Stop Thinking Like a Big Church

whoa signThe logic of the church growth movement went something like this:

  • The mission of the church is to reach people for Jesus
  • Reaching more people for Jesus is better than reaching fewer people for Jesus
  • Churches that are reaching more people for Jesus will have more people in them and become big churches
  • In order to become a big church you need to Think Like a Big Church

At the height of the church growth movement no phrase or concept was more repeated or firmly believed than that last one – Think Like a Big Church. I heard it everywhere. I told it to my church leaders too.

It was the main reason for some of the biggest mistakes of my ministry.

Today’s post is an excerpt from The Grasshopper Myth, Chapter 3 – Stop Thinking Like a Big Church

Not Every Shepherd Is Called to Be a Rancher

In the past several decades, the most common metaphor for explaining what it means to think like a big church is the shepherd/rancher illustration.

Under the shepherding model, the pastor takes care of the sheep one-on-one. Under the ranching model, the pastor trains a group of under-shepherds who do the day-to-day hands-on care, while the pastor’s primary role shifts to overseeing the under-shepherds.

As the metaphor goes, sometimes, under the ranching model, we have to do spiritual triage. On a battlefield when the casualties are piling up, doctors at the start of triage may look uncaring as they walk past injured people and spend their time with healthy ones. But the healthy people they spend time with are nurses, medics and other doctors. They do this to train, share info and prioritize so they can serve more people with greater effectiveness.

In a big church, the ranching/spiritual triage model makes sense. There’s no way one person can care for thousands of people individually. A well-trained team of staff and volunteers is essential to every aspect of ministry.

In a Small Church, when the pastor stops doing hospital visits, ceases having an open door policy and starts delegating those responsibilities to others, the congregation members feel neglected and unimportant.

Then they start looking for another church. I know. I’ve experienced it first-hand.

I’m not the only one with this experience. I’ve talked to many discouraged pastors with stories just like mine, who tried the rancher model only to find their congregation members feeling neglected.

That neglected feeling is understandable. After all, when Jesus commissioned Peter, he told him, “feed my sheep” not “tend my ranch”. The ranching model tells us that our primary focus needs to move from “doing the caring” to “develop and manage a system of care” for the body we serve. There’s just one problem with that. As a pastor friend of mine says, “People want to be pastored, not spiritually managed.”


Follow Your Calling

The rancher model doesn’t automatically make pastors’ lives easier or more productive, either. Many of us who tried the rancher model felt unfulfilled and ineffective because our heart was in hands-on ministry, but our schedules had shifted to leadership training, promotion and administration.

I wasn’t called to manage systems. I was called to pastor people.

Very few pastors entered the ministry because they felt called to “develop and manage a system” of anything, let alone with the expectation that they would ever stop doing the caring themselves. And to be fair, promoters of the rancher system don’t say the pastor should stop doing pastoral care, just that it needs to become a secondary priority, with the training of others taking precedence.


Tending the Ranch Isn’t Wrong, But Neither is Feeding the Sheep

I agree that training and delegating others to do more aspects of ministry must be a higher priority in pastoral work than it often is. This lesson is as old as Moses – literally. The primary biblical argument for the rancher model comes from Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who watched Moses work from dawn to dusk as the only judge for an entire nation of people. This was not serving God, Moses or the people well, so Jethro devised a plan of delegation that worked far better.

Ranching works. To argue that delegation and training are unnecessary is foolhardy, unbiblical and probably egotistical. After all, it was the Apostle Paul himself who told us that one of the primary jobs of pastors is, “to prepare God’s people for works of service.” Sounds like delegation to me.

But Jesus primarily used and taught the shepherding model, not the ranching model, which. For example, after his resurrection Jesus told Peter three times to “feed my sheep”. In the first and third instances, the Greek word Jesus used for “feed” can literally be translated as “pasture my sheep.” In the middle one, it means “shepherd my sheep.” The English word pastor comes from those shepherding terms.


Use Outside Methods, But Focus On the Biblical Ones

So it’s true that both the ranching and shepherding models exist in scripture. But if we’re going to be blunt about it, we have to admit that most of what we’ve picked up about ranching is not from scripture. It’s from business and military practices. It’s no coincidence that megachurches started proliferating on the heels of the post-WW2 rebuilding years. Megachurches simply adapted many of the top-down military efficiency methods that won the war and rebuilt nations.

There’s nothing wrong adapting outside methods, of course. Jethro was a priest of Midian, not of Israel, yet Moses learned from his wise counsel. And the fact that Jesus never directly referred to ranching doesn’t mean we can’t use it. But the balance of scripture unquestionably leans towards shepherding. That alone should make us pause a bit before we back-shelf the method Jesus made front and center.

Consider also that under the ranching model, Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep would be very different. The rancher wouldn’t have gone out to find the missing sheep himself, he would have trained and delegated under-shepherds to do that. What matters, of course, is that the lost sheep is found, not who does the finding – and ultimately only Jesus truly does the finding – but such stories should remind us that pastors who are called to serve predominantly in the shepherd role should not be made to feel like they have to justify that choice.


Jesus Was the Good Shepherd, Not the Jolly Rancher

Jesus never stopped being a shepherd even though he often had huge crowds to take care of. Yes, he used the rancher model at times, like when he sent out the 70 to preach, then report back to him, and when he told the disciples to distribute the food to the 5,000-plus hungry people. But shepherding was always his primary mode of ministry.

Since Jesus constantly taught and used the shepherd model, but only occasionally taught or used the ranching model, shouldn’t shepherding be our default setting too?

Even if you accept the premise that ranching is the best way to build and manage a big church, it may not be the best way to pastor a New Small Church. Yet take a look at the books and seminars espousing the ranching model. Do any of them admit that it may not be the best method for smaller congregations? None that I’m aware of.


Pastor First

Unquestionably, we should adopt the rancher model when it’s needed. But I’m still looking for a pastoral ministry seminar or book teaching the ranching method that also cautions us to think long and hard before abandoning the shepherd model entirely.

Why is this rancher model so overwhelmingly dominant in our pastoral teaching? Because it’s always assumed that anyone with vision is going to grow a big church. The sooner we adopt the rancher model, the sooner this inevitable growth will take place.

This ranching model was what I was walking away from when I told my church staff that we were going to stop thinking like a big church. That day we made a conscious decision to never again allow spiritual triage to be an excuse to manage systems at the expense of caring for people.

That doesn’t mean we stopped training others to do the work of ministry – we redoubled our efforts at that. It did mean that we would never let the training of others become a reason for neglecting hands-on ministry ourselves.

In a megachurch, the pastor may indeed have to give up doing the caregiving in order to meet the needs and manage the necessary systems. In a Small Church the pastor can and should do both.


So what do you think? Are you called to be a shepherd or a rancher?

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(Whoa sign photo from Eileen Rose • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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4 thoughts on “Stop Thinking Like a Big Church”

  1. In an earlier article you said you would never bash mega churches. This sounds borderline. Additionally, I don’t think when God calls someone into ministry it is with a rancher or shepherd mentality, Both are totally inward focused and eventually gets to the point of us saying, “four and no more.”

    1. I appreciate your concern, Jim, but there’s no big church bashing here. If you read it through again, I think you’ll see that in paragraphs like this: “In a big church, the ranching/spiritual triage model makes sense. There’s no way one person can care for thousands of people individually. A well-trained team of staff and volunteers is essential to every aspect of ministry.”

      My issue is with the mentality, taught in many church growth books, and exemplified by the phrase “Start thinking like a big church”, that we’re all supposed to move from shepherd to rancher.

      I also don’t think either shepherding or ranching are inward-focused. Sure, there are churches led by pastors of both styles that are inward-focused, but it isn’t shepherding or ranching that creates the inward focus. A good, shepherding pastor knows that a big part of shepherding is to train the people to reach out to “sheep that are not of this fold”, while a healthy ranching approach is centered on training people to do the work of ministry themselves, without relying so heavily on hands-on, professional pastoral care. Each can be taken to an extreme, but neither one lends itself to an inward focus if it’s done biblically

  2. I’ve greatly appreciated each of the posts I’ve read since I discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago. Most of the time I find myself thinking “that’s exactly what I have experienced or thought or felt.” Mostly, I think I’m in sync with you on this post as well, particularly regarding the rancher model of pastoral ministry. Even when I was the Associate Pastor of a large church whose vision was to become a very large or mega-church, I had strong objections to the rancher analogy because it simply isn’t Biblical in any way. However, the Biblical model of local church ministry does not fit the one man band methodology either. I know that isn’t what you’re suggesting, but I think much of the church growth movement fixation on systems and management grew out of reaction to non-Biblical focus on the pastor as the everything–preacher, hospital caller, janitor, etc etc. Again, based on a couple of paragraphs in the blog post, I know that isn’t what you’re suggesting, but that is the model that many, who are offended when the pastor doesn’t show up for everything, have of local church pastoral ministry. Instead of ranching vs shepherding, I prefer to think of body ministry, Elders (plural) who are probably the same people as Pastors, and Deacons (also plural), and so on. This, in my study and understanding, is a Biblical model that allows for differences in congregational size, structure, and culture. The senior or lead pastor of a very large congregation is the shepherd as he/she feeds the flock from God’s Word every week. Other shepherds provide more individual care in small groups, hospital visits and so on. In a small church, such as the one I pastor, I can do both, but must include teaching, training and encouragement to each person as they develop their own ministry if I am to fulfill my mandate. What I must not do is allow myself or the congregation to view me as minister and them as the consumers of ministry. Again, even though I may have some different thoughts on this, I appreciate your thoughtful insights into some difficult but very important issues

    1. Thanks for your take on this, Ken. You’ve added some things to the mix, but I don’t think there’s a sliver of difference between us on this issue. I completely agree with you that “the Biblical model of local church ministry does not fit the one man band methodology either” and that there are often people in a local church who demand too much pastoral attention in an unbiblical fashion.

      I also agree that body ministry is exactly the answer. In a small church, that will be taught in a more hands-on shepherding way, while in a big church it will need to happen more through systems and delegation of the pastoral role. Neither method is wrong. My only issue is that too many small church pastors are told that they need to change from shepherding to ranching, even if shepherding makes more sense for them.

      No pastor should ever be looked down upon for using the method that works best for their situation and gifting.

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