By Dr. Josh Mulvihill
God has given pastors and ministry leaders a very clear job description in the Bible. Central to that role is shepherding. Peter provides instruction regarding what the shepherding role of a leader is to entail: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but 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” (1 Pet. 5:2-4).
As someone who was a pastor for nearly twenty years, I read these words and feel the weight of responsibility to the Chief Shepherd. The word that should jump out is the word entrusted. We are entrusted with great responsibility—the souls of people in our care. How do we do that well? Let’s briefly explore what the Bible says about the role of the shepherd in the Bible.
Examples of Shepherd Leaders Throughout the Bible, we see examples of shepherding to care for God’s people. The Old Testament gives us human examples to keep watch over God’s people. God said to David, “You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler” (2 Sam. 78:72). Moses “brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the desert” (Ps. 78:52). Isaiah says of Moses, “He brought them through the sea, with the shepherd of his flock” (Isa. 63:11).
God used shepherd leaders such as David and Moses to guide and care for Israel. The Old Testament prophets called back the sheep that had gone astray and pointed to the Good Shepherd to come. Those who lead in the church are, by definition, shepherds. If you are in a leadership role, what kind of shepherd are you? If you serve in ministry under a shepherd’s leadership, what kind of sheep are you?
Shepherd Leadership Is Manifested in God If I asked you, “who is God,” would shepherd rise to the top of your description of Him? One of the names God chooses for Himself is shepherd. In Psalm 23:1, we are told that “the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” God is the ultimate provider, protector, and guide for His sheep. “I shall not want.” Nothing is lacking in His care for us. In Psalms 95:6-7, the Psalmist calls us to worship, in part, because He is a good shepherd who loves us: “Come let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our maker; He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.” What does God’s shepherding care look like? “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” (Isa. 40:11). God is tender, gentle, and loving toward His sheep.
Shepherd Leadership Is Modeled in Jesus Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10:14). Jesus demonstrates to the disciples the model to follow. Our responsibility as leaders is to carry on in obedience to the call to protect, provide, and guide Christ’s sheep. Jesus is the true shepherd, and we are entirely dependent on Him. You are to know God as the shepherd and rely on Him for ministry. We cannot lead apart from Him. Of Jesus, we read, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Jesus modeled what a shepherd is to do. There is a great price to being a shepherd. It will cost you your life. Every time you lead and bring forth the Word of God to others, you are dying to self. The model is sacrificial service.
Shepherd Leadership Is Motivated by Love The problem with human shepherds is we always fall short. We abuse power. We act selfishly. The frailty of human shepherds was a major theme in Israel’s history. Ezekiel 34 contains detailed charges against the undershepherds of Israel, who should have been caring for God’s flocks. What are the characteristics of a poor shepherd leader from this passage? They fed themselves rather than the flock (34:2). They failed to strengthen the sick, heal the diseased, bind up the broken, and seek the lost (34:4). The result was that people were scattered to foreign lands and became food for beasts. These shepherds failed at their most basic tasks. They were harsh rather than gentle (34:4). Eventually, God removes them and promises His shepherding care (34:7-10).
Faithful shepherds are not self-serving. God speaks strongly against the selfish motives of leaders who neglect, exploit, and prey upon others. The Bible condemns those who act like owners over a ministry rather than stewards of the sheep entrusted to them. There is responsibility language in Ezekiel 34 and lots of sins of omission, what shepherds aren’t doing.
More Good Shepherds Are Needed Maybe God is calling you to shepherd a flock. We need godly men to take the mantle of leadership and say, “Here am I, Lord; send me.” Has God given you a desire to lead? Has He gifted you to lead? Have others spoken into your life in this way? We need leaders like 1 Peter 5:2-4: self-giving leaders who willingly provide oversight of the flock, are gentle, and are not motivated by their own gain. Sheep are precious because they have been purchased by the blood of Christ.
The Five Functions of a Shepherd:
Know the sheep. From the moment we are born, we want meaningful relationships. Loneliness, depression, and isolated people in the age of social media are reaching epidemic proportions. Once again, God provides the model for us. Just as God initiated a relationship with us, shepherds are to pursue sheep to know them (Ps. 100:3). What does it mean to know our sheep? We must know who is in our flock and know the details of their life enough to shepherd them. Peter reminds us that each sheep is “entrusted to your care” (1 Pet. 5:3). We will be held accountable for how we shepherd each person.
Feed the sheep. Provision is the second need met by the shepherd. Sheep always depend on the shepherd. What does the shepherd feed the sheep? Matthew 4:14 tells us that it is God’s living, powerful Word. The Word of God is what satisfies the soul. Shepherds are to feed the whole counsel of God’s Word. It is the Word that will nourish and encourage the sheep. “Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding” (Jer. 3:15). The Bible suggests the following need feeding: (1) the young and weak (Titus 2), (2) those who labor under sin, (3) declining Christians in serious sin and losing zeal (1 Thess. 5:14), and (4) the strong (they need encouragement to keep on).
Lead the sheep. The psalmist states, “Then he led out his own people like sheep and guided them in the wilderness like a flock” (Ps. 78:52). Jesus is the Good Shepherd. “He leads me beside quiet waters” (Ps. 23:2). Good shepherd leaders do the same. Our people face decisions and crossroads in life. Shepherds show them the right path to take. How do they lead? By not lording it over them. Shepherds always lead the flock from the front. They never drive them from behind. They stay ahead, show the way, and protect, but not too far ahead. Shepherds are told to be an example to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). Leading begins with Christlike character. Failure here sabotages the rest of ministry. It must be clear that you know Christ and burn for Him.
Protect the sheep. Sheep need safety from wolves (Acts 20:29). Sometimes wolves come from outside the church and sometimes from within. Both require strong leadership. Shepherds are commanded to “be alert” (Acts 20:28). They are told, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matt. 7:15). Shepherds have a responsibility to address false doctrine, distortions of the truth, and erroneous teachings. Sheep are vulnerable creatures. They easily wander, which is why protection is critical for shepherds. We are to be like David, who fought the lion and bear (1 Sam. 17:34-36), and the apostle Paul, who addressed false doctrine and sin in the church.
Gather the sheep. If a sheep goes astray, a shepherd must make every attempt to go after it. God gathers His people. He leaves the ninety-nine to find the one. God has given shepherds essential tools. Shepherds have the staff and rod for discipline and defense. They have a voice so that sheep may know and follow. They have fences to keep sheep from wandering.
God’s call to shepherds is to pay careful attention to their flock. If shepherding is something leaders are called to do, it is important to have a well-considered strategy to accomplish the task. Do you have a plan to shepherd your flock? Is there a system so that you do not miss people? Is it comprehensive to include all those under your care? Is there training for leaders so they know how to shepherd?
Diagnose Each Sheep Consider which category each sheep falls into. Healthy sheep: Regularly attend worship, minister to others in some way, and seek to live in obedience to Christ and the Bible. Weak sheep: Attend worship but do not serve. They may have absorbed worldly ideas or priorities other than Christ. Their main concern is limited to themselves, or they may have relationship struggles that prevent fruitful ministry. Stray sheep: Are uninvolved in ministry and have sporadic attendance. They pursue sin or make foolish choices. Lost sheep: Have forsaken the church and Christ and have wandered away. Inactive sheep: They would like to be active but cannot. This could include the elderly, college students, or someone who is sick.
Shepherding must be relational. We must know our sheep and have the smell of sheep on our hands. The business of the shepherd leader is the sheep. May it be reflected in how we operate in ministry.
Dr. Josh Mulvihill is the Executive Director of Church and Family Ministry at RenewaNation. He served as a pastor for nearly 20 years, serves on the board of Awana, and helps to provide leadership to the Christian Grandparent Network. He holds a Ph.D. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Biblical Grandparenting, Preparing Children for Marriage, Biblical Worldview, and 50 Things Every Child Needs to Know Before Leaving Home. Josh is married to Jen, and they have five children. Josh blogs at GospelShapedFamily.com.