WHO IS FEEDING THE SHEEP?

A lot of my thinking about the issue of leadership in the context of ministry comes out of a question that I have been asking for years. The question comes out of the story of Jesus and Peter in John 21.15-17. The story tells us that three times, Jesus asks Peter is he loves Jesus. Three times, Peter affirms his love. And three times, he is given some version of the command to feed Jesus sheep. I think that it is very significant that the command is to feed the sheep, not lead the sheep.

Again, I am not against leadership. I am, however, upset with the current emphasis on leadership that pushes pastoral care and pastoral work into the background. I think every church and every pastor needs to ask the question I have been asking myself for years. As you might have guessed, the question is the title of this post: Who is feeding the sheep?”

In the pastoral context, this is the first question to be asked and satisfactorily answered–satisfactorily answered from the perspective of the congregation, not the pastor. The congregation needs someone to do the feeding. This pastoral activity includes but is not limited to things like effective preaching, timely pastoral care, strong relationship building, pertinent teaching, pastoral contact and support during life’s crises and triumphs, proper access to the pastor and so on. If this feeding isn’t being provided, the church will suffer.

In most small churches, the congregation calls a pastor. There are no job descriptions, and often very little in the way of guidelines beyond showing up for worship. But there is generally a very powerful, unwritten expectation that the person the church pays to be their pastor will be heavily involved in feeding them and caring for them. There have always been pastors who have excelled at this and others who have done a terrible job at it–the old joke about ministers working one hour a week grew out of the fact that some who took pastoral pay didn’t do much more than that.

For me, this is a huge ethical and theological issue. It is an ethical issue because if the congregation calls the pastor and pays the pastor to be the pastor and the pastor takes the money but doesn’t do what the church is expecting, he/she is cheating the church. Someone has to feed the church and if the person taking the money to feed the church isn’t doing the work, it is unlikely to happen.

It is also a theological issue because of the great emphasis the Bible puts on the need to provide a pastor’s care. Both Old and New Testaments are filled with references to the pastoral role, looking at both what it should be and what happens when it isn’t fulfilled properly. John 10.1-17 is probably one of the best known but there are many others dealing with the need for good pastoral care.

I think small congregations suffer proportionally more than larger churches because of the current cultural emphasis of leadership over pastoral care. People come to them wanting to lead them but being asked (and paid) to feed them. Many pastors seem to think that leadership is the job of the paid professional–but members of small congregations are paying someone to feed them and love them. If you haven’t seen or been involved in such a mis-match, you haven’t been in the church or ministry for very long.

For me, the bottom line is that churches need pastors who will feed the sheep. It is true that leadership is a spiritual gift and that the church needs leaders. It is true that pastors can be and probably should be among the leadership of the church. But when a church calls an individual to be a pastor and supports that calling with money, the called one has an ethical and theological obligation to put the care and feeding of the congregation first. This loving, caring, patient and understanding pastoral care is what the church craves and what pastors are called to do.

When both church and congregation are satisfied with the answer to the question “Who is feeding the sheep?”, the church can begin to move towards health and the pastor can explore with the church the deployment of other gifts the pastor and congregation may have.

This might look like a call to what is often called “maintenance” ministry because it actually is a call to this ministry. But as I will look at in a later post, maintenance ministry isn’t the terrible thing it is often seen to be.

May the peace of God be with you.

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