Shepherding the Flock
Last Thursday I shared a message with small group and short circle leaders at our church. A number of people asked me for some of the notes so I thought I’d post the genesis of the idea here. In short, the role of leaders within the family of faith is described in numerous ways but especially as that of a caring shepherd. In the Scriptures the word ‘shepherd’ is used to describe the Father’s ways of demonstrating His loving care for us.
Through the Scriptures we see the Lord presented as the True Shepherd:
- Foretold (Gen. 49:24; Isa. 40:11; Ezek. 34:23; 37:24)
- The chief (1 Pet. 5:4. The good, John 10:11, 14)
- The great (Mic. 5:4; Heb. 13:20)
- His sheep he knows (John 10:14, 27)
- He calls (John 10:3)
- He gathers (Isa. 40:11; John 10:16)
- He guides (Psa. 23:3; John 10:3, 4)
- He feeds (Psa. 23:1, 2; John 10:9)
- He cherishes tenderly (Isa. 40:11)
- He protects and preserves (Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 34:10; Zech. 9:16; John 10:28)
- He laid down his life for (Zech. 13:7; Matt. 26:31; John 10:11, 15; Acts 20:28)
- He gives eternal life to (John 10:28).
The concept is also used of the leader’s love for the flock. A shepherd leader’s task is to reflect the loving care of Christ in all they say and do. Christ is the example of shepherd leadership and His example must be the expression of the shepherd leaders so that others can experience the love of God through a loving church family. The word typically used for the shepherding responsibility of leaders in the church today is through the title, ‘Pastor.’ The concept stems from the Greek word ‘poimen’, typically translated as shepherd. It is a word that occurs eighteen times in the New Testament, mostly in reference to Jesus (see Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25) but it is translated in Ephesians 4:11 as ‘pastor.’ Its presence in that verse ‘suggests the exercise of leadership through nurture, care and guidance’ (Lincoln, A.T. Word Biblical Commentary, (Vol. 42), p251). In the Scriptures we see these three functions exercised in various ways:
- One who cares for flocks (Gen. 31:38–40; Psa. 78:52, 53; Jer. 31:10; Amos 3:12; Luke 2:8)
- One who defends the flock against aggressors (1 Sam. 17:34, 35. Matt. 7:15; 10:16)
- One who causes the flock to rest (Psa. 23:2; Song 1:7; Jer. 33:12)
- One who numbers the flock (Lev. 27:32; Jer. 33:13)
- One who knows his flock by name (John 10:3–5)
- One who waters the flocks (Gen. 29:2–10)
- One who keeps the flocks in folds (Num. 32:16; 1 Sam. 24:3; 2 Sam. 7:8; John 10:1)
- One who watches (2 Chr. 26:10; Mic. 4:8)
- One who prays for the sick (James 5:14)
All of these terms refer to the caring concern that shepherds exercise over the flock. Unfortunately, some have taken this to mean that the primary function of the pastor is to minister primarily in the arena of caring for the sick. There’s little doubt that this is part of the pastor’s calling. However we do well to note that the application of Ephesians 4:11 is put this way by Paul in the very next two verses:
“12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’
The pastor’s role as a shepherd is to care enough for the flock that he equips them for works of service – which includes shepherding. His job is not to do the ministry but to equip for ministry together as one body.
To that end, I am intrigued by what I read in Numbers 11:10-30. In that passage we see the motivation for and practice of shepherding unpacked. In Numbers 11 we see the Lord lead Moses to share the burden for God’s people with 70 elders from among the leaders. These leaders were likely selected from among the leaders chosen in Exodus 18. Remember, in Exodus 18 Jethro warned Moses to select leaders to assist him in the day to day responsibility of leading God’s people. Jethro claimed that what Moses was doing – flying solo – was unwise, it harmed both himself and God’s people. Moses followed Jethro’s advice. In Numbers 11 we see the Lord taking the responsibility for ministry one step further.
10Moses heard the people of every family wailing at the entrance to their tents. The Lord became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled.11He asked the Lord, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me?12Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors?13Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’14I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me.15If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.”16The Lord said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you.17I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them. They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone.”
We don’t know much about the 70. Scripture neither names many of them, nor even mentions the tribes from which they came. The OT only mentions these 70 men twice and both times they are witnesses to God’s power – here and in Exodus 24:9ff. While there is much we don’t know what we do know is significant. Here, in Numbers 11, the role of these leaders is developed to participate in caring for the people. The burden Moses felt was shared. This point is emphasized through the fact that they receive some of the power of the Spirit that was on Moses. His anointing was given to them.
Those familiar with the story will be aware of the connection to the New Testament. What follows in Numbers 11 is the tale of two disobedient elders who refuse to go outside the camp to receive the anointing. Surprisingly, their disobedience is greeted by God’s grace as the two men are nonetheless anointed for the task and prophesy. Joshua, Moses’ apprentice and soon to be replacement, is furious and asks Moses to stop them. Moses’ response is timeless:
“But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”” (11:29).
Moses prayerful wish was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost when God’s Spirit fell upon all flesh (Acts 2:17-18). Clearly, the prophethood of all believers through the descent of the Spirit connects us to the idea that such an anointing distributes the responsibility for caring for the flock to the flock. God shares the anointing for ministry to his body! Yes, pastors may lead but they neither lead nor shepherd alone!
Every pastor’s dream has to be that the church they serve equips the flock to minister to the flock. From all we’ve said, I understand the role of shepherding the flock to entail four critical elements (all taken from Paul’s 2nd Timothy letter). Our prayer is that every leader of people excel in these four areas of shepherding:
At its deepest level, knowing refers to growing in an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus. Knowing God more deeply and making God known more fully. The general description of the leader is to be a shepherd who knows the sheep. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14). To effectively lead the flock shepherd leaders need to know the sheep and the sheep need to know the shepherds.
Shepherd leaders are people of integrity; people willing to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of their flock. What a shepherd leader does should therefore flow out naturally from who they are, and who they are becoming in Christ.
Leaders are people who express the full extent of their devotion to the Lord and others (see John 13:1). Specifically leaders live in such a way that they demonstrate a supreme love for God, a mutual love for others and compassion for those in need. They live to feed, gather, guide, nourish and protect the flock (Ezek. 34:11-16).
Shepherd leaders assume the responsibility of ensuring that the flock is given every opportunity to grow in the Lord (see Ezek 34:25-27). In the same way that Moses was not concerned for his own position when delegating leadership to others, so too shepherd leaders pass on the Christ in them to others. When leaders commit to this, the ministry grows exponentially.
Shepherd Leadership in Practice
The basic task of shepherding is to care for the flock through exercising active shepherding as the flock lives out her faith with others. The basic expression of our mission to build redemptive bridges of influence is for us to influence those within our Small Groups, short circles, community groups and other groups.
To that end we desire for our groups to be places where:
- people are known personally, accepted and cared for at the deepest level
- people discover what it means to live like Christ and put this into action by living life with others
- peoples’ personal experience of who Christ wants us to be and the pathways to get there are shared and developed
- people are commissioned to be salt and light in the world, inviting others to join them in the common pursuit of Christ