People like T. M. Moore and Tim Witmer have done the church a great service in recent years by drawing attention to the shepherding role of God’s leaders. Twenty years ago I used T. M.’s workbook on Shepherding God’s Flock, reviewing for my elders the design of a shepherd in the model of Christ from John 10. The shepherd leads the sheep, protects the sheep, feeds the sheep, seeks the sheep, and lays down his life for the sheep.
T. M. established the role of shepherding in its Old Testament context from passages such as Ezekiel 34, and explored it in New Testament operation in the ministries of Paul (e.g., Acts 20) and Peter (e.g., 1 Peter 5). Shepherding is necessary for the well-being of the church. Christ’s shepherds exercise their shepherding role through ministry of prayer, the Word, and personal example. They are intimately involved with the sheep and know them.
Tim Witmer has given shepherding a boost with the publication of his book, The Shepherd-Leader, and his personal teaching on the subject. He reinforces the role of the shepherd at the design of Christ and describes its functioning in the trenches of ministry.
But there is a dimension to shepherding that we don’t typically take into account. Passages like Ezekiel 34 warm our hearts to see God Himself stepping in to take over from failed shepherds.
“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” (Ezek. 34:15–16)
The twenty-third psalm lays out an extraordinarily intimate and inviting expression of God’s personal, nurturing care of His sheep. The promises of mercy and goodness that extend from that care warm our hearts and enliven our steps.
Those passages point us to Jesus Christ as the good shepherd. They also provide a job description to those under-shepherds who minister to the flock in His name, at His call.
But Jesus gives His under-shepherds a job to do other than nurture the sheep. He charges His shepherd-leaders to mobilize the sheep, to engage the sheep in the work of ministry.
Paul, in his letter to the church at Ephesus, makes connections between God’s covenant old and new. He speaks of one people of God, united to Christ, empowered by the Spirit, called to kingdom service. In this characterization he lays out the role of shepherd.
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Eph. 4:11–16)
Notice the job of shepherds. They are teachers who are called to equip and engage the sheep for the work of ministry. Shepherding in this context involves preparing the sheep with the necessary wherewithal and foundation to be engaged in the work of ministry, and not just individually but as a kingdom community. Shepherding protects the sheep from the influences of the world/battleground to which they are deployed and prepares them with the truth and power of God necessary for spiritual engagement and kingdom advancement (e.g., 2 Cor. 10:4-5).
To say the Lord is my shepherd is to say more than the Lord is my guardian. It is to say the Lord is my captain, and He is the captain of others conscripted to serve with me. He leads me not only beside still water and into green pastures, he leads me into battle for His name’s sake. With Jesus at our side we lack nothing, not only for living but also for striving for the sake of His kingdom.
Faithful shepherding will not only produce growing sheep, it will promote going sheep, deployed in service to and to the glory of the Chief Shepherd.