There is something else about the life of the shepherds, dearest brothers, which discourages me greatly. But lest what I claim should seem unjust to anyone, I accuse myself of the very same thing, although I fall into it unwillingly—compelled by the urgency of these barbarous times.
I speak of our absorption in external affairs; we accept the duties of office, but by our actions we show that we are attentive to other things. We abandon the ministry of preaching and, in my opinion, are called bishops to our detriment, for we retain the honorable office but fail to practice the virtues proper to it. Those who have been entrusted to us abandon God, and we are silent. They fall into sin, and we do not extend a hand of rebuke.
But how can we who neglect ourselves be able to correct someone else? We are wrapped up in worldly concerns, and the more we devote ourselves to external things, the more insensitive we become in spirit.
For this reason the Church rightfully says about her own feeble members: “They made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept.” We are set to guard the vineyards but do not guard our own, for we get involved in irrelevant pursuits and neglect the performance of our ministry.
—Pope St. Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604)
If you’re riding a roller coaster and you have a new iPhone 14, you may have a surprise waiting for you when the ride is over: emergency personnel checking to see if you’re OK. This is because the phone’s car-crash detection system is triggered by sudden stops. It doesn’t know if you’re in a car that just hit a tree or on a roller coaster that just screeched to a halt.
Several customers are reporting such experiences at amusement parks around the country. Emergency personnel responding to these false alarms are not amused.
In other news, scientists are concerned about species that are unknown to us but are nonetheless going extinct. They estimate that 86 percent of plant, animal, and insect species on our planet have yet to be discovered. “Anonymous extinction,” otherwise known as “dark extinction,” raises the question of how we might conserve species we do not know to exist.
One other news item fits our theme: Money magazine has published its annual list of the “50 Best Places to Live in the US.” Atlanta, Georgia, tops the list. Having lived and pastored there, I can attest to the amazing beauty and remarkable culture of the city and its area. By contrast, Dallas, Texas, where I live now, is nowhere on the list.
“The sweetest and most important sound”
These three stories illustrate a common principle: we all want to be known and affirmed for who, what, and where we are. The iconic theme song for the TV show Cheers spoke for our lonely culture:
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
This fact was reinforced for me recently as I was reading 3 John and came to these verses: “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (vv. 13–14). Then John adds this admonition: “Greet the friends, each by name” (v. 15).
I believe every word in the Bible is in the Bible for a reason. I also believe every biblical word is recorded not just for its original readers but for us as well (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11). Why, then, did the Spirit inspire John to tell us he wanted to “talk face to face” with his readers? Why did he encourage them in turn to “greet the friends, each by name”?
Dale Carnegie believed that “a person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” God understands this fact as well. He assured his people, “I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). Jesus “calls his own sheep by name” (John 10:3).
Scripture is replete with examples of God calling humans by name, often twice in a row. From Abraham (Genesis 22:11) to Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:4), he constantly shows us that he knows our name and everything else about us.
Now he is calling us to follow his example with those we serve and the culture we are called to influence with his love.
Ranchers or shepherds?
The first church I pastored had a hundred attendees on a very high Sunday. It was relatively easy for me to know the names and stories of our people and many in the larger community as well. The next church I pastored had eight thousand members and two thousand attendees on a Sunday. It was obviously implausible for me to know a high percentage of their names.
However, in this church I faced a larger challenge: the temptation to treat people whose names I did not know as a means to our institutional ends. In staff meetings and leadership gatherings, we were tempted to view our members as customers and to measure success by the degree to which they attended the events we planned and liked the work we did. Our leaders likewise measured my success by the “Three B’s”: buildings, budgets, and baptisms.
Knowing our people personally and caring for them as individuals was not on the list.
However large or small your church, I fear that you face the same temptation today. Our materialistic culture measures us by materialistic means: attendance, buildings, and the like. Video sermons delivered on satellite campuses are more common than ever. Social media offers the illusion of personal intimacy at the touch of a button.
As a consequence, many Christians seem to have abandoned the hope—or the desire—that they could be known personally by their pastor. And many pastors seem to be less “pastors” (“shepherds”) who serve their sheep personally and more like ranchers who view them as herds to be managed.
“The proof of love is in the works”
My purpose is not to add a burden of guilt to your already-full plate of responsibilities. Rather, it is to suggest that we reframe our calling as shepherds to be as person-centric as possible.
Even if we preach to thousands of people whose names and stories we cannot know personally, we can care for those to whom we preach as individual souls for whom Jesus died. We can pray for them and trust that the Spirit who knows them will pray for them with and through us. We can lead our teams to care for the smaller groups they serve with personal care and compassion.
And we can work to help our churches be families in which every person is known and loved as they are known and loved by our Father. This is a goal our secular culture cannot hope to achieve. It offers the kind of community found nowhere else. It positions our churches to add value and demonstrate relevance in unique ways. And it models and mirrors the heart of our Good Shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Pope St. Gregory the Great noted: “The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things. But when it ceases to act, it ceases to exist.”
Let’s work “great things” today to the glory of God.