Feed My Sheep The shepherd is the main biblical metaphor for leaders
Rowland Croucher reports that in Australia there are just as many people who have left fulltime Christian ministry as there are still active. Behind these figures lie painful stories of burn-out and disappointment. At the same time, churches often seem short of able local leaders — people do not want to become elders, they baulk at taking on youth group, or Sunday School or a Bible Study group. Leaders find it hard to know where to lead; ways that used to be very effective don’t seem to work any longer, and there are so many new suggestions.
Leadership in Australian churches is under pressure. Part of it is an identity crisis. Take Graeme, for instance, who has been a minister for nearly 30 years. Throughout this period, Graeme has watched the growing secularisation of our culture. As the Christian faith has moved increasingly to the margins of Australia’s life, he has wondered whether he, as a Presbyterian minister, along with koalas and wombats, is on an endangered species list.
When Graeme first started in ministry in the late ’60s, he joined a group of men in what H. R. Niebuhr had called “the perplexed profession”. The ministry was in crisis because it had lost its identity. Graeme soon learned all about that in his first parish. His job seemed to cover everything. Not only did he have two sermons each week to prepare, but he was the church gardener and secretary to boot. He was also expected to visit members in their homes, give pastoral advice, chair the board meetings, teach in the local school, visit the hospital, counsel the emotionally disturbed and take part in civic events. He was also chief celebrant of the community’s weddings and funerals, although all that’s changed in the past 10 years.
Today, Graeme is feeling increasingly uneasy. He doesn’t like being defined by other people’s expectations, and especially by the title “Reverend”. He knows he’s meant to be a leader. But what sort of leader does he need to be? For those in leadership, what do they aspire to? Let’s see what the Bible says.
God always provides leaders for his people. The story of the Old Testament is full of the leaders God raised up: from Joseph, the great administrator of Egypt, and Moses, Israel’s saviour and prophet; through the judges and the kings to Ezra and Nehemiah.
These were Israel’s “shepherds” (Num. 27:17; 2 Sam. 5:2). In the ancient world, a shepherd was responsible for a small flock. He would lead it to grass and water; and protect it from predators. He had to rescue the strays (Ps. 23:2; 1 Sam. 17:34-36). So the shepherd was a powerful image of a responsible, careful leader. Like a shepherd, God’s leaders had to provide and protect their flock. When we see a need for leaders for God’s people, we need to ask him to provide shepherds, as he always has.
Even the great Old Testament leaders were flawed. Moses did not trust God as he should have. The conquest led by Joshua was not complete. The judges failed as often as they succeeded. David’s sins destroyed his family and troubled the nation. And these were the best of Israel’s shepherds.
Many of Israel’s other shepherds were far worse! They only took care of themselves, not the flock. However, it was not always obvious that they were bad shepherds. The nation sometimes seemed to flourish under their leadership. Omri and Ahab, kings of Israel in the 9th century BC, gave the nation a flourishing economy, and military success. Yet no one deserved condemnation as false shepherds more than these men (1 Kings 16:22).
Strong, apparently successful leaders can be the worst. Hitler and Mussolini came to power in nations that were desperate for leadership. They seemed to return their nations to strength and prosperity — yet they allowed terrible evil. Religious leaders can be the same. Jim Jones began as a respected, successful pastor of a flourishing evangelical church in Los Angeles. Yet he finished by leading 900 people to commit suicide by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide in Guyana in 1976.
It is quite possible to have strong but flawed leaders in our churches, and not be aware of it. A youth group, or a whole church, may flourish under a certain leader. There is a crowd in the hall every Friday night and plenty of activity, yet there is no substance to it. The church grows in numbers and prestige, while there is a great building program, but no genuine spiritual leadership. Years later, when the bubble bursts and few remain Christians, we realise that it all did more harm than good. These leaders are condemned by the prophets: “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock” (Ezek. 34:8).
Ministers can view their “ministry” as their career and their livelihood. They can use people to make money and grow secure financially. They can exploit people so they can climb the denominational ladder. They are false shepherds, who use the flock, and don’t care for it. Local leaders can also use church as their power game — in it they enhance their prestige and enjoy recognition. But they do not care for the sheep; they simply want people to fit their agenda.
As well as revealing the flaws in leaders and condemning false shepherds, the Old Testament also tells us that God has always been the true shepherd of the flock (Ps. 23:1, 80:1, Is. 40:11). When he sees the failure of Israel’s leaders, he declares that he himself will shepherd his people (Ezek. 34:11-16; Jer. 31:10).
Israel is God’s flock, and their shepherds must lead them to him, teach them to worship him and keep his laws. They will serve him, and will remain aware that their leadership is under his rule.
The promise that God himself will shepherd his people is fulfilled when Jesus comes as the good shepherd. Jesus is the true shepherd, recognised by the watchman and by the sheep, so when he calls the sheep they follow him (v2-5). He ensures that they are well fed and have life (v10). Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, so great is His love for them (v14-15, 17-18).
All human leadership is flawed; and some is terribly destructive. Christians must never invest their hope in a human leader. Instead we must look to Jesus as our shepherd. We live in a world where people long for leaders, and companies invest huge amounts in attracting and developing the right kind of leaders. Churches can do the same, and focus totally on people as the key resource for church life. Christian leaders have their role, but we must always remember that Jesus himself shepherds the sheep. We must trust him to do his work. Church leaders are to direct people to Jesus, as their shepherd. They must develop in their church a spiritual dependence upon Christ, not themselves.
It is no surprise that Christian leaders are called shepherds (John 21:16-17; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2-4). They are appointed to care for God’s flock, and to work for him. They have no right to take God’s people an where, but where he wants them. They are accountable to him for their work.
No one should be appointed to any position of Christian leadership unless he or she clearly knows Christ and is following him. It is impossible to lead people to follow Christ unless you are doing it yourself. This may seem obvious, but it is easily forgotten. It is too easy in church life to find a local school teacher and ask him to teach Sunday School, or to recruit an able young woman to lead youth group, or to appoint a successful businessman to session without considering their commitment to Christ. When these people have no clear Christian faith, this is a recipe for disaster. Christian leaders must know Christ. Otherwise, how can they point others to Jesus so that He will meet their needs?
Jesus says that his sheep will hear his voice and follow Him. Christian leaders are not to be heard for their own sake. They must strive to echo Jesus’ voice. That is the best of Christian leadership: do people hear Christ, as God’s word is taught faithfully? Leaders are followed, not because of their office or their power; but because people genuinely hear God’s word from them. When Christian leaders deviate from God’s word, they forfeit their authority.
The way in which God’s people are led is never by emotional manipulation or clever advertising strategies, but by teaching God’s word — echoing the word of the Good Shepherd. So it is no surprise that an important qualification of elders is that they know, guard and teach the truth of the gospel (1 Tim. 3:9, 4:13-16; 2 Tim. 1:13-14, 4:2; Tit. 1:9).
So what do you look for in a minister or a youth group leader? There are all sorts of things people focus on in choosing a leader: “Are they attractive and popular?” “Do they speak powerfully?” “How successful are they?” The first question has to be: “Will this person teach God’s word truthfully?” The second question will be do they live out the truth they speak? Godliness is the main thing that Paul lists as a qualification for eldership (1 Tim. 3:2-7; Tit. 1:6-9).
Modern Christian leaders are often confused about their role. A minister is expected to be a counsellor, organiser, friend, trainer, evangelist, strategist, building manager, social coordinator, teacher, financial planner, music leader ... and the list goes on. Faced with all these expectations, ministers and other leaders become very self-conscious about their leadership. They often ask themselves (and others) how effective they are, and if their leadership is accepted. So they take people’s assessment of their leadership as the main issue. As shepherds, serving the Chief Shepherd, the real test is before God. Paul’s greatest defence of his work with the Thessalonians is not what they think of him, but what God thinks (1 Thessalonians 2:4-6). I suspect that lots of us have, in practice, lost a sense of first being responsible to God.
Because Christian leaders are under-shepherds of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus is our example. Just as Jesus knows his sheep, Christian leadership is personal and often very intimate.
The shepherd leads his flock to good safe places, feeding them on the best pasture he can find. So our leaders must provide for us, showing us the truth of God’s word, and how to live for him. Instead of expecting ministers to do lots of organising, we should try to free them as much as we can, so they can find the best grass. It takes time to know God’s word deeply and be able to teach it well. That’s why ministers should be involved in ongoing study of the Bible and theology. We need to encourage elders, youth group leaders and home group leaders, that bringing people to know and live God’s word is the best way to care for them.
The shepherd is concerned for the good of the sheep and protects them from attack. This is a specific call for Christian leaders (Acts 20:28-31; Tit. 1:11). False teaching, which misleads and confuses people is a threat. At the end of the 20th century, there is more variety in teaching than ever before; and yet people tend to feel that the differences do not matter. So we need now, more than ever, leaders who are discerning and bold, and can lovingly and gently point out error and teach the truth (2 Tim. 2:25).
The Good Shepherd is committed to saving people. He lays down his life for them, and calls his sheep from all over the world (John 10:16). Christian leaders need to have the same focus on evangelism and missions. There is no competition between pastoral care and evangelism. Both are part of the shepherd’s role (1 Tim. 4:5). This is not just true for ministers; everyone who takes on Christian leadership must have an evangelistic concern.
Christian leadership, in all its forms will always be a difficult task. If we are clear about its purpose and power, then it will not be overwhelming. Leaders who are not clear about this will be destructive false shepherds. The purpose of Christian leadership is to lead for Christ, teaching people His word and showing them how to live for Him. The power of Christian leadership is that of the Chief Shepherd who enables His servants to endure and serve as He did (Colossians 1:29).