Choose Your Metaphors Carefully: The Church Is A Pasture Not A Business

35 years ago, when I began seminary, the “church growth” movement was hitting its stride. In a course taught by an adjunct professor with a Harvard MBA we were taught how be efficient just the way successful CEOs are. Later, in the church growth literature with which pastors and churches were then inundated (and, in some cases, still are), we were told that the old metaphors for ministry were old-fashioned and must be replaced. Instead of talking about sheep, pastures, and pastors (shepherds), we should begin thinking in more sophisticated, urban categories. Pastors were told to model themselves after Chief Executive Officers. I recall a pastor saying to me, “I’m not a pastor, I am a rancher.” That was a clever way to retain some of the agrarian flavor of the biblical language while turning the image on its head. We were supposed to infer that this “rancher” was too important and too busy overseeing the whole spread, to strain the metaphor, to look after individual head of livestock. Rather, like a successful rancher, he checks out his flock via helicopter and satellite. He has hired hands, who actually handle the livestock and their problems.

The Biblical Picture

Some years ago one of my colleagues pointed out two great problems with this trend: 1) it turns Scripture on its head; 2) metaphors are not innocent. They carry a message within them. When a minister (that very title is significant) identifies not as a servant, which is what minister signifies, but as a boss (e.g., CEO) in a prosperous-looking glass tower he has not “translated” the biblical image to late-modern urban life. He has changed the biblical picture.

Our Lord was familiar with cities. He was crucified just outside a city (Heb 13:12) not by rubes and farmers but by the urbane, the powerful, and the sophisticated. Nevertheless, he consistently invoked agrarian imagery to describe the relationship between himself and his people: “Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (Matt 26:31; ESV). “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11; ESV). He compared himself to the owner of a vineyard (Matt 20), another agrarian image but he never compared himself or his servants to corporate moguls. The writer to the Hebrews blesses the ascended and glorified Jesus as “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Heb 13:20). The Apostle Peter describes Jesus as “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet 2:25) and “the chief Shepherd” (1 Pet 5:1). The Apostle Paul gives us a list of offices, one of which shepherd is or pastor (ποιμένας). Peter exhorts the elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you…” (1 Peter 5:2; ESV).

Why It Matters

It is worth reminding ourselves of these truths in light of some of the revelations emerging from the scandal surrounding the Chicagoland mega-church, Harvest Bible Chapel. Of all the things that have been discussed one aspect of the scandal that impressed me straight away was the use of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) at HBC. This is a common business practice whereby a company might require an employee to keep business secrets or certain transactions confidential. When high-ranking executives leave a company they sometimes do so with a NDA in their pocket guaranteeing that neither side with release the details of the settlement to the public.

As common as NDAs are in business so strange are they to the only institution that our Lord personally established and authorized to carry on his business: the visible church (see Matt chapters 16 and 18; 28:18–20). To be sure, there are confidential dealings in the church. People confess their worst fears and sins to their pastors and elders and those things are to held in confidence (unless they involve a criminal matter). The church’s message, however, is public. Her business, except in very limited circumstances, is to be conducted in public. So, our assemblies (e.g., the local gatherings of ministers, elders, and deacons) are open to the members and our regional and national gatherings of ministers and elders are open to the members. When these bodies must discuss a sensitive disciplinary matter they go into a brief “executive session,” during which the room is cleared of any present who are not authorized to hear such things. When executive session ends, members are encouraged to return.

Financial matters, however, are not secret. They are open to the members. Years ago I was involved in a church planting project in Oceanside. We were short-handed in those days and so a few times I helped to collect the offering. The first time this happened I asked one of the young men to come with me to be another set of eyes as we prepared the offering to be deposited. He told me that in his previous church money was almost regarded as sacred, that none of the members ever saw offerings or had any idea of what was done. He was shocked at our transparency. I explained that in a church Reformed according to God’s Word, there is nothing to hide.

Businesses have trade secrets to protect. When I was in the radio business an engineer might develop an “EQ curve” to make his radio station sound distinct from others on the dial. Obviously, that exact curve was a trade secret. Business is all about competition and that is just as it should be. Competition benefits the public and improves goods and services.

The Church Of The Open Meeting

The church, by contrast, has no trade secrets. We have nothing to sell. We are not in the ratings business. We are in competition with no one. Her officers are servants, elders, and servants: ministers of the Word, elders, and ministers of mercy. In a properly ordered church there is a lot more serving than ruling.

CEOs and ranchers are the business equivalent of popes and bishops. Most businesses are run on an episcopal, hierarchical model. There is a central ruling figure (the CEO/Pope), a group of Vice Presidents (archbishops), then regional managers (bishops) in descending order. It should not be so in the church. Christ is our only head. He has instituted pastors and elders but not CEOs.

Jesus, the head of the church, got his hands dirty with his sheep. He was ridiculed and maligned because of it. He knew their infirmities and sins. He laid down his life for his sheep. He called Peter to imitate him: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15; ESV). He did not call Peter to supervise his lambs nor to sit in a glass tower looking down on them nor to fly over them in a helicopter. He called him to do what my grandfather used to do when the winter got tough in Kansas: To go out amidst the herd to make sure that they were not frozen, to make sure that they were fed, watered, and sheltered.”

Metaphors are powerful. They shape our thinking. A clever but wrong metaphor can lead to a wrong-headed view of church and ministry. Praise God that we have a Shepherd in Jesus who did not abandon his flock but who loved them to the end and who loves them even now. Praise God that he gave us shepherds and a transparent ministry and not CEOs and NDAs.

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  1. Yes, indeed. The late Eugene Peterson, in particular, was a proponent of the pastor as shepherd. In a 2017 interview he was asked what he would recommend for training a young pastor today. He answered, “…It would be local, relational…you could have a congregation of four, five, six hundred and still know everyone. I had a congregation of 600 and I knew everybody’s name…[I don’t think you] can be personally involved in someone’s life and not know who their children are, or the trials they go through every day. It just doesn’t work…”

    So much for the growth-at-all-cost/pastor-as-CEO model.

  2. Pastor as CEO–sounds like the Pope, whom the early Reformed (and Lutheran) confessions identified as antichrist.

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