God has given pastors a very clear job description in the Bible. Central to that role is shepherding. Peter provides instruction regarding what the shepherding role of a pastor is to entail: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:2-4).
As someone who was a pastor for nearly twenty years, I read these words and feel the weight of responsibility to the Chief Shepherd. The word that should jump out is the word entrusted. Pastors are entrusted with a great responsibility—the souls of people in a congregation. Sadly, we are all to familiar with pastoral malpractice where a pastor neglects, abandons, abuses, or uses a congregation for his own selfish gain. Equally as common is the pastor who functions as CEO and operates a church like a corporation. The larger a church gets, the further away from the sheep a pastor becomes. Shepherds need to have the smell of sheep on their hands.
I was prompted to think about the role of the pastor shepherd after a recent conversation with a pastor. The pastor is making a philosophical shift from a discipleship-oriented ministry to an evangelism-focused, seeker approach. All pastors feel a tension between evangelism and discipleship, but one of the two will always lead the way in preaching, program details, and primary audience. The seeker-model moves the focus from congregation to community and operates on pragmatism, consumerism, and a faulty theology of the church. It is a proven church growth strategy, so many pastors are attracted to it like a pig to slop because it will help them grow their numbers. Of course, all this happens under the banner of reaching the lost. Therefore, no sacrifice is too great, including the loss of individuals already under the shepherding care of the pastor. They are the sacrificial sheep on the alter of ministry. Pragmatically, it is fine to lose individuals as long as the church regains more. In their mind, growth justifies the decision. Nothing could be further from the shepherding heart of God than this mindset. Let us all rejoice when a new individual comes to faith in Christ, but this is not justification to abandon some of the flock.
It is important to have a clear theology of the church and understand God’s purpose for the gathered community. When the church is gathered its primary purpose is the exaltation of God and the edification, equipping, and encouragement of believers. Preaching done well will always be gospel-centered, but with a focus on calling the believing community to grow in Christ and reach the lost. The great commission is not a summons to come and see, but a call to go and tell. When the church is scattered throughout the week, they are given the responsibility of being salt and light to the community and sharing the gospel with those who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. With all of that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to briefly explore what the Bible says about the role of the pastor shepherd in the Bible.
Examples of Shepherd Leaders
Throughout the Bible we see examples of shepherding to care for God’s people. The Old Testament gives us human examples to keep watch over God’s people. God said to David, “You will shepherd my people Israel and you will become their ruler” (2 Samuel 78:72). Moses “brought his peoples out like a flock; he led them like sheep through desert” (Psalm 78:52). Isaiah says of Moses, “He brought them through the sea, with the shepherd of his flock” (Isaiah 63:11).
God used shepherd-leaders such as David and Moses to guide and care for Israel. The Old Testament Prophets called back the sheep that had gone astray and pointed to the God shepherd to come. Those who lead in the church are by definition a shepherd. If you are in a leadership role, what kind of shepherd are you? If you serve in ministry under a shepherd’s leadership, what kind of sheep are you?
Shepherd leadership is manifested in God
If I asked you “Who is God?” Would shepherd rise to the top of your description of him? One of the names God chooses for himself is shepherd. In Psalm 23:1 we are told that the Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. God is the ultimate provider, protector and guider for his sheep. “I shall not want.” Nothing is lacking in his care for us. The Psalmist calls us to worship, in part, because he is a good shepherd who loves us, “Come let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our maker; He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.” What does God’s shepherding care look like? “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11). God is tender, gentle, and loving toward His sheep.
Shepherd leadership is modeled in Jesus
Jesus declares “I am the Good Shepherd I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” Jesus demonstrates for the disciples the model to follow. It is our responsibility as leaders to carry on in obedience the call to protect, provide, and guide Christ’s sheep. Jesus is the true shepherd and we are completely dependent on Him. You are to know God as shepherd and rely on Him for ministry. We cannot lead apart from Him. Of Jesus we read “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) Jesus modeled what a shepherd is to do. There is a great price to be a shepherd. It will cost you your life. Every time you lead and bring forth the Word of God to others, you are dying to self. The model is sacrificial service.
Shepherd leadership is motivated by love
The problem with human shepherds is we always fall short. We abuse power. We act selfishly. The frailty of human shepherds was a major theme in Israel’s history. Ezekiel 34 contains detailed charges against the under shepherds of Israel, who should have been caring for God’s flocks. What are the characteristics of a poor shepherd leader from this passage? They fed themselves rather than the flock (34:2). They failed to strengthen the sick, heal the diseased, bind up the broken and seek the lost (34:4). The result was that people were scattered to foreign lands and became food for beasts. These shepherds failed at their most basics tasks. They were harsh rather than gentle (34:4). Eventually, God removes them and promises his shepherding care (34:7-10).
Faithful shepherds are not self-serving. God speaks strongly against the selfish motives of leaders who neglect, exploit, and prey upon others. The Bible condemns those who act like owners over a ministry rather than stewards of the sheep entrusted to them. There is responsibility language in Ezekiel 34 and lots of sins of omission, what shepherds aren’t doing.
More good shepherds are needed
Maybe God is calling you to shepherd a flock. We need godly men to take the mantle of leadership and say “Here am I Lord, send me.” Has God given you a desire to lead? Has he gifted you to lead? Have others spoken into your life in this way? We need leaders like 1 Peter 5:2-4: self-giving leaders who willingly provide oversight of the flock, are gentle, and not motivated by their own gain. Sheep are precious because they have been purchased by the blood of Christ.
The five functions of a shepherd:
Know the sheep. From the moment we are born we want meaningful relationships. Loneliness, depression, and isolated people in the age of social media are reaching epidemic proportions. Once again, God provides the model for us. Just as God initiated a relationship with us, shepherds are to pursue sheep to know them (Psalm 100:3). What does it mean to know our sheep? We must know who is in our flock and know the details of their life enough to shepherd them. Peter reminds us that each sheep is “entrusted to your care” (1 Peter 5:3) and we will be held accountable for how we shepherd each person.
Feed the sheep. Provision is the second need met by the shepherd. Sheep always depend on the shepherd. What does the shepherd feed the sheep? Matthew 4:14 tells us that it is the living, powerful Word of God. The Word of God is what satisfies the soul. Shepherds are to feed the whole council of God’s Word. It is the Word that will nourish and encourage the sheep. “Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart who will feed you on knowledge and understanding” (Jeremiah 3:15). The Bible suggests the following need feeding: (1) Young and weak (Titus 2). (2) Those who labor under sin (1 Peter 1:3). (3) Declining Christians in serious sin and losing zeal (1 Thessalonians 5:14). (4) The strong. They need encouragement to keep on.
- Lead the sheep. The psalmist states, “Then he led out his own people like sheep and guided them in the wilderness like a flock” (Psalm 78:52). Jesus is the Good Shepherd. “He leads me beside quite waters.” Good shepherd leaders do the same. Our people face decisions and crossroads in life. Shepherds show them the right path to take. How do they lead? Not lording it over. Shepherds always lead the flock from the front. They never drive them from behind. They stay ahead, show the way, and protect, but not too far ahead. Shepherds are told to be an example to the flock (1 Peter 1:3). Leading begins with Christ-like character. Failure here sabotages the rest of ministry. It must be clear that you know Christ and burn for Him.
Protect the sheep. Sheep need safety from wolves (Acts 20:29). Sometimes wolves come from outside the church and sometimes they come from within. Both require strong leadership. Shepherds are commanded to “be alert” (Acts 22:31). They are told, “Watch out for false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but they are ferocious wolves (Matthew 7:15). Shepherds have a responsibility to address false doctrine, distortions of the truth, and erroneous teachings. Sheep are vulnerable creatures. They easily wander, which is why protection is critical for shepherds. We are to be like David who fought the lion and bear (Ps. 23:4-5) and the apostle Paul who addressed false doctrine and sin in the church.
- Gather the sheep. If a sheep goes astray, a shepherd is to make every attempt to go after it. God gathers his people. He leaves the 99 to find the one. God has given shepherds important tools and they are to be used. Shepherds have the staff and rod for discipline and defense. They have a voice so that sheep may know and follow. They have fences to keep sheep from wandering.
God’s call to shepherds is to pay careful attention to your flock. If shepherding is something leaders are called to do. It is important to have a well-considered strategy to accomplish the task. Do you have a plan to shepherd your flock? Is there a system so that you do not miss people? Is it comprehensive to include all those under your care? Is there training for leaders so they know how to shepherd?
Diagnose each sheep: Consider which category each sheep falls into. Healthy sheep: Regular attendance at worship, ministers to others in some way, seeks to live in obedience to Christ and the Bible. Weak sheep: Attend worship, but do not serve. May have absorbed worldly ideas or priorities other than Christ. Their main concern is limited to themselves or they may have relationship struggles that prevent fruitful ministry. Stray sheep: Uninvolved in ministry and sporadic attendance. Pursing sin or making foolish choices. Lost sheep: Forsaken the church and Christ. They have wandered away. Inactive sheep: Would like to be here, but cannot. This could include the elderly, college students, or someone who is sick.
Shepherding must be relational. We must know our sheep. The business of the shepherd-leader is the sheep. May it be reflected in how we operate as the church.