Amazon and pastoral care...

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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.