Shepherding was a key industry of the ancient Israelites. These nomadic people led their flocks from place to place seeking the best pastures and grazing lands for their flocks. It’s important to understand that domestic sheep are not the most brilliant of animals; however, they may be the most dependent. For instance, a sheep grazing on a piece of ground will step forward with each bite without looking up. As they graze, they can literally eat their way into danger by not paying attention to where they are going. So it is up to the shepherd to keep his/her eyes on the sheep as they graze to keep them out of danger. Because of the sheep’s dependence upon the shepherd, it was natural to come to understand God as the shepherd of the Israelites and Jacob, the father of the Israelite people, was the first to refer to God as his shepherd (Genesis 48.15).
But God wasn’t the only one compared to a shepherd. In time, the leaders of Israel were also referred to as shepherds. The first shepherd-king was David (2 Samuel 5.2), perhaps because he was a shepherd as a boy. As shepherd-king, David was counted on to lead the people, to insure their needs were met, and to keep the nation safe from harm. Indeed, David was the most successful of all the Israelite kings in this task, and under his leadership the people experienced one of the longest periods of prosperity and peace in the history of the nation.
However, as time passed, future leaders of Israel didn’t fare as well and the metaphor of king as shepherd was weakened. Instead, the mantle of shepherdhood was transferred to the priests and leaders of the Israelite religion. They were looked on as the spiritual leaders of the nation, leaders who were to insure that God’s justice and mercy were visited upon the people.
And yet, once again the leaders failed. The prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel contain harsh words against these failed spiritual leaders. In Isaiah 56 the priests are accused of being self-centered, foolish, and drunkards (56.10-11). Jeremiah accuses the religious shepherds of leading the people astray (50.6). And Ezekiel writes of the religious shepherds: “You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not 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 because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals” (34.3-5). This indictment brings a curse of woes upon them in succeeding verses (34.7-10).
The metaphor of shepherd leaders in the religious institutions, then, is long and dignified—or undignified as the case may be. In the New Testament, Jesus told his followers that he was the Good Shepherd, that he was the one who would fulfill the picture of the shepherd chosen by God to tend the lambs (John 10.11). Again, Ezekiel writes, “For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness’” (34.11-12). Jesus promised he would not be like the hirelings, that is, those who are hired to watch the sheep but who have no investment in the protection of the flock (John 10.12-13). Thus, Jesus modeled what it meant to be the shepherd: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15).
Which brings us to today. What is the role of pastor as shepherd in the leadership of the church? Scripturally, we can ascertain from the Old Testament prophets what was expected of pastoral leadership—strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, seek the lost, gather and care for the flock, and lead them with gentleness. Further, as Jesus modeled, the shepherd must be fully invested in the flock and willing to do whatever it takes to protect and care for them—up to and including putting the flock above their own needs and safety.
However, note that this doesn’t make the shepherd the doormat of the flock. In many churches it seems that the pastor is viewed as the employee of the church members, an employee whose job is dictated by the membership. Nothing could be less scriptural. Sheep don’t tell the shepherd what to do, where to go, and what’s best for them. And lest one thinks this is pushing the metaphor too far, remember that Jesus is the ultimate model of the pastor as shepherd. He was unafraid to deflate the self-righteous and he took his orders from God alone. On the other hand, he did nothing less than lay down his own life for the sake of the flock. Let pastor and church member take the metaphor seriously.