Shepherd the flock of God that is among you.

I’ve read 1 Peter 5:2 many times. As a young pastor, I’m paying more attention to its straightforward directives for my calling as a shepherd.

But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that the simple, often overlooked phrase “among you” leaped off the page and into my mind.

Why did Peter add this prepositional phrase? We know he wasn’t meeting an editor’s quota. And unlike so much of my writing, the inspired Word of God doesn’t contain throwaway phrases. No filler here.

So this means the phrase has significance. Peter could have easily said, “Shepherd the flock of God.” But he didn’t, because there is a lesson in that seemingly innocuous string of words.

Visionary Leaders

By nature and gifting, many pastors are visionaries. When we assume the position of senior pastor, we assume a natural responsibility to grow the body.

Most of us live with a sort of holy discontent. If you gave us a dose of truth serum, we’d admit that we’re not that satisfied with the size and scope of our ministries. We want bigger crowds on Sunday. We want our small groups or Bible studies to multiply. We’d like to see an enlarged community footprint. This is not just the province of small church pastors like me. I’ve seen this same angst in conversations with pastors of large multi-site churches.

Church critics will decry this as the symptom of a church besotted with the lust of American consumerism. And some of their rebuke is true. Often church leaders have eschewed sound teaching and good ecclesiology simply for the sake of growth. Pastors must kill daily the selfish desire to be personally great.

But more often I suspect our desire for bigger and greater ministry is sincere, a heartfelt passion to see the name of Jesus proclaimed farther and wider in our communities, to see lives transformed by the power of the gospel. The desire for growth is neither vulgar nor unbiblical. The early church both experienced massive growth and recorded the numbers in intricate detail by Luke’s hand in the Book of Acts.

And yet pastors are often tempted to lean so heavily toward growth that we give our best shepherding resources to those who are not yet among us. Therein lies the problem Peter is addressing.

Household of Faith

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my pastoral mentor. I was discouraged by the small attendance at our church. Every week after church I would lament who wasn’t there. At our monthly breakfast meeting, he shared a simple but important truth with me: “Dan, work hard to grow the church. But remember you can only pastor the people you have. They deserve the best of you.”

In his book 5 Ministry Killers, Charles Stone shares of his struggle to “count heads” on Sunday. It so distracted him during the worship time before his message that he stopped sitting on the platform facing the congregation. His new position in the front row kept him from seeing the size of the crowd in the auditorium.

I don’t hear Peter saying we should abandon our efforts to extend the gospel in the community or to become an insulated, isolated church. What I do hear him saying is that, if we were to be honest, we put more passion into caring for sheep not yet in the fold than the precious souls who are. We can be tempted to give the best of ourselves to the new young family who walks in and ignore the longtime, elderly couple whose faithfulness we assume.

Peter’s admonition to preachers seems to echo Paul’s words to the Galatian believers. He urged them to reserve their best works for the “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).

How this breaks down in terms of time commitment and resources varies according to the church context. Most large churches have several, specialized pastors on staff. They can easily delegate a team to focus on “inreach” to members while others focus on “outreach.” In a small church or church plant, the senior pastor fills all of these roles and more.

Even so, Peter’s words are a sober warning to pastors everywhere that care of the church family and evangelism should never be an either/or proposition. Because until the Lord gives us more sheep, we can only shepherd those who worship among us.