Well, which is it – shepherd or sheep?

One of the most common images in the Bible is that of a shepherd.  Anyone who is familiar with the Bible in any way will have seen the image of shepherd used over and over again.  But what is strange is that the image is used for both God and people in terms of leadership.

Probably the most famous chapter of the Bible is the 23rd Psalm.  It’s a powerful picture of God leading His people.  Here are some leadership principles we can take from the 23rd Psalm:

  • The Shepherd leads and guides – the flock is not stationery
  • The Shepherd gives rest and investment (“He makes me lie down” & “he refreshes my soul”)
  • The Shepherd protects through difficulty
  • The Shepherd focuses on the ultimate goal (v6).

Likewise also, Ezekiel looks forward to a day when God send a great shepherd,

“I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them and be their shepherd.” (Ezekiel 34:23)

Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10.  Once again, we see leadership principles:

  • The Good Shepherd is self-sacrificial for those He leads (v11)
  • The Good Shepherd knows those He leads – not superficially but in a deep intimacy (v14-15)
  • The Good Shepherd is on Mission (He goes after sheep that are yet to be brought in – v16)

And yet, God also describes those who lead His people as shepherds.  He is incredibly critical of the priests and leaders in Ezekiel 34:1-10.  He accuses them of feeding off the sheep instead of tending them, “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves!  Should not shepherds take care of the flock?  You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.  You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured.  You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost.  You have ruled them harshly and brutally.  So they were scattered because there was no shepherd.” (Ezekiel 34:2-5)  God appoints leaders of His people and He has a high standard for them.  He expects them to care for God’s people and lead them in a way that reflects God Himself.  When the leaders of God’s people don’t lead well, the consequences are significant and dire.  Yet, God will never abandon His people – “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.” (Ezekiel 34:11)

Similarly, the image of shepherd is used for leaders of the New Testament Church.  Paul instructs the Ephesian Elders to “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.  Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)  The elders are called not just to care for the Church but also to lead them in mission.

Likewise Peter writes, “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.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)  Leaders in Christ’s Church serve with an understanding that those they lead are God’s flock, not their own. 

It’s not “our Church” – it’s God’s Church.  It’s not “our ministry” – it’s God’s ministry. 

So, how do we reconcile this dichotomy that God is our Shepherd and that leaders are also shepherds.  The answer comes in 1 Peter 5:4, “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will received the crown of glory that will never fade away.” Christ is the Chief Shepherd.  We are simply Under-Shepherds who serve the Master’s will.  So, ultimately, in our leadership, we want to reflect the Chief Shepherd in all we do.  In other words, how we lead as shepherds tells people what we think about the Chief Shepherd.  It’s a high calling.  But it also means that the Chief Shepherd is generous and loving and will supply all we need (including His Holy Spirit) to lead well.

So, as FLBC leaders, how can we be good shepherds?  Here are some thoughts:

  • We keep pointing people to the Chief Shepherd.  This seems obvious but I’m not just talking about what we say. The way we lead and interact with others will really tell people what we think of the Chief Shepherd.  The best Christian leaders I’ve known have shown a remarkable blend of humility in Christ and yet a boldness that comes from knowing they represent Christ.  It’s also seen in how we provide direction to our team.  Astrid Liebermann (former chaplain at Pallara State School) said, “It’s not about creating the direction.  It’s about getting people to hear the Chief Shepherd’s voice and then go that way.”  It worries me when I hear people say, “We’re following the leader’s vision.”  I’d much rather hear them say, “We’re following God’s vision for us.”  It’s critical we point people to Jesus.
  • We are clear that we are on the move.  We have a false picture of shepherds in Biblical times if we think they just sat on the side of a hill, watching sheep eat grass.  When the sheep were stationery, there wasn’t a need for a shepherd.  The reason a shepherd was employed was for when the sheep were on the move or under attack.  We see that in the 23rd Psalm – the flock is on the move.  In many circles, the expectation of a Christian leader is just to care for the group.  But, a shepherd’s role is to lead a group somewhere.  Bill Hybels’ definition of a leader is to move a group “from here to there.”  Are we clear in our role of moving people?
  • We equip the sheep, not just care for them.  One of the most famous parables Jesus uses is the story of the Good Shepherd going after the lost sheep and bringing it back to the other 99 (Luke 15:1-7).  It’s a beautiful picture of a leader caring for the flock and identifying the one that needs help.  However, an interesting point comes when Jesus puts the sheep over his shoulders (v5).  Some see this as evidence of the shepherd disciplining the sheep.  It is known that ancient shepherds would take a wayward sheep and deliberately injure it so it would learn it’s lesson.  Then the shepherd would put that sheep on his shoulders until it had healed.  It’s not just about caring but also disciplining and equipping.  Indeed Paul writes that the whole task of leaders in the Church is to “equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” (Ephesians 4:12)
  • We clearly define the goal to our team.  A shepherd needed to know where he was taking the sheep.  Likewise, we need to be clear on the goals of the team.
  • Our team know we have their back.  The shepherd protected and fed the flock.  We must do likewise with our teams.  They should know we love them.
  • We know our team.  A good shepherd knew the sheep well.  It’s not just about getting the task completed.  These people in our teams are people for whom Jesus died.
  • We show self-sacrificial integrity.  One of the things God held against the Israelite leaders was that they were hypocritical thieves.  Rather God calls on His leaders to be self-sacrificial and to show integrity.  Nothing will so undermine our leadership as a lack of integrity.
  • We show our team that it is a privilege and joy for us to lead them.  In the passage quoted above, Paul tells leaders not to lead in a way that conveys that we do it begrudgingly.  Leadership of God’s people is a privilege (whether we feel like it or not).  God has called us and empowered us to serve His body, the Church.  When people see us shepherding God’s sheep, they should see us leading with joy.
  • We don’t hold the ministry too tightly.   One of the greatest blessings to knowing these sheep are God’s, not ours and this ministry is God’s, not ours is that we know it is all ultimately in God’s hands.  Our self-esteem is not in the work, nor is our ego.  This is a liberating understanding of the sovereign work of God in salvation.

It is the most amazing privilege to be under-shepherds of the Chief Shepherd

The more we come to terms with this identity, the better we will lead and have a great influence well beyond just the people we lead.  “Everyone really does win when a leader gets better.” (Bill Hybels)

God said to the Israelites, “Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” (Jeremiah 3:15) 

Lord Jesus, may we lead as under-shepherds, pointing people to You, the Chief Shepherd. Amen