If you’ve ever driven between Los Angeles and San Francisco, you probably remember the smell of Harris Ranch. A hundred thousand cows produce a unique stink. Lately, that image of a sprawling cattle farm has been stuck in my head. I’ve been thinking about the differences between a shepherd with his flock, and a farmer with his herd.

The farmer feeds his livestock with dead, pre-cut grass. Perhaps he’s even hired an outside vendor to cultivate it. His herd sleeps in cages, and wanders within the confines of a carefully-fenced compound. They know nothing of life beyond.

The shepherd, on the other hand, is simply leading his flock to where the food is. He doesn’t control the food. How could he? The food is growing on hills and across plains. The food itself is alive, and strength-giving. And the food determines the direction of the flock’s journeys.

The farmer sits in a farm house, feet kicked up on his desk. He’s innovated himself out of a job. Machines and systems, along a with a plentitude of farmhands, maintain his herd. With a finely-tuned ranch, he can farm hundreds of thousands of beasts. What’s one sick animal? What’s one casualty? It may be a small sadness, but it’s no threat to survival.

The shepherd, on the other hand, only has two tools of trade: a staff and a sling. Wherever his sheep are found – and at whatever hour of the night – he is found walking with them. He’s constantly on the lookout for wolves, bears, or lions on the prowl. Maybe he has a few co-shepherds, a couple sheepdogs. But he simply cannot maintain as large a herd as the farmer. Even so, his sheep know his voice, and they follow him. He knows each animal in his flock. And if one wanders off, he will unhesitatingly run after it in pursuit.

The shepherd’s flock is happy and free. He may use his staff once in a while, cuffing a sheep back into the fold, but only so it doesn’t get lost. His animals are healthy. They breathe clean air, and drink from unpolluted springs of water.

The farmer’s herd, on the other hand, is distressed and dispirited. Their air is humid with rot and they drink from muddied troughs, though they’ve never known anything better. When an animal is deathly ill, it’s ultimately cheaper for the farmer to put it down than to nurse it back to health.

The shepherd is industrious, but the farmer is industrialist. The farmer may have been a shepherd himself, once upon a time. But through his great innovation, he has become something entirely different. He no longer feels called to the old ways.

The shepherd does what he does for the wellbeing of his flock, but the farmer does what he does for his own wellbeing. The farmer is in it for the money – or perhaps, for the food. But the shepherd’s primary responsibility is the health of his sheep.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being an actual farmer! But as you’ve probably realized, I’m not speaking about real agriculture. I’m speaking about ministry in the church of Jesus Christ. Scripture’s description of the ancient Near Eastern shepherd stands in stark contrast to the post-Industrial Revolution farmers of today.

Yet it is the ancient shepherd (or “pastor”) which elders are commanded to imitate. Overseers in the church are called to one overarching task. “Shepherd the flock of God among you… and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:2a, 4).

Shepherding usually isn’t glamourous, and shepherding usually isn’t efficient. But we’re not asked to innovate, and we’re not asked to industrialize. Numbers don’t matter; Jesus himself referred to His disciples as a “little flock” (Luke 12:32).

Evaluate yourself and your church. Are you a farmer, or a shepherd? Are you part of a herd, or part of a flock? Seek the Scriptures to understand how God wants to strengthen, challenge, and even change your ministry.