The shepherding motif is a powerful biblical theme and provides many implications for church leaders. Why discuss shepherding with church leadership? First, it is a prominent Old Testament theme attached to leadership as God is the shepherd and leaders are to be his representative undershepherds (Ps 23, Ezk 34). Second, Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep and provides an example for church leaders (John 10:11), and third the New Testament reveals that church leaders are to shepherd their congregations (1 Peter 5:1-2).
(1) God is the Shepherd and Leaders are Undershepherds
God is the loving shepherd of his people. Psalm 23 explains that God the shepherd gives his presence, provision, protection, gathering love, guiding leadership to his people. God also is the all-wise Lord who teaches his people all things. From these themes, it is evident that God has created his people and powerfully sustains leaders. He also lovingly guides leaders by his great stregnth and wisdom. Implications for these themes for Christian leadership are that leaders can be secure in their identity in God’s love and wisdom as he sovereignly leads them. No matter how hard the task, leaders know that God is firmly on their side. Another implication is that Christian leaders in the church are undersheperds. This means that church leaders should view their role in all humility as they follow God the shepherd. They should also strive to demonstrate the same characteristics of God the shepherd to their sheep as they lead; 1) be loving and be present for the sheep, 2) demonstrate protection with biblical convictions, 3) provide for the sheep, especially with consistent gospel-centered, biblical teaching, 4) regularly gather the sheep together in community, 5) and guide people toward God’s heart and mission (Mt. 28:18-20).
The Old Testament also reveals God’s unwavering heart to provide good shepherding for his people even when leaders fail. Ezekiel 34 reveals that the Israelite leaders failed in their shepherding role. As a result, they were condemned by God and replaced by God’s shepherding power and provision as he reversed the negatives the evil shepherds produced. God also promised to give the Israelites shepherds after his own heart (Jer. 3:15). He would ultimately send Jesus as the shepherd of the sheep, provide leaders with changed hearts, and send the Holy Spirit through Christ’s redemption. Implications for these themes for Christian leadership in the church are that leaders need to take the task seriously and not take advantage of the sheep or their position, leaders should seek to follow God’s own heart as they shepherd their congregations, and they should always rely on the Holy Spirit for strength and power to lead as God desires.
(2) Jesus Lays Down His Life for the Sheep as the Good Shepherd
The New Testament reveals that Jesus is the good shepherd (Jn 10:11). He is the culmination of the biblical motif of shepherding as he laid down his life for the sheep so that they could have redemption, reconciliation with God, and a new identity in Christ seeking to grow into his image. Leaders also adopt the identity as shepherd leaders in the church, taking their example of leadership from how Christ led and served his people. This means that shepherds are to love, sacrifice, and serve their congregations in all sincerity and humility (Mk 10:45, Php 2:1-11).
Mark 6:34 explains that Jesus had compassion on the crowd because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Thus, Jesus remained present with them and taught them many things. This passage teaches that leaders in the church should have compassion for the people in their congregation and focus on the importance of consistent biblical teaching as they shepherd and care for their flock.
In Matthew 18:12-14, Jesus explains the importance of leaving the 99 sheep to seek the one who has gone astray. Implications for leadership in the church of this passage are that leaders should seek out the believing sheep who has gone astray and do everything possible to bring him or her back into the community. It also emphasizes the importance of knowing where the sheep are spiritually and what they are doing, which necessitates shepherding accountability among the membership.
John 10:12-14 speaks of the hired hand who leaves when trials come because he cares nothing for the sheep. An implication for Christian leadership from this passage is that leaders are to persevere in their shepherding of their congregation when trials come, motivated by their love for Christ and his church. Christ loves his church and gave himself up for it (Eph 5:25). Shepherd leaders are to do the same as they faithfully serve and consistently lead their flock, hanging in there when times get tough!
(3) Church Leaders are to Shepherd their Congregations
The New Testament also reveals that leaders are to shepherd the church, the flock of God as his representative undershepherds (1 Peter 5:1-2). Paul reiterates this theme in his speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 as he exhorted them to act as shepherd leaders of their congregation. New Testament shepherd leaders are to be loving, teach truth, and guard the flock from evil and false doctrine. They are also not to take advantage of the sheep or lead for personal gain or fame, but to serve with sincere hearts. Hebrews 13:20-21 is a prayer that God, who provides Christ the great shepherd of the sheep, would equip his people with everything they need to do his will. Implications for church leadership according to these New Testament passages are that church leaders should seek humility, strive for right motives for leadership, to teach and guard biblical truth, and to always take heart that God will strengthen and equip them for their essential task. They should also love and care for people in their congregation with tenacity, perseverance, and humility—always prayerfully asking God the shepherd to provide wisdom and grace for gospel ministry.
Finally, in the new creation, the shepherding theme will be fully realized as God restores and culminates the theme in the new heavens and new earth. Leaders will fulfill their shepherding role in perfection as sin will be no more. Shepherd leadership is a created design and also an eschatological destiny. Church leaders grow into these realities each day as they faithfully lead. This future anticipation gives church leaders great hope, motivation, and expectation as they long for eschatological realities to come to fruition in the new heavens and the new earth. In the day to day trials, tiredness, and frustration that church leadership often brings, the new creation provides church shepherd leaders with great peace amidst difficulties and motivation to stay faithful now as great rewards are coming!