The sheep are grazing on the sloping prairie. The late evening sun wanes in intensity while casting the last remnants of its warmth across the grassland. The shepherd keeps watch. Despite the long day and varied demands of his task, he is careful not to relax his vigilance. Although the scene he surveys is serene, he knows that dangers lurk. Wolves and other predators prowl the margins of his domain. Poachers ply their trade as well. But perhaps most dangerous of all is the hapless neediness of the sheep themselves. Always getting themselves into ridiculous predicaments requiring his intervention. And worse, beating each other up through vicious head butting. Fortunately he keeps an ample supply of anointing oil on hand to salve their wounds. It is a hard life. But he loves it. And he loves his sheep. He knows each of them. And they know his voice.
There was a time when this kind of posture was common in pastoral ministry. The heart of a pastoral shepherd was for his (or her; hereafter I will simply say his, since most pastors are in fact male despite my support for female pastors) church. I wonder if that posture is being threatened in the emerging pastoral climate of the 21st century? I do not question that most pastors love their people. I do question whether some of them see themselves as shepherds for their people.
The current rallying cry in conferences, literature, and on the web is to raise up leaders. I hear people saying, “We need leaders guiding our churches, not mere Bible scholars and teachers!” Okay. Fine. I grant that there is some justification for this complaint, but what do we mean when we cry out for leaders? That is, what is a leader, exactly?
I can hear the responses now: someone who casts vision; rallys support among people to fulfill their personal dreams by sharing in the vision of the church; someone who is a catalyst to build momentum leading to critical mass for long-term viability, and so on and so forth, blah, blah, blah, blech (*cough*, sorry I thought I had a hairball, but it was just the meaningless jargon getting caught in my throat).
I don’t discount the importance of vision, shared vision, and the like. I just don’t think all of that makes a leader. In the context of the church, I think a leader is a shepherd. This will offend some people, but I have a newsflash for you: God had it right all along. People need shepherds. I am not suggesting we use that word in the field since the agrarian terminology would not translate well for most average people. I am suggesting we recover what it truly means in practical application.
What does a shepherd do? He guides the sheep, protecting them from predators, each other, and especially their own stupidity. He helps them to find suitable grazing pasture for food and clean water to drink. He knows them; they know him.
What does a pastor-shepherd do? He guides the people entrusted to him, teaching them to obey the Bible (there, I said it; even leaders can and should teach!), helping them to know God, and unleashing them to fulfill their God-given call to follow Jesus passionately in worship and service. This is where the agrarian metaphor simultaneously gains strength and breaks down. People are not sheep. I get that. But sometimes we sure act like it. Okay, oftentimes. What about you?
Do you ever act like a sheep?
You know. Do dumb things which put you into situations that require extrication, deliverance from a predator, or healing balm from butting heads with other people….? Hmm? You don’t? :)
Oh, I see that hand in the back, barely raised. You do, don’t you? And you recognize the value of a shepherd, or someone who God deposits in your life to act in a shepherd role to help you set things to rights.
I love my pastors whom I have had over the years. Each of them. They have been shepherds in my life through seasons of stupidity, peril, thirst and hunger, and confusion. If any of them are reading this, I hope they realize the difference they have made in my life.
Where have all the shepherds gone? If you are a church member, I appeal to you to pray for your pastor(s), asking God to give them clarity of purpose so that they fulfill their mission to shepherd the flock which God sovereignly desposits in their care. Oh, and one other thing. Feel free to be a leader. But make sure you love God and people more than you love your strategies, vision, tactics, conferences, and personal library. Then, only then, a shepherd leader will you become.