Leadership: Three Crucial Priorities for Shepherd Leaders

Sheep need a shepherd and shepherds live among their sheep

Leaders who understand their role as shepherds do not peer down at their people from a holy hayloft and drop an occasional bale of sustenance in the form of a finely-crafted homily. Neither do they allow their flocks to live in false peace. Shepherd leaders live among their people and pay “careful attention … to all the flock.” They see themselves neither as sovereigns over their churches nor as hirelings of their churches but as under-shepherds of the living God.


A couple of years ago, an individual who thought he might be called to pastoral ministry informed me, “I love to teach, and I want to preach—but I can’t stand people.” He went on to describe his dream position: to provide a polished exposition of Scripture every Sunday morning, to decide the church’s vision and direction, but never to deal directly with the people in the congregation. It was a pleasant-sounding dream with one fatal flaw: No such position exists in the very Scriptures that he claimed he wanted to proclaim.

What this young man needed wasn’t merely an improvement in his people skills—though, frankly, he could have used that too. What he needed was to understand the difference between cattle and sheep.

Throughout Scripture, sheep provide a primary metaphor for God’s people (1 Kings 22:17; Ps. 77:20) and God himself is the great shepherd (Gen. 49:24; Ps. 23:1). Yet the imagery doesn’t end there. Divinely-designated leaders are seen as shepherds too (Num. 27:15-18; 2 Sam. 5:2). In the New Testament, “shepherds” or “pastors” becomes a term to describe the church’s God-ordained overseers (Eph. 4:11).

So what does all of this have to do with differentiating cattle and sheep?

Cattle might meander among the oaks of Bashan or find themselves being fattened in pens (Amos 4:1; 6:4); either way, their tending never required their keepers to live among them.

Sheep, on the other hand, need a shepherd, and shepherds live among their sheep.

When the shepherd fails to guide his sheep, the flock becomes fragmented and vulnerable (1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chron. 18:16; Zech. 10:2).

The young man who declared he wanted to be a pastor but didn’t want to deal with people was contradicting himself. You can’t be a shepherd—the very meaning of the word pastor!—without living among the sheep.

The struggle to live as a shepherd is not new, of course. Leaders who failed to care for their flocks were, in fact, part of the problem that the prophet Ezekiel saw in the sixth century B.C. when he looked at the rulers of Israel. Ezekiel’s inspired pronouncement did not point his people toward some new leadership technique; instead, the prophet pointed them toward the sacrificial life of a leader yet to come.


Even in the nations that surrounded Israel, “shepherd” functioned as a metaphor for rulers and gods—but Israel’s kings were called to shepherd God’s people in a very different manner than the rulers of the nations. The kings of Israel were never to present themselves as royal owners of the flock. God alone was the Lord of Israel, and the people were his property. The kings were under-shepherds. Like shepherds in the field tending the flock of a higher lord, the kings of Israel were responsible to live among their subjects, to guide them, and to guard them for God’s glory. Every king was to keep the Scriptures at his fingertips precisely so that his heart would never be “lifted up above his brothers” (Deut. 17:20). The kings were to tend not only to the people’s political needs but also to their need for Word of God.

But the kings of Israel and Judah failed. In the decades after David, they began to treat God’s people as their own property. According to Ezekiel, they failed to feed God’s flock (Ezek. 34:2).

They left the weak lambs to fend for themselves, and they took no time to seek the sheep that were lost (34:3-4). They lived like lords instead of serving as under-shepherds. Instead of serving among the people of God’s flock, these kings “ruled them” with “force and harshness” like Pharaoh in the days of Moses (Ezek. 34:4; compare Exod. 1:13-14). The protectors became predators. The people became like sheep without a shepherd, scattered and slaughtered for the sake of their rulers (34:3, 6).


So what does all of this mean for pastoral leaders in the church of Jesus Christ?

1. Shepherd leadership calls for feeding the flock. The primary responsibility of the shepherd is to provide nourishment for the flock (Ezek. 34:2)….

2. Shepherd Leadership Calls for Guarding the Flock.In God’s rebuke against Israel’s leaders, he indicted them as predators rather than protectors….

3. Shepherd Leadership Leads to Sacrificial Service Among the Flock.Jesus, the model shepherd, makes this clear in his words to the Pharisees: “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11)….

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