“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. ” – 1 Peter 5:2-5
In the world of the ancient near east, shepherd was a conventional metaphor for king, indicating the king’s responsibility to feed, protect, and nurture his national flock. Psalm 23 famously speaks of the Lord as shepherd. In Ezekiel 34, the prophet gives a blistering critique of Israel’s shepherds (leaders) who have fleeced their own sheep and abused the flock of God’s people. Jesus told a parable about the shepherd who left ninety-nine sheep to go in search of the one lost sheep. In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. In John 21, Jesus commissions Peter to “feed my sheep” in his anticipated absence. In 1 Peter 5, when Peter is writing to church leaders about how to lead the church, he again uses the metaphors of shepherd and flock.
Today, our primary contact with sheep might be at a petting zoo or driving past them on a country road. To be called a sheep is never a compliment. Counting sheep is the proverbial aid to falling asleep. No sports team I know of has a sheep for its mascot (and no, rams are not sheep). Additionally, few of us have ever met a real shepherd. And I have yet to see shepherding as a major in any college catalog I’ve seen. How then are we to relate to this metaphor for leadership so common in Scripture?
I believe that parenting offers some parallels to shepherding in ways that shed light on the connections between shepherding and leadership. Like shepherds of old, parents today seek to protect, nurture, and guide their young. Parents provide food and shelter for their kids, medicine when they’re sick, training in life skills, support through difficult transitions, discipline and guidance, instruction in godliness, and refereeing through squabbles. Like shepherds, they superintend the overall health and well being of their charges. Church leaders today, whether elders, ministers, ministry leaders, or teachers, carry out similar functions.
I have three prayers for us today as we will soon ordain and affirm seven elders (three returning and four new). First, I pray that we may support and show honor to our shepherds. We have been through a lengthy and at times uncomfortable selection process and now there is ministry to be done. Second, I pray for those who are hurting over this process or its final result, that we as a church family might lovingly minister to one another. Third, I pray that all who lead will follow Jesus’ model of the strong yet nurturing shepherd, being eager to serve, avoiding power plays, and living exemplary lives before God’s people.
The final chapter of the book of Hebrews offers a couple of invitations to us as we think of our shepherds. First: “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7). Second: “…they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing…” (13:17). To God be the glory!