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Shepherds on the Hills of Bible History
One Sunday, a dear friend and member of my congregation cornered me after a sermon in which I repeatedly referred to elders as "shepherds."
"Why don’t you find a better way to communicate this spiritual leadership idea? No one in our church knows anything about shepherds and sheepespecially the way all that stuff worked in the ancient world. That picture just doesn’t connect with a modern church."
Admittedly, the shepherd metaphor does sound strange in the cyber-world of our daily experience. We don’t normally see these picturesque, rural characters rolling down the expressways or eating at our local McDonald’s. But, after carefully considering my friend’s suggestion and searching in vain for a contemporary metaphor that would better connect the biblical notion with our times, I finally had to explain, "I can’t find any figure equivalent to the shepherd idea in our modern, urban world. Besides, if I drop the shepherd and flock idea, I would have to tear about five hundred pages out of my Bible, plus leave the modern church with a distortedif not neuteredview of spiritual leadership." God keeps pointing shepherds to the pasture to struggle with sheep.
In Bible times, the shepherds were as common and familiar to most Middle Easterners as are telephones and supermarkets to modern-day Americans. Almost anywhere in the Bible world, eyes that lifted to gaze across the landscape would fall upon at least one flock of sheep. As my friend Ted Waller reminds us, in antiquity,
the family often depended upon sheep for survival. A large part of their diet was milk and cheese. Occasionally, they ate the meat. Their clothing and tents were made of wool and skins. Their social position often depended upon the well-being of the flock, just as we depend upon jobs and businesses, cars and houses. Family honor might depend upon defending the flock.
Shepherds throughout History
The shepherd metaphor shows up more than five hundred times in Scripture, across both Old and New Testaments. Without question, the dominant biblical model for spiritual leadership is the shepherd and flock. If we want to understand the biblical model for leadership, we must embrace the concept of shepherd.
God as Shepherd
In the "olden days" of the Old Testament world, the watch-care of God himself is pictured in the shepherd/sheep relationship. Most of us can quote the familiar words, "The Lord is my shepherd." The prophet Isaiah penned this less familiar but equally eloquent picture of God, "He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young." What a winsome picture of our God!
Can’t you just envision the awkward and delicate little lamb, ears askew, one gangly leg dangling near the shepherd’s elbow? Notice that the shepherd tilts his head so that his beard nuzzles the lamb’s cheek and his resonant voice murmurs gently to the lamb as they move through the twilight toward the rest and safety of the sheepfold. Old Testament readers would have pictured just such a gentle, caring relationship between God and his people"the sheep of his pasture." And although "we all, like sheep, have gone astray," we still have a "good shepherd" who will love us and lead us gently back to the fold.
Prophets, Priests, and Kings as Shepherds
Later, God pictured his prophets, priests, and kings as shepherds. When God chose Davidthe shepherd-king after God’s "own heart"he "took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people. . . . And David shepherded them with integrity of heart."
God also expected the prophets and priests of Israel to shepherd his people, but they often failed miserably at their task. Although many did not live up to their role as shepherd, God came back again and again to the idea that the leaders of his people were shepherdseven though some were bad shepherds.
God warned these "false shepherds" in graphic language; and in no uncertain terms, he pronounced woes on their heads. The prophet Jeremiah blasted the "shepherds" of Judah for misleading their flock, setting it up for captivity in Babylon.
My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains. They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place.
Leaders who were responsible for the spiritual well-being of Judah shirked their duties and instead indulged their own selfish desires. The Lord’s rebuke comes through loud and clear in this passage from Ezekiel:
Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds 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.
Then he spells out their sentence:
Weep and wail, you shepherds; roll in the dust, you leaders of the flock. For your time to be slaughtered has come; you will fall and be shattered like fine pottery.
The shepherd metaphor for the leaders of Israel was not lost on the Israelite people. Those ancient folks knew that the food on their tables and the clothes on their backsnot to mention the family honorwas inexorably linked to the way they cared for their flocks. And thus, they understood that the very spiritual survival of their nation hinged on the quality of work done by their leaders.
It goes without saying that the prophetic warnings against the unfit spiritual shepherds of Israel hold implications for today’s church leaders. Today’s leaders carry life and death responsibility for their people, just as did the prophets, priests, and kings of old.
Jesus as Shepherd
In the New Testament, Jesus is our shepherd. In the Old Testament, God had dropped hints of the coming shepherd through the prophet Ezekiel: "I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them . . . and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them."
Speaking of himself as the loving shepherd, Jesus says that he leaves the ninety-nine in the open country and goes in search of the lost one. "And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home." He drapes this stinky, wayward sheep around his neck and carries it home. Think of it. Jesus left the comforts of heaven and came into our universe, our pasture, to smell like sheep! Jesus sweated like we do. He walked our pathways, braved our wolves, faced our temptations, and shared our struggles. The Holy One of Israel came in Jesus Christ to be our good shepherd.
My friend Roy tells a fascinating story about a trip to Palestine some years back. One afternoon, he stood on a ridge overlooking a long, narrow gorge. Below him, the gorge opened out into rolling grass-covered pasture lands. A single trail meandered down the length of the gorge floor, then branched out into dozens of trails when it reached the grasslands. A group of shepherds strolled down the gorge trail, chatting with one another, followed by a long, winding river of sheep. At the forks of the trail, the shepherds shook hands and separated, each taking a different path as they headed out into the grasslands. Roy recounted the fascinating sight that followed.
As the shepherds headed their separate ways, the mass of sheep streaming behind them automatically divided into smaller flocks, each flock stringing down the branch trail behind its appropriate shepherd. When the various shepherds and their flocks were distanced from each other by a few hundred yards, each shepherd turned to scan his own sheep, noting that some strays had been left behind and were wandering in confusion among the rocks and brush.
Then one of the shepherds cupped his hands around his mouth and called in a strange, piercing cry, "Ky-yia-yia-yia-yia." At his shout, a couple of stray lambs perked up their ears and bounded toward his voice. Then a second shepherd tilted back his head calling with a distinctly different sound, "Yip-yip-yip-yipoo-yip." A few more strays hurried straight toward him. Then another called his strays with a shrill, "Hoot-hoot-hoot!" Each shepherd, in turn, called. Each of the strays, hearing a familiar voice, knew exactly which shepherd he should run to. "In fact," my friend Roy marveled, "none of the wandering sheep seemed to notice any voice but the voice of his own shepherd."
This is what Jesus meant when he said, "My sheep listen to my voice," but "do not recognize a stranger’s voice." The sheep pick his voice out of a cacophony of voices and follow it. The shepherd "calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice."
This is the essence of spiritual leadership: sheep following a shepherd because they know and trust him. This kind of trust and allegiance can be gained only one wayby a shepherd touching his sheep, carrying them, handling them, tending them, feeding themto the extent that he smells like them.
When the apostle Peter instructed church leaders on how to lead, he spoke of Jesus as "the Chief Shepherd." We must not miss Peter’s point. Jesus, the Chief Shepherd is our model: he is the archetype, the blueprint, for the way modern, Christian leadership gets done.
Even contemporary believers instinctively warm to Jesus’ comforting words of sheep and shepherding. Because Jesus laid his life down for us, he woos us and wins our trust, our affection, and our loyalty.
Good spiritual shepherds today imitate the Chief Shepherd. Like him, they attract flocks through loving service and authentic relationships. Like him, they feed and protect their flocks. They know their flocks and their flocks know them. They are trusted as men and women who are committed enough to put their lives on the line, daily, for the precious people they lead.
The Apostles as Shepherds
After modeling shepherd leadership, Jesus passed the model on to the apostles. Three times in one brief conversation, Jesus charged Peter (possibly as a representative of the entire apostolate): "Feed my lambs," "Take care of my sheep," and "Feed my sheep." By implication he is saying, "Adopt my spiritual leadership style."
Later, he told the Father, "As you sent me into the world, I have sent them." One would find it hard to believe that after three years of watching Jesus and being coached by himand now commissioned by himthat these twelve men would invent new leadership strategies. Jesus had modeled the shepherd style of leadership, and this is what they used in their lives and modeled to others.
Today’s Leaders as Shepherds
Both Peter and Paul passed the shepherd model of leadership on to us. Paul pleaded with the leaders of the church in Ephesus,
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.
Again Peter wrote,
Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care . . . 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.
Let me grab the modern church leader by the literary ears: this shepherd metaphor was passed on to us intentionally! By the time Paul and Peter call church leaders "shepherds," the shepherd motif had gathered centuries of significance. A massive iceberg of divine meaning had accumulated across the Bible and now lay below the surface of this word. Peter and Paul are invoking a whole theology of spiritual leadership, not merely throwing in a colorful figure of speech.
So I told my modern friend, who had trouble with ancient shepherds, "I guess I’ll stick with the shepherd idea. Seems better to try and help us both understand what the shepherd model is about than to butcher my Bible and run the risk of distorting God’s plan."
This metaphor and its implications are worth pondering. No question: some spade work lies ahead of those who unearth this pastoral, rural metaphor and connect it with our hi-tech, urban experience; however, a little digging is well worth the effort because what we uncover is indispensable to a clear, biblical understanding of spiritual leadership.
The Relational Basis of Shepherding
The Biblical Shepherd
While some may not feel comfortable thinking of certain people as sheep and others as shepherds, our discomfort will likely disappear when we realize that the shepherding model revolves around the relationship between the shepherd and his flock. It is not a figure of strong over weak or "lords" over servants. Quite the contrary. The shepherd figure is one of love, service, and openness.
Ancient, Middle-Eastern shepherds lived in the pasture with the flock and were as much a part of the land as the sheep were. Through a lifetime of shared experience, shepherds nurtured enduring trust relationships with their sheep.
When a tiny lamb was born into the wilderness world, the shepherd took the trembling newborn into his hands, warming it and caressing it. Among the first sensations felt by the shivering lamb was the tender hands of the shepherd. The gentle voice of the shepherd was one of the first sounds to awaken the lamb’s delicate eardrums.
The shepherd lived with the lambs for their entire livesprotecting them, caressing them, feeding and watering them, and leading them to the freshest pools and the most luxuriant pasturesday and night, year in and year out. So by the time the lamb grew to "ewe-hood" or "ram-hood," it naturally associated the touch of the shepherd’s hands and the sound of the shepherd’s voice with "green pastures" and "still waters," with safety, security, love, and trust. Each sheep came to rely on the shepherd and to know his voice and his alone. They followed him and no one else.
Of course, the lambs understood clearly who was in charge. Occasionally, the shepherd might tap an unruly lamb on the ear with a shepherd’s crook. But this was a love tap, embraced in an enfolding circle of relationship. The shepherd smelled like sheep!
When the day’s grazing was done and night was approaching, the shepherd would gather the sheep together and lead them into a protective fold. Some were crude, makeshift circles of brush, stick, and rocks, forming barricades four or five feet highsafe little fortresses in the wilderness. Others were limestone caves in the hillsides. Even today, in Palestine, one can see roughly constructed, temporary sheepfolds dotting the pastoral landscape. But each circle is incomplete, broken at one place to form an opening into the fold. Beside this portal the shepherd would take his place as he gathered his flock into the fold for the night, at times physically becoming the "gate."
Part of the nighttime ritual was the gentle inspection of each, individual lamb. One by one, each lamb would come under the shepherd’s rod for review. Each would feel the shepherd’s hands and hear his voice speaking its name. Under the care of the shepherd, the sheep would "come in and go out, and find pasture."
"Good evening my friend, Yellow-Wool. You look tired. Long day? C’mon inside and rest. And you, Ragged-Ear, let me pull that tick from your cheek. Come in, Spotted-Face, Broken-Foot, Shiny-Nose . . . " until all the sheep were snuggled inside the safety of the fold for another night.
With the whole flock examined and bedded down, finally, the shepherd himself would lie down, stretching his body across the opening. So, the shepherd literally, physically became the door! His body kept the sheep in and the dangers of the night out. No sheep could wander into danger because the shepherd’s body held them in. Wolves and robbers could enter to harm the flock only over the dead body of the shepherd. Some claim that, even in modern times, morning will occasionally find scattered sheep, without a shepherd. Upon investigation, a bleeding, battle-worn shepherd will often be found somewhere nearbysometimes even a dead one. The shepherd would literally lay "down his life for the sheep."
What a compelling and fitting model for leadership. No wonder the shepherd metaphor is a constant theme of the Bible. And along with the other two models we’ll look atmentor and equipperits root is in relationship and its model is Jesus.
The Contemporary Shepherd
Grab your pencil. Get ready to circle the next profound phrase. A shepherd is someone who has a flock. As obvious as that may sound, it is frequently overlookedfor many church "leaders" function in name or office only and in reality have no flock.
Flocks naturally gather around food, protection, affection, touch, and voice. Biblical shepherds are those who live among the sheep; serve the sheep; feed, water, and protect the sheep; touch and talk to the sheepeven lay down their lives for the sheep. Biblical shepherds smell like sheep.
One shepherdess who smells like sheep is my wife Carolyn. Carolyn frequently "adopts" lonely young singles who move to our area. "Tim" was one of them. Our circle of friends loved Tim for his fun personality and his servant heart. We all quickly became very attached to him. Eventually, Tim confided to Carolyn and me that he had a serious, life-threatening illness. As the illness progressed, he and Carolyn became especially close. She spent countless hours with him in his final weeksoften just hugging and holding him like her own child. Outside of his own loving family, she was one of the very last to touch Tim before he died. The following note from Carolyn was read at Tim’s funeral.
My friend, Sunday, when I kissed you on the forehead, you looked into my eyes and said, "Thank you."
But it is I who should thank you. Thank you for the way I saw your life grow in Christ. Thank you for sharing a day last year helping me decorate my Christmas tree. Thank you for the blackberry cobbler on my birthday. Thank you for the Weatherford peaches you brought by early one morning. Thank you for asking that I be present when the elders called a special meeting to pray for your healing.
Today, I celebrate, and I ask everyone who loved you to celebrate with me.
This was true shepherding by a lady who touches her flock personally and deeply and is touched by them as well.
Church leaders who shepherd well will foster congregational infrastructures that leave them plenty of time and opportunity for flock-building. A good deal of their leadership will be hands-on and personalfor this is how flocks are formed.
The shepherd and flock relationship eloquently implies at least three qualities of spiritual leadership: availability, commitment, and trust. This is how spiritual flocks are formed today.
Relationships Require Availability
Two of my warmest memories of "available" shepherds find Wally Bullington walking around in them. Wally was a football coach; he is now retired, but is still known by most people as "coach." Wally shoots straight, but always with love and warmth and follow-through.
One memory comes from a church-wide father/child canoe trip on the Guadelupe River. Two kids came along who had no dad at home. Wally spent hours with themteaching them to tie flies, paddle canoes, catch fish, set up tents, and more.
The other memory involves the son of a single-parent mother. When this young boy’s parents were accused of a crime, he felt socially cut off from everyone. In addition, it appeared that he might have to drop out of his much-loved private school. Many afternoons found Wally throwing a football with this boy on a vacant lot.
Years later, both boys, now men, still see Wally as a father figure and stay in touch with him for counsel and love. He touched many others as well. Shepherd Wally built long relationships with these lambs and earned their trust, affection, and loyalty. Because he made himself accessible and available, these sheep know Wally’s voice and follow him. Authentic, spiritual bonding like this is as real as family blood tiesmaybe more soand in some ways, just as irreplaceable. Around this shepherd, a flock gathered across the yearsa flock that authentically loves him, depends on him, follows him, and listens to his voice.
Relationships Require Commitment
Shepherding sheep requires a long-term, costly commitment of self, time, and energy and the building of open, authentic relationships. Shepherding is no easy task. Jesus, the "Chief Shepherd," exemplified this commitment in his relationship with the Twelve. Jesus chose them so that "they might be with him," and for three years, they went everywhere he went. They went with him to weddings, temples, villages, fields, synagogues, and sickrooms. They even went fishing together. Jesus changed them by his touch. He taught them, ate with them, and protected them. He talked with them until they began to hear his voice way down in their souls. Eventually, people could tell by being around them that "they had been with Jesus."
Modern-day shepherds rarely have the opportunity to spend such constant time with their sheep; but the intentionality of Christ, his relational approach, his commitmentthese we can emulate.
Jim is absolutely unavailable on Wednesday nights to anyone outside room 222. Why? Because he has committed this time to a Challenge group led by Dr. Jan Dunn, which gathers in that room. Challenge is a special group hosted by our church. It began as a divorce recovery group, then broadened to include any persons struggling with painful relationships, whether divorced, married, or single.
At first, Jim went to encourage Jan. Jan is an experienced professor and practitioner of marriage and family therapy, but she felt unsure about whether her efforts would be affirmed by the church or whether they would even help people. Jim committed his Wednesday evenings, for an entire year, to being an affirming presence to the Challenge groupand the group has flourished! Over this past year, many have found recovery and healingand God. Jim’s role is low profile; he rarely says anything except when requested to lay hands on some specific anguishing person and pray for him or her. However, his shepherding presence has legitimated the whole effort. One in the group said, "Gosh. Just the nonjudgmental, compassionate presence of an elder in the room is as healing as anything else the class offers." Jim gets sheep smell all over himself on Wednesday nights, and he loves it. Jim definitely has "gathered a flock."
Relationships Require Trust
Sheep follow their shepherd "because they know his voice." Through hours and days and weeks and years spent with their shepherd, sheep come to know from experience that they can trust him. Trust is earned, not demanded, and it is built over time.
We trust Jesus because he keeps his promise to be with us to the end of the world. When we first come to him as trembling, newborn lambs, he caresses us in his gentle, firm hands. His love warms us, protects us, and feeds us. His spirit waters us, and he continually talks to us. He never abandons us or misleads us. We trust him because he is trustworthy.
So it is with modern-day shepherds. Men and women who would lead a flock must earn the trust of the sheep. When the lives of leaders are invested in the lives of sheep, the sheep come to know and trust their voices. This is what Jesus meant when he said that a shepherd’s sheep "follow him because they know his voice."
Not only do the sheep know the shepherd, but the shepherd also knows the sheepintimately. "He calls his own sheep by name." Biblical leaders know faces and namesand personal stories. Because the shepherd knows and serves them all, they trust him, and he "leads them out."
Being placed in a leadership position does not guarantee a following, but a trail of sheep will usually follow the voice of a trusted shepherd.
Jack was successful in business, visible in the community, had been a deacon for years, and was loved by many people. But friends saw alcohol sneak up on him, until his world began to unravelbusiness, health, family. Finally, through an intervention initiated by my wife, Carolyn, Jack checked into a treatment center. Now aided by a twelve-step group, Jack has been sober for more than eight years. Throughout the process, Jack gained a whole new vision of God and a life of flourishing relationships.
Back on the fifth anniversary of his sobriety, the shepherds of Jack’s church threw a huge "dinner party/sobriety celebration." This did wonders for Jack and his family. And the positive shepherding implications spread out from that gesturelike circles from a rock thrown into a pondreaching the far corners of their 2,000-member church and beyond. That one evening instilled hope and inspired trust in those shepherds on the part of many more Christians who were struggling with alcohol addictions. Acceptance and healing flowed through one key shepherding act.
In a society where trust is rarely extended or deserved, the "shepherd" style of leadershipby its very natureinspires trust. God’s design fosters trust in church leaders and nurtures loyalty between church members.
Even after this brief look at the biblical metaphor of shepherd, it’s easy to understand why God chose such a model for spiritual leadership. Its implications are as applicable today as they were two thousand years ago. When godly, loving, gentle shepherds first build authentic relationships with their flocks, then rise up and "lead out," sheep hungry for biblical leadership and wise guidance will willingly follow.