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Shopkeepers or Shepherds?

Many people have the mistaken notion that ministry is all about meeting needs. Jesus met needs, so we must meet needs, it is often said. To our great joy, this challenge to meet people's needs places us on common ground with our peers in the business world, finally giving the pastor a shot at credibility in the "secular world". After all, a good entrepreneur is simply trying to create, distribute, and sell goods and services that meet people's needs. Without thinking twice, we rush to every business seminar or management book looking to learn ways that we can become better at "meeting people's needs".

The pastor becomes a shopkeeper, discovering more "needs" his people have and inventing more programs and ministries to meet those needs. The trouble is, the list of needs and the accompanying programs or ministries to meet those needs is endless. There are loads of "good" things that a church "should" be doing. The larger the church, the more things they are likely to attempt. This is how so many churches become program-driven, burdened by the many entrepreneurial start-up ministries they now have to maintain with a burgeoning staff and swelling expenses. None of this is evil. In fact, that's just the trouble: it's good, and in many situations it works. (What "works" means and whether or not we should run ministry through a filter of pragmatism is a massive subject for another post!) But it has the unintended consequence of turning Christ-followers into Christian consumers and shepherds into shopkeepers. Perhaps so many church folks act like consumers because we treat them as such. 

To be sure, managing people, resources, and ministry efforts are part of what a pastor must do. Even Jesus had to assign tasks to the right people and taught us to be good stewards of the things that have been entrusted to us. But was Jesus, at His core, a manager? Is the pastor called to be, in his essence, a spiritual shopkeeper?

Out of the crowds that heard Jesus' teaching, He commissioned the 70. Beyond the 70, He chose the 12 as disciples, later commissioning them to make disciples themselves. Jesus sought to turn followers into disciples, and challenged disciples to become disciple-makers. He seemed intent on leading people on a journey, along a process. Yes, Jesus met needs; but He was not driven by the needs around Him. He made decisions based on what He saw the Father doing, and there were several needs He even seemingly ignored. Luke 5:15-16 records:

"Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed."

Imagine it: crowds of sick people– people with needs only Jesus could meet– and what does Jesus do? He withdraws to pray. If a pastor attempted to ignore his overflowing email inbox or the stack of phone calls from people with pressing needs, so he could create space for prayer and study, he would immediately be labeled as "distant", "unconcerned with people's needs". Yet it was precisely because Jesus was free from the tyranny of meeting needs that He was able to pull away and pray. And it was because Jesus pulled away to pray that He "saw" what the Father was doing and did it and nothing else. We become better pastors when we refuse to let "needs" and "opportunities" dictate our course.

As pastors, we ought not take our cues from the pressing demands and expectations of the people. Nor should we aim reduce our role to peddlers of "the greatest product ever" or broadcasters of "the greatest story ever told". We are not entrepreneurs or business people. We are shepherds. And shepherds lovingly lead people along a journey.

What's happening here at New Life and in so many other churches is a move away from trying to do everything and offer everything. Instead, we're thinking more like shepherds. We're formulating a clear process that we'd like to lovingly lead people along. For us, the language is simple: Are we helping people worship, connect, and serve? We're in the midst of paring down the amount of things we attempt. And though we've made strides, we're not there yet. It's not new nor is it revolutionary; but it is counter-cultural. I've read at least four church leadership books written in three different decades that address this same shift. I suspect it's a recurring theme because the pressure of our culture to make a pastor think like an entrepreneur is immense. 

I can't tell you what it looks like for you to be a shepherd. There is no magic ratio of necessary programs and superfluous ones. I'm not here to pitch you a model or a book. I'm just here to add my voice to the chorus of wiser, older pastors who have walked this road and warned of its pitfalls. So: Here's to a generation of pastors that resist the urge to be shopkeepers and insist on recovering what it means to be a shepherd.

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