Amazon and pastoral care...

There are two views of the pastoral ministry that are diametrically opposed to each other and locked in conflict. The competing views, though, aren't spoken of or written about, and the conflict passes without public notice. Jeff Bezos highlights the conflict in this explanation he gave of Amazon's view of customer relations:

Interviewer: Two years ago, you bought Zappos. Was that an attempt to absorb their so-called culture of happiness and customer service?

Bezos: No, no, no. We like their unique culture, but we don't want that culture at Amazon. We like our culture, too. Our version of a perfect customer experience is one in which our customer doesn't want to talk to us. Every time a customer contacts us, we see it as a defect. I've been saying for many, many years, people should talk to their friends, not their merchants. And so we use all of our customer service information to find the root cause of any customer contact. What went wrong? Why did that person have to call? ...How can we fix it?

That, good reader, is the view of pastoral ministry prevailing in our Reformed churches today. I say this from long and close observation. Most Reformed men run from intimacy...

whether with their shepherd or elders, their congregants, or their own wife, sons, and daughters. It's like pastor, like people.

On the one hand, there is the pastor who is intimate with his sheep; he calls them by name and they follow him because they know his voice. On the other hand, there is the pastor who views such intimacy as a failure and tries to fix it so it won't happen again.

Reformed men like to live in our heads. We love doctrine and vocabulary words, not people. So the common view is that the souls we minister to simply require a weekly or twice-weekly USB download. Hook up the cable and pour in the (sometimes) Biblical data. Then the sheep are good to go.

Some time back, several pastors went to visit the senior pastor of a middling size church in their community to warn that pastor of a wolf entering his flock who had fled their church while under discipline. His particular sin was sexual and he was a serial offender. Speaking to the senior pastor of their own session's concerns over the damage this man had done and was presently doing, the senior pastor responded that his church didn't really get involved in that sort of thing--that a man would have to do something really, really bad for his elders to get involved.

Yes, that's what he said and that same thing is said over and over again by men today. The way it's said changes from church to church, but the essential theme is the same.

This is normal in our Evangelical and our Reformed churches today. Pastors and elders run the money and schedules and hire staff to handle those failures when the souls of the church actually show up to talk. And if the pastor comes to the elders meeting with notes on that talk asking the elders to help, the elders work to fix the problem so that next session meeting can go back to money and schedules and staff evaluation.

The Apostle Paul was a pastor's pastor and here's how he described his pastoral work: 

Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? (2Corinthians 11:29)

But "intense concerns" doesn't quite get it. The root of the Greek verb translated "intense concern" is "fire." So the intensely emotional identification the Pastor Paul was speaking of might be translated, "Who is led into sin without my burning?" Then we might add a qualifier to "burning" such as "with anger" or "with indignation," and we'd end up with something like, "Who is led into sin without this shepherd burning with fury?" (The NLT gets it right, translating it "burn with anger. The RSV gets close with "indignant.")

Regularly I tell men that pastors and elders ought not to be allowed into pastoral ministry until they've worked as a shepherd or dairy farmer. Not just any farmer, but a farmer whose life and the life of his loved ones hangs on his concern and identification and intimate knowledge and care for his herd or flock. But really, not the mass herd or flock--that's not what the Apostle Paul writes of here nor is it what Jesus speaks of when he speaks about the "one lost sheep."

It's popular today for pastors to talk among ourselves about our work as having moved from being a farmer or shepherd to being a rancher. Believe it or not, that's always a good thing in these conversations. Pastors exhort one another not to get fixated on the individual because such conscientiousness will keep our entrepreneurial business from growing. So we brag about having left the small-mindedness of particularity and the individual for the more strategic big-picture concern of the rancher whose principal difference from that ignorant farmer is that he doesn't miss the forest for the trees. He's focussed on the herd rather than the individual. He doesn't allow his oh-so-strategic self to get caught up with one lost sheep.

This is what we've come to, today. Pastors and elders milk their sheep and carefully cultivate their particular brand of transendent Christian experience and programs in such a way as to keep the cows milking. We all know what that milking is, don't we?

This is not to say that large churches can't be pastored by men who are faithful shepherds who never loose track of even one lost sheep. History has been filled with such men including (ahem) that master of church growth and missional and Gospel-centered strategy, the Pastor Paul. Too, think of Richard Baxter who pastored one or two thousand and met with each of his families to examine their condition each year.


This is also not to say there's no such thing as a pastor who focusses too much on a few lost souls using those souls to escape his responsibility for the rest of the flock. If a pastor spends day after day pursuing one sheep who continually plunges over the side of the precipice with a blood alcohol level between DUI and dead, there's a time to see that moving in the direction of the rancher is actually better for the sheep than neglecting the flock for the suicidal alcohololic. Something about casting our pearls before swine...

Nevertheless, the church today has very, very few shepherds who could ask publicly, 'Who is weak without my being weak" and "Who is led into sin without my burning with anger," and not see their congregants turning red in the face out of embarrassment for his public nakedness. "Can he be serious? He's never darkened the door of my home. Yikes! Is he really that clueless? That dishonest? I'd love to hear what his wife says to him when they get home, today."

The lifeblood of pastoral ministry is the fear of God, absolute trust in every word of His Words, and soul-crushing love for every last one of His sheep entrusted to us. This last is the explanation for the regular mention of "tears" in the Apostle Paul's description of his pastoral labors. Where are our tears?

About fifteen years ago Bob den Dulk invited me to come up and take a tour of the new dairy farm his sons and several others had established in northern Indiana. He told me they were milking thirty-thousand cows and he thought I'd enjoy seeing the operation. I failed to take him up on it and have regretted it ever since. Now, that faithful servant of the Reformed church has fallen asleep and I had to take the tour with the masses, instead.

So a year or two ago, I stopped with my mother and we toured Bob's Fair Oaks Farms. We drove in a bus through the sheds housing the thousands and thousands of cows and I noted how perfectly cared for each cow was. Clean dry hay for their bedding and careful attention to sufficient space and shelter from the elements--I've been a pastor to dairy farmers and almost no dairy operation I've seen had cows as well cared for as Bob's.

Then we went into a room hovering above the turntable where the cows are milked three times a day, 365 days a year. As the turntable rotates slowly, the cows are milked, seventy at a time. As they give their milk, a transponder downloads that cow's vital statistics--including how many steps she's taken since her last milking.

As I watched, I thought how much better farmers know their cows than pastors know the souls of our congregations. We have been called and set apart by the laying on of hands to shepherd God's flock. One day we will give an account for each sheep. And we love and serve a Master Who HImself stoops to the needs of the nursing ewes and the one lost sheep.

He loves that lost sheep. Shouldn't we love him, too?

Kiekegaard once said that he'd like to do an experiment where he'd promise to pay all the pastors the same thing they were presently being paid on one condition: that they'd agree to having every one of the members of their congregation taken away. They'd get paid on the condition that there would be no human contact. It would be Jeff Bezos' dream. Kiergegaard went on to ask whether even one of the pastors would quit? He thought not. He thought they'd rather like the new state of affairs.

Our Lord told us the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.


>Regularly I tell men that pastors and elders ought not to be allowed into pastoral ministry until they've worked as a shepherd or dairy farmer.

I like it but I think if we'd just apply scripture we'd accomplish much the same thing (not that you're opposed). To be an elder a man is supposed to have done an observably good job of being a husband and father. Has he pastored his family properly? If not how can he pastor others? I've seen too many instances of people disregarding this standard. In many ways the eldership of Reformed churches seems to be like a brotherhood. Once you're in the standards are dismissed and if somebody is wanted in a bit of blinking will do the job just as well.

>>I think if we'd just apply scripture we'd accomplish much the same thing...

True, but two things crucial to understanding the work of the ministry are largely absent today. First, only a very few have been blessed by God to grow up with a father who takes responsibility for his wife and children and teaches, disciplines, and loves them well. Second, almost no one has ever seen any kind of shepherd, let alone bad and good ones.


The variant on this problem I've seen in Pentecostal circles, is that when someone goes first into full-time ministry, it is to do pastoral work, or certainly the work with the most people contact. The aim, though, is to get promoted past that as soon as possible to become a senior pastor (or at least, no longer an 'assistant pastor'), which means that you get to run a church and do all the preaching and teaching. Then, you hire an assistant pastor to do as much of the day-to-day pastoring as you think you can dump on them, including working with those people who aren't in grievous sin, but are, in other ways, a major nuisance or pain in the neck.

In other words, this problem is not restricted to the Reformed tradition by any means!


How many souls can a shepherd - minister, elder, etc - really care for? Baxter has to be an anomaly, no? In Baxter's day, he could "visit" 12-13 families in a single day... walking. If pastor-elders today had a substantial interaction with 2-3, that would be significant, I think.

As churches push toward mega/giga-church numbers (Is 1000 members really impressive anymore?), is the model you describe totally outdated and unreasonable?

I'm in complete agreement with you regarding the need to shepherd the flock... I just don't see much hope that we'll structure our churches so that this can actually happen.

I'm in a mission church but our pastor has visited my family twice in nearly three years since we transferred our membership. Neither of the other elders has darkened our door (althoguh they don't live in the same state) and one of them I've never met, the other I've met once. It is one of the things that has me pondering my options.

>>> ...walking.

Funny though, all the pastors of Baxter's day said if only they had cars, *then* they could get around to everybody they needed to get around to!

If only we lived in the days before automatic dishwashers, *then* we could have gotten the dishes washed, but now... no hope.

“Pastors and elders milk their sheep […] in such a way as to keep the cows milking.”

“[…] the cows are milked three times a day, 365 days a year. As the turntable rotates slowly, the cows are milked, seventy at a time.”

I pray pastors and elders teach everyone to give a day of rest to families and livestock. No one should engage in ways of maximizing milk production past the point that cows can't rest every seventh day.

>>No one should engage in ways of maximizing milk production past the point that cows can't rest every seventh day.

Yikes! Have you told your wife she must skip nursing on the Lord's Day? I think she'd maybe have a thing or two to say about that.

Which again proves how far removed we are from understanding the pastorate/shepherdate.


And your baby would surely share his opinion with you too!

"I pray pastors and elders teach everyone to give a day of rest to families and livestock. No one should engage in ways of maximizing milk production past the point that cows can't rest every seventh day."

Ha! Haha...snort. I don't remember how much milk Super used to give us every day but to tell her to take one milking off (and hold it?) let alone an entire day would have been monstrous cruelty.

So the parallel would be Christians suppressing their spiritual gifts one day in seven? Not worshipping on the sabbath because we're supposed to rest?

“Have you told your wife she must skip nursing on the Lord's Day?”

No, never. We eat daily bread et al; I'm not advocating fasting every seventh day. Non-maxed cows should rest with hungry calves in fields of vegetation, not in a huge crowded herd with nothing to eat but specialized feed that maximizes milk production to the point it takes people working machines on Sunday to empty every cow's udder.

"Not worshipping on the sabbath because we're supposed to rest?"

For man: restful worship. For animals: rest. For all: eating/feasting together.

In addition to specialized feed to maximize mother's milk yields: immediate and permanent separation of mother and calf, artificial insemination of mother a few months after separation, and injection of hormones such as rBST.

David, I think twice in three years is pretty good, when compared to zero.

David and Tim, can you tell us how you conduct your home visits? How often? What is your format?

In a congregation of four families it probably isn't overkill. And not even meeting the elders?

>>can you tell us how you conduct your home visits? How often? What is your format?

Dear Todd,

Pastoral care at our churches is not based on the Richard Baxter model of the pastor, alone, meeting with the church families each year. We are presbyterian churches which means we have a number of elders who share pastoral care with the pastors. Further, we decided our household groups would be the primary place we pursue intimacy and pastoral care.

There's much more to say than this, but simply to head off any cynical responses, let me say our commitment to pastoral care is particularly evident in two things: first, since they were instituted we've always had well over ninety percent participation in our household groups--that is key; second, we spend the majority of our time in elders meetings discussing and praying for pastoral care needs, then delegating work based upon those discussions and needs.

Elders and pastors who are interested in pastoral care should consider taking time to come to the ClearNote Fellowship conference that will be held here in Bloomington at the end of February. The theme is pastoral care in counseling, discipline, preaching, etc.

The link to register for the conference is on left sidebar at the top of the page.


I think that the general case with small groups tends to be fear of exercising authority, either by a leader or elder saying "This *is* what Scripture teaches and we must not try to escape it, but repent and submit to the Word of our Lord" or for brothers to to take the initiative to get into each others' lives and have conflict if necessary to know their brothers and confront each others' sins.

Without these, the small group concept degenerates into a semimonthly dessert social where we spend our time airing our opinions about God's Word but never submit and obey; and where we may share certain struggles and even sins with the brothers from time to time but we know we will never be confronted for them. And if this is the extent of the pastoral care in the churches (as I believe it mostly is), we're close to not having any.

What I'm driving at is, what is it that gives a small group/household group those aspects of pastoral care that are necessary for building up the body, that you can't get from the Sunday morning assembly, and that would typically be lacking from a small group unless you set out with the specific intent to stir those ingredients in?

Not to mention the poor mother!
Jennifer Edwards

I think that one can hide at a home group just as well as in the pew on Sunday morning. In fact, I can imagine the pressure to conform to be pretty heavy in a home group. How effective and intentional is pastoral care in such a group setting?

Spot on blog post. Nailed it. Period.

Oh, and also, there is an old saying;
Throw a rocks into the pig pen and the ones that get hit will "oink."

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