It was an email a pastor hates to receive, especially on a Monday morning. “Dear Pastor, we have loved serving here. We love the preaching and the people. We have grown as a family. But God is moving us somewhere else . . .” 

In that moment I remember praying a pray that went something like this: “Dear Lord, I know every member matters to you so every member should matter to me. But I’d love if you could explain to me why you took this family and moved them out of town. I have that list, you know, of families I’d be more willing to part with.” 

Yeah I prayed that and, if most pastors were truthful, they’d admit they pray similar prayers. Some of this desire is rooted in wanting to see our churches flourish and grow. And some of this desire is rooted in us pastors being frustrated on Mondays at having to deal with difficult people. 

In seminary, we envision pastoring amazingly healthy churches, with few problems and people who soak up our doctrinally rich, Spurgeon-like sermons every week. We see, in our mind, leadership pipelines and building projects and multiple campuses. We assume that after only a few years at the helm, we’ll be invited to speak at leading conferences. These blessings can happen. When they do, we should praise God for his favor. 

But more often than not, church life is difficult, mundane, and different than we may have assumed. Its easy, if we are not careful, for pastors to grow disillusioned by a seeming lack of success. This happens, I believe, because we often lose site of a simple fact: We are not pastoring machines or processes, but people. Discipleship is not mass-produced, but hand-crafted. 

Numbers and faces

In the modern era, there seems to be a perennial argument among pastors. Should we prioritize numbers or prioritize shepherding? I think this is a false dichotomy.

I’m struck by the way Luke mentions numbers throughout the book of Acts. For example, in Acts 2:47, we read about three thousand converts and in Acts 4:4 we read about five thousand converts. And in both passages, it says, “many were added daily.” 

Somebody was counting. Somebody was keeping track of the numbers. And Luke saw fit to put that number in his account, inspired by the Holy Spirit of God.

When pastors say, “I’m not into numbers,” I always want to say, “Every number is a person, with a face and a soul.” Of course we should be into numbers. We should want to see masses of people come to faith in Christ. This means more people brought over from death to life. This means more worshippers of our King Jesus. This means many new brothers and sisters in Christ. 

I’m also struck, however, by the way the New Testament urges a personal aspect of shepherding. To the Ephesian elders, Paul urges an intentional shepherding (Acts 20) and to the Corinthian church speaks in parental terms about his personal care of his people (1 Cor. 3:2-4). In Peter’s first letter to the church, he encourages pastors to “shepherd the flock of God that are among you (1 Pet. 5:1-4). 

If you’ve pastored for any length of time, you’ll know that what Paul is describing is time-consuming, difficult, and messy. We often talk of discipleship in terms of systems and mechanisms and pipelines—and these things are vital in church life—but we must remember that we are not pastoring assembly lines, but real people, whose sanctification process may not move in the straight line we envisioned in class. 

Pastoring with dignity

Our churches need to be hubs for converting, discipling, and sending, but in our mobilization we cannot forget that church is also simple, faithful soul-care. Which is why we shouldn’t pray those prayers I often prayed, wishing away the hard people and asking only for the people I preferred. God often brings to our congregations people who don’t neatly fit into our org charts and spreadsheets and five-year plans. 

God builds his kingdom, often, through the weak and the broken, the simple and the stubborn, the hurting and the hard-hearted. I think, right now, of the man in our church is in the final season of life. He served faithfully for many years but now, experiencing advanced dementia. I think of the wonderful woman, in my first pastorate, who had severe Down’s syndrome and often burst out with weird comments during the Lord’s Supper. I think of a girl who battled suicide and was in and out of the hospital.

If I’m only thinking about building that assembly line, I’ll not see where people like this fit. But if I’m thinking of the Spirit of God building his church, I’ll embrace what leadership books and growth seminars and how to podcasts often edit out. I’ll see what God sees in those we consider weak or nuisances or too messy: future rulers of the universe. 

Shepherding is really about seeing the whole person, not merely their potential. Shepherding is about recognizing the dignity of those whom the world wants to ignore or pass by. Shepherding is about seeing our own weakness and the way in which our Great Shepherd was willing to lay down his own life in order to save us, even as we were uninterested in him.