There it was in an email I had received. I predicted out loud to my wife on our way home from church that another one was slipping away. My mind raced to figure out what I could do to tighten my grip so I could hang on a little longer though I was fairly certain there was nothing I could do. I’d been there before, and every time it was disappointing. But I’m ahead of myself.
I like the movie The Guardian. It is the story of two Coast Guard rescue swimmers Jake Fischer and Chief Ben Randall. Jake arrives at the Coast Guard Academy a cocky, yet determined, recruit who is driven by an inner need for absolution. Randall is ready to retire from the Guard but answers one last assignment to train this incoming class of recruits. Trying to prove himself, Fischer is determined to break all the swimming records at the academy, especially when he learns that the records belong to Randall. He succeeds, but there is one record that especially interests him: his chief’s number, that is, the number of people Randall had rescued. Unlike the other swimming records, that number wasn’t posted anywhere. Later in the movie after Fischer and Randall have worked through some important issues and are serving together on rescue operations, Fischer puts the question to his chief.
Fischer: “What your real number?”
Fischer: “22? That’s not bad. It’s not 200 but …”
Randall: “22 is the number of people I lost, Jake. The only number I kept track of.”
That dialogue haunts me and here’s why. When asked what “their number” is, pastors like me tend to gravitate to the number of members in the church, the number of attenders at worship services and special events, the number of people who walked the aisle, or even the number on the bottom line of the budget. In other words “our number” is a success number; a number that somehow validates us as leaders. I get it because I’m prone to do it.
When Jesus talks about a pastor and church He uses the language of shepherding a flock of sheep. That is what the term “pastor” means, shepherd. A local church is a flock of sheep under a shepherd’s care, the assignment to which is made by the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
As I read the New Testament I come to the unmistakable impression that it is really important to watch over the flock so as not to lose one. Losing sheep is undesirable, whether the loss is due to a wolf, a thief, or a sheep’s own wandering away. If the shepherd owned the flock, he was protecting his own property and livelihood. If he didn’t own the flock, he was accountable to the real owner to care for the owner’s flock and responsible to not lose any of the owner’s sheep. So important was it to not lose any sheep that Jesus told a parable about a shepherd who left ninety-nine safe, healthy, protected sheep to go look for one lost sheep. He told that parable because that’s the kind of shepherd Jesus is.
As I read the Old Testament I come to the same conclusion regarding a shepherd’s care of the flock. When Ezekiel chastened the leaders of his day, one of his indictments was that the shepherds had not gone after the stray sheep (Ezekiel 34). In the Old Testament context, the sheep were the people of Israel and the shepherds were Israel’s leaders. The parallels to pastoral responsibility are clear and the language too similar to ignore. Listen to the indictments:
- “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought.” (v. 4)
- “My sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep.” (v. 8)
- “For thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.’” (v. 11)
It’s easy to lose sheep. Wandering comes naturally to them. There are greener pastures, calmer streams, more shade, and better defenses elsewhere. And yes, the temptations of the world that capture the imaginations of sheep never stop drawing some away. Depending on the size of the flock it’s easy to overlook the stray. The incessant demands of ministry responsibilities make it hard to find time to go out on search and rescue missions. The endless difficulties in people’s lives can leave a pastor wondering if it’s worth the time and can change a careless shepherd into a less caring one. Yet, to be like our Shepherd Jesus means caring enough to go searching. Remember what happened when Adam and Eve strayed? It was God who called out, “Where are you? Why are you hiding? What’s happened?”
Some think you ought not to obsess about such things as lost members because it can be too discouraging and thus counter-productive to pastoral ministry. To keep that number in your mind seems to sacrifice too much attention to failure which can be defeating for a pastor. I respond by saying that I don’t obsess over lost sheep but I do remember. I don’t remember them all by name, so I don’t have a fixed number in my head, but I do know there is a number, and for certain, the Chief Shepherd knows what it is. Thank God for a gracious Chief.
I know I won’t be 100% successful in finding and recovering all the strays. Not all the sheep of our earthly flocks belong to God’s flock which means the pursuit of straying sheep who think they’re in God’s flock but aren’t will usually be in vain. Not truly belonging to Christ, they don’t hear His voice and thus they don’t follow Him (John 10:27), and if they don’t hear the Chief Shepherd’s voice they won’t hear the under-shepherd’s voice either. Not only that, the shepherds of the flocks are not perfect like the Great Shepherd and they disappoint their sheep. Sometimes disappointed sheep look for greener pastures, healthier flocks, and better shepherds, and they won’t have to look far to find what they’re looking for. In spite of all of this, it is good to know that we have a Shepherd who will not lose one of His own sheep (John 18:9)!
I rejoice in every sheep the Lord brings into the flock under my care and I want to give them my undivided attention. But there is a part of me that remains regretfully aware of the ones I’ve lost. I don’ t think there is anything to be gained by keeping a number, but lest any of us pastors become too enamored with “our numbers,” it’s not a number to ignore, because every soul matters to God.