There is really some excuse for the man who said, "I wish they'd remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks."
--CS Lewis, Letters to Malcolm
Jesus' charge to Peter, recalling him to ministry when Peter seems to have been bent on returning to his life of fishing, was to feed his sheep. It was a crucial moment - Peter seems to have been on the verge of throwing in the towel on the idea of ministry, having failed so badly in denying Jesus. Jesus repeatedly asks Peter if he loves him; Peter keeps insisting that he does. And Jesus' response to him is "Feed my lambs," "Tend my sheep," "Feed my sheep."
It's not enough to say that you love me, Peter. I'm not finished with you. I have a job for you to do. I need you to take care of my sheep.
Jesus' words hearken back to John 10, where he proclaims that he is the good shepherd. He talks about his sheep knowing his voice, and about laying down his life for his sheep. What he doesn't talk about in either John 10 or John 21 is breeding sheep. He doesn't talk about using sheep to get more sheep. He doesn't talk about expanding the flock. He does talk about bringing in the "other sheep that are not of this fold" - presumably, in historical context, those Gentiles who would trust in him. But his focus, especially when talking to Peter, is on care for the sheep.
There was nothing romantic, in Jesus' day, about caring for sheep. Nothing glamorous. It was a dirty, unskilled job that left one ceremonially unclean all the time. It was a humble occupation.
Caring for God's people - which is what Jesus was charging Peter with doing - is still a humble occupation. It's messy and difficult and frustrating, and it's unsurprising that so many pastors strain against it. We're told that the most effective form of church leadership is not to be a shepherd, but rather a rancher. This accords well with the American idea that bigger is always better, that the only alternative to growth is stagnation, and with the romantic idea of the cowboy on the lone prairie. It just doesn't accord all that well with Scripture, especially with Jesus' charge to Peter.
What I most object to about the rancher model is not that things like hospital ministry and counseling can be done by people other than the pastor, or that people's gifts should be encouraged so that the body ministers to the body. These things I strongly agree with. What I object to is the focus of ministry leadership being continually outward. One pastor I know, dealing with Luke 15:4, emphasized the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine in order to go after the one that was lost. In his view, the "one that was lost" was anyone who hadn't come to Jesus yet, the implication being that leaving the flock to fend for itself was a permanent condition given sanction by Jesus himself. Another pastor, engaged in a long-term sermon series focused on motivating people into outreach, told me privately that practically everyone in the church was in crisis of one kind or another. Those people desperately needed some edification and comfort to go along with the exhortation that was being served up Sunday after Sunday. He couldn't see the disconnect between what the people needed and what he was serving up to them.
If you want to get needs met by the church world today, the best place you can possibly be is outside it. Be a prospect, not one of the faithful. The faithful are there to bring more people in, not to have their own needs met. That's the way it is, out on the ranch.
Somehow, that doesn't match what Jesus said about the world recognizing us as being his disciples because we love one another. Or what Acts says about the early believers providing for one another's needs, not as an outreach effort to those on the outside, but out of mutual love. And it doesn't match Jesus' simple command to Peter:
Feed my sheep.
If you like this post, you may be interested in my book, What's Wrong with Outreach?