The Shepherd-Rancher Divide

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, February 25, 2013

The Shepherd-Rancher Divide

Every church longs to grow. That’s the way it should be. “The Great Commission” was not “The Small Suggestion.”

But many churches are stuck in neutral. They can’t seem to break through their current plateau to the next level.

So what is keeping many of these churches from reaching their full potential? 

In many cases, I think it’s something as simple – but decisive – as the Shepherd/Rancher divide. This is based on the premise that there are two basic kinds of church leaders: Shepherds and Ranchers.

Shepherds are oriented toward providing primary care to their sheep. They are the ones in the trenches with coffees and funerals, discipling and weddings, one-on-ones and late-night calls. They are not usually leaders as much as chaplains.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I honor them and revere them.

Ranchers are oriented toward ensuring that their sheep are properly cared for. They are leaders and visionaries, mobilizers and catalyzers, inspirers and motivators, change-agents and provocateurs.

There has been much back and forth as to which “model” is best. It’s trendy to opt for the Shepherd role, and thus argue for smaller church communities. As a result, the “Pastor as CEO” has become almost cliché for dismissal and condemnation.

But what if we have a false dichotomy? 

What if it’s not Shepherds vs. Ranchers, but Shepherds and Ranchers? And what if what is keeping many churches at their current level is that there isn’t enough ranching?

Let’s make a case for the Rancher for a moment. 

In the Old Testament, God clearly put Moses into a Rancher role. When he tried to fulfill it as a Shepherd, arbitrating each and every situation, he failed miserably. 

And the people suffered.

It took the wisdom of his father-in-law Jethro, employing the skills of a Rancher, to organize things and unleash others to care for the people.

In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit birthed the church by dropping 3,000 fresh converts on 11 very overwhelmed men. It was a megachurch mess if there ever was one. 

It wasn’t long before the apostles realized they needed to pursue Rancher roles while setting apart deacons for the shepherding tasks.

The point is that both Shepherds and Ranchers are needed.    

A hard-working Shepherd can care for around 70 people. If that person doesn’t bring in other Shepherds, or become a Rancher, they will become a bottleneck for growth. 

Intriguingly, the average size of the typical church is around 70 people. Hmmmm…

I know that at Meck, we had 112 people at our first service on our first weekend. That means the church outgrew me day one. I had two choices: I could continue to be a Shepherd to the church and stay around 70 or so as a church in terms of impact and influence; or I could become a Rancher and ensure that the people were shepherded and position the church for unlimited growth.

I became a Rancher.

We went from 112 in attendance to now over 8,000 in terms of active attendance.

It wasn’t easy. Most who enter the ministry are, by nature, Shepherds. 

And being a Shepherd is appealing. 

You get to be at the center of almost every “Yea, God!” story. You are the one in the hospital, at the wedding, drying the tears, holding the hand, leading them to Christ. You are building every ministry and taking every hill.

And those strokes are intoxicating.

Not so much for the Rancher. You have to be willing to let others get the credit, see others take the hill, let others be praised. You are not at the center of every life-event in the lives of those you love. Instead, you hear stories of people praising a counselor or small group leader. 

So why give up shepherding? It’s simple. Based on Romans 12:8, if you have the gift of leadership, you are called to lead. And that is what a Rancher does. 

And as Jim Collins has written, the best Ranchers are “level five” leaders who do not care for themselves, only the organization.

So what can be done?

It’s simple. Either become a Rancher, or bring some into the mix.

I’ve seen a lot of staff persons at churches be absolutely perfect for building a church to 200 or so attenders. But then, those very same skill-sets and practices kept them from building the church to 500.

They needed to move from Shepherd to Rancher, and didn’t. 

Or couldn’t. 

It’s not that you fire those folks at critical growth stages, as much as you realize that either someone grows into a Rancher role, or you bring in Ranchers to continue the effective and necessary work of the Shepherds.

So let’s drop the bashing of “Pastors as CEOs” and realize a deeper truth. In Scripture, both shepherding and ranching were called for. 

So let’s call for them now.

James Emery White



James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).

Jim Collins, From Good to Great.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Shepherd-Rancher Divide