United with Christ the perfect shepherd and sacrificial lamb, all of God’s people become sheep—but not all of God’s people become shepherds. In the new covenant, the elders of the church are uniquely designated as shepherds who join in the work of the Chief Shepherd (John 21:15-19; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:4).
But what does it mean to serve as a shepherd leader?
The call to serve as a shepherd among God’s new covenant people is a gracious designation from God that none of us deserves. Anyone who is called to serve in this capacity “desires a noble work” (1 Timothy 3:1). Precisely because the role of a shepherd is such a high calling and noble work, it’s crucial for pastors today to understand what it meant to be a shepherd in the old covenant so that we can understand better what shepherd leadership should look like in the church today. One of the clearest expressions of the character of a shepherd can be found in the description of God’s work with King David.
The Character of a Shepherd
After settling into a cedar-paneled palace, David concluded that the ark of God’s covenant should dwell in a temple instead of a tent. After rejecting David’s plan to build a temple, God established an everlasting covenant with David and his descendants. God began his response to David’s request by reminding David that he had taken him “from the pasture and from following the sheep” (2 Samuel 7:8). Then, God related the ways that God had been David’s shepherd during his rise to power:
- God had remained present with David (“I have been with you,” 7:9; see also Psalm 23:3-4).
- God had rescued David (“I have destroyed all your enemies,” 7:9; see also Psalm 23:4-5).
- God was providing a name for David and a place for his people (“I will make a name for you…I will establish a place,” 7:9-10; see also Psalm 23:1-2, 5).
This description of God’s care for David provides a snapshot of the ideal practices of a shepherd in the Old Testament: A shepherd is one who remains with his sheep, rescues them from danger, and provides them with a place where their needs are met. This pattern of being present to protect and to provide also paints a beautiful portrait of what it means to serve as a shepherd leader in the church of Jesus Christ.
The Presence of a Shepherd
In the world’s way of thinking, successful leadership correlates with inaccessibility. The most successful CEOs and corporate presidents are protected by layers of security, staff, and secretaries. Mere mortals might gain, at best, a brief audience with such a leader—often in the form of a moment of fawning adoration over the leader’s latest success.
Unfortunately, church leaders can easily fall into similar patterns.
Among pastors, however, such inaccessibility should be seen not as a badge of honor but as a signpost of shameful capitulation to the world’s values. You can’t be a shepherd without being accessible to the sheep. “If it seems necessary to you to surround yourself with assistants and delegates so that you are inaccessible to the people,” Steve Timmis has pointed out, “you need to consider carefully whether you can, at the same time, remain a foot-washing servant.”
This is not to suggest that a pastor must be leashed to every member’s passing whim or present at every church function! If a pastor sees his role in terms of meeting every need and responding to every demand, he will end up becoming a follower rather than their leader. Pastors must schedule consistent times of solitude for the purposes of study, prayer, and spiritual refreshment (Acts 6:2, 4), as well as making space for rest and recreation.
And yet, a pastor must also prioritize patterns of presence with his flock.
The world’s approach to this pattern of presence would be to prioritize the people who are most powerful or most popular, or those whose bank accounts are most likely to multiply the church’s budget. But that is not the way of the shepherd leader in the church of Jesus Christ! Shepherd leaders are called to “seek the lost, bring back the strays, bandage the injured, and strengthen the weak” (Ezekiel 34:16)–which sounds to me like the shepherd’s priorities are to be shaped not by people’s position or success but by their brokenness and need.
The more time a pastor spends with his flock, the better he understands how these people view the world, what struggles they face, and how best to apply the gospel to their lives. When one pastor was asked about the most important steps in his weekly preparation to preach, he replied,
For two hours every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, I walk through the neighborhood and make some home visits. There is no way I can preach the gospel to these people if I don’t know how they are living, what they are thinking and talking about.
In some communities, being present with the people may require setting aside one day each week to work alongside a few farmers or ranchers. In other places, the shepherd’s presence means walking the city square in a small town. Elsewhere, it could entail playing baseball with some young men in an inner-city park or volunteering at a community center. The precise approach to pastoral presence will differ from one context to another. What matters is that every member of the flock should have a clear sense that they have a shepherd who knows them, who feels compassion for them, and who will risk his own well-being to bring them back if they go astray. “If I do not show concern for the one sheep that strays and gets lost,” Augustine remarked in the fifth century regarding his congregation in the city of Hippo, “even the sheep who is strong will think it’s a joke to stray and be lost. I do indeed desire outward gains, but I’m more afraid of inward losses.”
The Pain of Authentic Presence
Persistent presence with the flock will inevitably lead to suffering for the shepherd–but it is through our suffering alongside the flock that we become most like Jesus, the chief Shepherd. “Leaders in the church,” D.A. Carson has pointed out, “should suffer most. They are not like generals in the military who stay behind the lines. They are the assault troops, … who lead by example as much as by word.”
This presence with the people, even in times of suffering, provides the foundation for protecting them and providing for them. After all, if we aren’t present with the flock to know their needs, how can we provide for them? And, if we don’t know what threatens them, how can we rescue them from harm?
One key aspect of protection and provision has to do with faithfully proclaiming God’s Word to the people and guarding against doctrinal error. But proclamation of truth and protection from heresy must produce more than mere intellectual knowledge! When the Word of God is proclaimed in its fullness and when pastors model their proclamation among the people, these practices of shepherding contribute to the formation of a community
- where people sense the safety of knowing that they will not go physically or spiritually hungry,
- where every person is recognized as an image of God regardless of their ethnic background or socioeconomic status,
- where abuse is never ignored or excused, and
- where church discipline is pursued for the purpose of rescuing those who stray.
Clearly, no team of elders can accomplish all of these tasks on their own! The church’s shepherds can, however, take the lead in modeling and cultivating this culture of compassion.
Sheep Before Shepherds
When the sheep are secure in their shepherd’s care, the flock is able to rest. For the flock of God in union with Christ, this rest doesn’t mean inactivity. It means contentment and peace. It means cultivating the capacity for consistent times of sabbath. It means recognizing that—because we’ve been made right with God in Christ—we can cease from our constant busy-ness. The sabbath rest of God on the seventh day of creation reveals that the well-being of his world has never depended on never-ending work.
This truth forces us as church leaders to face a handful of difficult questions: Do we drive the people in our congregation to be constantly busy, always rushing from one event to another? Do we ourselves model life without margins, or do our schedules demonstrate healthy rhythms of hard work and peaceful rest that draw life from our union with Christ? Do we pride ourselves in our overpacked church calendars? If the shepherds are always rushing, their sheep will never rest.
When we as shepherds can’t slow down, we’ve lost sight of a crucial truth about our pastoral role: Our identity in Christ precedes our calling as leaders in Christ’s church.
- We are sheep before we are shepherds;
- we are members of the body of Christ before we are overseers over the body; and,
- we are disciples of God’s way before we are teachers of God’s Word.
Whenever we neglect these truths, we have lost sight of our union with Christ. When that happens, we begin to base our value not on our identity in Christ but on our performance as a shepherd. We say yes to far too many tasks, scrambling after the slightest hints of praise in the faces around us. When we fall short of others’ expectations, we replay our failures again and again. In the end, we’re left with a calendar that’s full but a soul that still feels empty, one more captive of the deadly delusion that our deeds determine our value. But our value is not determined by our visible successes as a shepherd! Our value and our identity has been decided once and for all by our union with a greater shepherd–Jesus Christ, the chief Shepherd and the overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25; 5:4). He judges our pastoral success not by our efficiency or busy-ness but by our faithfulness.
For more on the life of the leader, take a look at The God Who Goes Before You.
Discuss in the Comments:
Watch the video below. If you’re a pastor, how can the truths taught in this post help you to “learn to be still”? What specific practices would help you to be more present with the people? How can you simultaneously build practices of solitude in your life to strengthen and to sustain your soul?