I’m often asked: what is my greatest regret from my early years in ministry?
That’s an easy one to answer.
I wasn’t a shepherd. I was a hireling.
I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought I was a good pastor. I thought God was pleased with my passion for the lost and my commitment to make a difference for the kingdom. But looking back, I approached ministry like a CEO and theology like a scholar. Worse, I viewed the flock I had as a tool to help me reach the sheep I wanted to reach.
And when things didn’t go so well during my first few years, I reacted like a frustrated entrepreneur trying to build something great for God while stuck with a flock that wouldn’t do its part to help me pull it off. I was discouraged, depressed and rather annoyed at the sheep.
Like many who get caught up with dreams of grandeur and doing something great for God, I had lost my original calling and identity as a pastor.
To get it back, I took a deep dive into the biblical concept of shepherding, starting with the words of Jesus and Peter, and moving on to the rest of Scripture. And what I found profoundly changed my understanding of what it means to be a pastor.
The Most Unlikely of People
None of this is meant to say that leadership is unimportant. It’s critical, especially in this age of larger churches (and anything over a couple of hundred is historically a large church). As one of the pastors in a massive and complex church, I know this all too well. But at the end of the day, the role of a pastor is to make sure that the sheep are shepherded well. And whenever we forget this, it’s not long until we become hirelings with a career instead of shepherds with a calling.
Let’s consider for a moment the lot and role of actual first-century shepherds.
They were hardly the romanticized figures found in our children’s classes and nativity scenes. They were social outcasts, at the bottom of the ancient world’s food chain. They were a necessary cog in the economy, but they were nothing anyone aspired to be when they grew up.
Herding sheep was a dirty, boring job with crazy long hours. In the family hierarchy, the task of shepherding the family herd almost always fell to the youngest and least distinguished son; which explains why Jesse didn’t even think of David when Samuel came to interview and anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the next king.
If you had a lot of sheep or no sons, you hired someone to do the job. But good help was hard to come by. Shepherding was a low paying, low prestige, transient occupation filled by those on the fringes of society. And hirelings were notoriously undependable. They were known to bail at the first sign of trouble or danger. They were considered so untrustworthy that they weren’t even allowed to testify in a court of law.
So don’t be misled by the fact that so many biblical heroes were once shepherds. That didn’t cause the Jews of Jesus’ day to view shepherding as a noble profession. It caused them to marvel at God’s propensity to choose and use the most unlikely of people—shepherds like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David and Amos, to name a few.
It’s All About the Sheep
Yet despite the low status that shepherds had in ancient culture, the metaphor of leaders as shepherds was common in both pagan and Jewish literature. There are a number of reasons why.
The shepherd metaphor portrayed kings and leaders as the primary source of care, concern and protection for their subjects. It emphasized the people’s utter dependence on their kings, priests and leaders, since sheep are notoriously incapable of fending or caring for themselves.
In the Old Testament, the shepherd metaphor was applied to spiritual leaders, both good and bad. Ezekiel railed on the self-serving priests and leaders of Israel as shameful shepherds worthy of judgment, and he promised that God himself would one day step in to shepherd his own flock. And of course, the famous 23rd Psalm paints the Lord as our great shepherd.
But Jesus radically changed the shepherding paradigm. He didn’t just call himself the good shepherd, he also proclaimed that the mark of a good shepherd is his willingness to lay down his life for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:11–13).
Don’t let the familiarity of this passage blind you to its mind-blowing and paradigm shifting significance. Jesus didn’t say that good shepherds care, feed, lead, and protect their sheep. He said that they lay down their life for their sheep.
If those words mean anything, one thing is crystal clear. When it comes to being a New Testament shepherd, it’s all about the sheep, not the shepherd.
Asking the Right Question
As Jesus pointed out, there is a big difference between a shepherd and a hireling. One of the major differences can be seen in the questions they ask. The shepherd asks, “What do the sheep need?” The hired hand asks, “What’s in it for me?”
Unfortunately, many of us in spiritual leadership have been taught to ask the hireling question. It’s not just our human nature, it’s a deeply rooted part of our culture. Anyone who has recently interviewed job applicants knows exactly what I mean. It’s not unusual for the applicant to have more demands than the employer.
Even in seminary I was told to make sure that a church didn’t take advantage of me. I was shown how to set firm boundaries, be true to myself and make sure I wasn’t treated like a servant or slave.
I understand where that was coming from. There are far too many dysfunctional ministries out there that can tear a pastor or a family apart. And there’s no need to walk into the lion’s den unless God has specifically sent you there.
But didn’t Jesus say something about the path to greatness being found on the same path as that of a servant or slave? And didn’t he say that since he laid down his life for us, we’re supposed to do the same for others?
It seems to me that many of us like the idea of servant leadership. We’re more than willing to take the back seat, wash dishes, help set up or clean up, even wash dirty feet, as long as everyone knows that we’re the leader. But when someone actually treats us like a servant, we’re quick to take offense.
That’s one of the main reasons so many of us bail out of a commitment or leadership position at the first sign of hardship, or the realization that we’re giving more than we get in return.
Too often our sin nature coupled with our watch-out-for-number-oneculture, has made the wrong question (what’s in it for me?) seem like the right question. And whenever that happens, it’s hard to lead a flock well. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small Bible study group or an entire congregation.
The right question is always, “What do the sheep need?”
It’s what a real shepherd asks.
It’s A Calling, Not A Career
I remember when I was first exploring my options to become a senior pastor. I met with a denominational executive who suggested that I start out with a “stepping-stone” church. By that he meant a dying church that was on life support.
He wasn’t asking me to go there and revitalize the church. He wanted to use it as a proving ground. He told me not to worry. As long as I didn’t mess up and things improved a little bit, it wouldn’t be long until lots of doors opened up for something better in the future.
I was taken aback by his candor, and his cynicism. He apparently saw ministry as a career. He assumed that my goal was to climb the ministry ladder. And while he wanted me to serve the dying congregation well, he didn’t see serving them as a legitimate end in itself. It was simply the first step on the path to a better opportunity.
Yet something inside me kept whispering that vocational ministry is a calling, not a career. So, even though I was young and hardly a desirable candidate, my wife and I said no. We couldn’t imagine going anywhere with the intent of temporarily using the people and their church as a “stepping-stone.” It just seemed wrong.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long until I found another tribe and a mentor who thought differently. Instead of treating ministry as a career, he affirmed it as a calling. And while he pointed out that God might call me to serve in different places at different times, he also emphasized that the determining factor of when and where should always be God’s calling, not “What’s best for my career?”
There are no stepping-stone churches. There is only the bride of Christ. Some churches are in good shape. Some aren’t. Some have a great future. Some have only a past. But they all belong to Jesus. And none of them are meant to be stepping-stones.
The Still, Small Voice
Eventually a ministry opportunity opened up in a community where my wife and I both felt that we could settle in for the long haul—maybe a lifetime. It was a brand-new church plant, a little over a year old. It was meeting in a high school cafeteria, which still had remnants of food fights on the wall. I had to take a big cut in pay, my office was a parishioner’s garage, and my desk was literally taken out of the trash at the previous church where I’d served as a youth pastor.
But I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was certain that within a few years we’d have a thriving ministry on our hands. We’d have Satan on the run.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. At least at first.
During the first three years our attendance increased by just by one person. And there was nothing to indicate that things would be different in the future. If I stayed put, it looked like my lot in life would be to pastor a church with growth rate of about three to five people a decade. It was hardly what I had in mind when I was so certain that God was “calling” my wife and me to northern San Diego.
But eventually, things started to slowly turn around. North Coast experienced some modest growth. After five years, I was able to hire another staff member!
Then out of nowhere I received a letter from the pulpit committee of a church I had long looked up to as the kind of church I hoped North Coast would be someday. They wanted to know if I would consider candidating to become their next senior pastor.
Don’t ask me why. I have no idea. Especially based on my track record and resume at the time.
But I was pumped. I remember reading the letter and immediately fast-forwarding to all the great things that God would do once I had a larger and more prestigious platform. I thought he was giving me a Get Out of Jail Freecard.
But as I basked in the possibilities, I distinctly heard that still, small voice (the one we sometimes wish we could drown out) say, “I called you here, not there.”
The prompting was so strong and clear that I knew not to ask again.
So I tossed the letter.
A few of those closest to me were incredulous, including some family members. They were sure I’d made the wrong decision. They couldn’t imagine why God would want me to waste my gifts and potential on what was obviously a dead-end ministry, especially when a much better and larger platform beckoned. They thought it was career suicide.
Obviously, it wasn’t. Obedience never is.
But I have often wondered where I would be today if I’d approached ministry and leadership like the denominational executive who wanted me to take a stepping-stone church?
What if I’d asked the hireling’s question?
What if I’d bought into the lie that ministry is a career, not a calling?
The Scorecard That Counts
All of us keep score. It’s human nature. We can’t help it. Even those who claim they don’t, do. We’re all like the parents at a T-ball game where score keeping is forbidden. Yet, somehow when the last inning comes, everyone knows when one of the kids has hit a game-winning home run or made a game-losing error.
The problem with score-keeping is not keeping score. It’s having the wrong goal.
My dad taught us a game when we were kids. He called it “giveaway checkers.” Instead of trying to capture the other player’s pieces, the goal was to be the first one to run out of checkers. You still had to “play the game”—you still had to jump and capture any vulnerable checker from your “opponent,” but that wasn’t your primary objective. Winning by losing was the point.
It was a great metaphor for life, marriage and leadership. If I’m keeping score to make sure the other guy gets more than I do, keeping score is a good thing. Unfortunately, most of us have been taught to keep score like a hired hand. We seek to ensure that we’re getting as much as we give, and hopefully more.
But the path to success in God’s kingdom has always been to live life like giveaway checkers. Those who lose on their earthly scorecard inevitably win on God’s eternal scorecard. And that’s the only one that counts.
Jesus put it this way when a much younger and less wise Peter drilled him about the earthly rewards that the disciples could expect in return for all that they had given up to follow Jesus.
“Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will first” (Matt. 19:28–30).
Trading Down or Stepping Up
Finally, have you noticed that few pastors are ever “called” to a smaller church in a less desirable community? It seems that every time God “calls” one of us to a new ministry, it’s bigger, better or more prestigious than the old one.
And the few times when we feel “called” to a smaller platform or lower profile ministry it’s almost always on the heels of a miserable or untenable situation that makes trading down seem like a step up.
I’m not implying that spiritual leaders should seek out the least rewarding, most difficult path, and take it. Or that every spiritual leader should stick it out no matter how miserable the experience might be. That’s an old-school poverty gospel. That’s not the path of a disciple, it’s the path of a spiritual masochist.
The apostles didn’t stick around to see if their enemies would throw them into jail again. Jesus even told them to shake the dust off their feet and move on if they found themselves unwanted. And Paul sought to go to Rome in an attempt to increase his influence and to have a greater platform from which to proclaim the gospel.
And I’m certainly not advocating that every pastor needs to spend a lifetime in one place or stay around no matter what. Even those of us who feel called to do so need to keep an open mind. If the apostle Paul couldn’t accurately figure out ahead of time all the details of God’s will and game plan when he set out for Asia and Bithynia, we shouldn’t assume we can either.
I’m simply saying that whenever the hireling question becomes my leading question, I won’t shepherd well. And whenever ministry becomes a career, it ceases to be a calling.