ve decided they want to plant 1,000 churches, they want to grow to 10,000 members, they want to send a missionary to every country on earth.
There is often much to admire here. Our churches are prone to grow apathetic and that apathy can often be addressed by ambition. Meanwhile, we know that the time is short and the mission is urgent, so there is good reason to press hard.
But sometimes I’ve had to wonder: Is it really the church that’s ambitious, or is it the pastor? Some people have tremendous ambition and in order to achieve such ambition they need resources. The resource most at the disposal of the pastor is people—the people who attend their churches. And so I see this temptation for a pastor to use people as the resource or the raw material through which he can achieve his own ambitions.
The pastor’s ambitions may be very good and very noble. These ambitions may mobilize people to become part of his flock and to join in his mission. But it strikes me that the heart of the pastor’s calling, at least as Paul describes it, is not mobilizing people or deploying people, but caring for them. My friend Peter points out that in the hands of driven and ambitious pastors, people can come to be viewed as beasts of burden to be driven more than sheep to be tended. Each person added to a church is not another precious sheep to be cared for, but another resource to be deployed.
I know the human heart well enough to know it’s possible for a pastor to fool himself into thinking he is caring for the sheep by deploying the sheep. And I know full well that some sheep are perfectly well cared for and eager to be put to work in achieving some great goal. But still I think it behooves every pastor to ask: Is it possible that these grand goals are actually just a means through which I feel validated? Am I really caring for God’s sheep, or am I using them as a resource in a kind of quest for self-fulfillment? Am I really doing what’s right in the eyes of God or am I doing what makes me look good in the eyes of my peers?
God calls every pastor to care for God’s sheep. Whatever else a pastor does, he can never compromise that core mission. There is a place for ambitious goals, I’m sure, but they must come after the sheep have been properly cared for, not before. If a church has big, hairy, audacious goals for reaching the community or saving the world, but the people in the church don’t know the pastors and aren’t known by the pastors, that church may be doing something very wrong. If the church’s passion is less about caring for the sheep than putting the sheep to work, something has gone wrong. Whatever else a church does, however else a pastor leads, it must never be done at the expense of the core calling of caring for God’s precious, blood-bought sheep.