When considering spiritual leadership in churches today, the model that we should all follow is Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
The problem is, we sometimes get lost in the analogy. Two hundred years ago, most people were familiar enough with farming and the analogy made sense. Today, most of us have little knowledge about what a shepherd actually did.
A shepherd’s main task was to find food and water for the flock. This sounds easier than it actually was. In dessert or mountainous regions it can be difficult to find sources of water or even fresh fields to graze. Flocks typically had to move multiple times a day in order to find adequate food and water. Leading a flock took compassion and intelligence. Most shepherds led from the front and the sheep trusted the shepherd enough to follow. But the shepherd had to avoid going too fast or too hard or the flock would suffer and possibly die. Shepherds also provided protection. Shepherds had to watch the sheep carefully to make sure an epidemic didn’t wipe out the flock. If a perpetrator came, such as a wolf, the shepherd would have to stand in between the wolf and the flock with nothing but a staff or rod to protect the flock. Shepherding was difficult and it took careful attention by the Shepherd to protect his flock. Shepherds often knew their flocks intimately: birth circumstances, health history, eating habits, and idiosyncrasies. Shepherds knew their sheep so intimately that they would name their sheep and often call them by name and the sheep would follow. It was a job that while not glamorous took great abilities to perform well.
In John 10, Jesus uses this same metaphor to describe his own ministry. I am the good shepherd. There are some who will try to be leaders in other ways, climbing in the pen from over the fence like a thief, but not me. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. I know their names, their histories, their idiosyncrasies…everything. Not only am I the shepherd, I’m the door. I am the way to life. Those who come in and go out through me find green pastures. They find abundant life. There are others who will try to lead for their own advantage; they want the power, they want to be in charge, they want control. I will never do that. My only desire is to protect you and lead you to life. I want to help you realize your potential not just in eternity, but in the here and now. To experience life, everlasting life now. And as your Shepherd, you have nothing to fear because I will protect you. I will guard you from danger. I will watch over you. And ultimately, I will die for you. Because I want you to have life.
Thinking of Jesus as the good shepherd is comforting. There is something comforting in knowing that the one who is leading me knows me intimately. He knows my birth history. He knows my triumphs and failures. He knows how to protect me. He knows when to push and when to be gentle. He knows exactly what I need to be well nourished. He even knows my name. Jesus, the good shepherd, will lead me to abundant life.
It’s interesting, the Greek word behind the word “good” in John 10 is the word “kalos” and it carries the connotation of being the most beautiful, the ideal, or the model. Jesus is not just the good shepherd, he is the ideal shepherd. He is the model shepherd. The way Jesus leads others is not just for him, it is for all of his disciples. We are called to help others find abundant life. We are called to care for others needs. We are called to sacrifice for others so that they can be protected.
Church leaders are to be shepherds. Shepherding is not about making decisions, having power, or being in control. Shepherding is about caring for the flock, feeding the flock, and protecting the flock. Shepherding is about being like Jesus. Knowing the flock intimately; so much so that you know when something is wrong. Being willing to risk your life for the sake of the flock, or even the sake of one little sheep. It is one who knows when to lead and call the flock by name and also when to get behind the flock and push them forward. Not too slow so that the flock wanders aimlessly, and not too fast as to harm the weak and hurting. It is one who will feed, care, and provide for the flock.
The more I learn of what a shepherd was, and the role a shepherd fulfilled, it gives me great comfort to know that the one I am following is the Good Shepherd. The more I understand about shepherding, the more I realize that I want church leaders who are shepherds. Not a board of directors, but ones who care for the flock.
May Jesus be the model we all follow in life, and may his form of shepherding be the ideal and the quality we look for in our own leaders.