It's All About The Sheep

Pastoral Leadership: It’s About The Sheep

The Shepherding Metaphor

A good shepherd cares about his sheep. When we talk about leadership, we would do well to stay close to that imagery. In the age of self-help, there is an abundance of research and writing about leadership. You can learn all you want about leadership habits, attributes, skills, and methodology. Of course, a lot of the leadership material is really helpful. But I invite you to consider the shepherding angle. It was one of Jesus’ preferred metaphors for Christian leadership.

The defining characteristic of a good shepherd is not how many books he’s read about the practice of shepherding or whether he has catchy acronyms to describe best practices for flock organization. It’s about how well he actually knows his sheep and how well they know him. It’s not that business leaders and executives don’t have a lot to offer the kingdom of God, because they are highly useful. But for the role of a pastor, it takes more than that. Church leadership is about soul care.

The Problem With Vision

Vision is important for any group of people, but it must never come before the value of the people we seek and serve. The problem with vision is that we can get so caught up in what we wish people were like, that we fail to actually know and love the people God has given us. If you love your vision more than you love the people you lead, you might even do them harm, rather than good, when they fail to be the preferred version of the church which you imagine in your head. If your people would have to change for you to love and appreciate them, then it’s your own heart that needs changing. Christ loved and died for us while we were still sinners because we needed his help, not because we fulfilled his vision.

Knowing Your Sheep

A good shepherd knows his sheep. He knows what his sheep need. He knows their strengths and weaknesses. He knows their tendencies. He’s studied the terrain to be sure he can lead them to what will make them healthy. He notices when one is missing and goes searching for it. Sheep will follow a shepherd like this. His voice is familiar and comforting. He’s earned their trust.

In church, you don’t have the luxury of paid salaries to excuse you from treating people well. It’s a volunteer organization, and no one is obligated to follow anyone whom they don’t respect. It never hurts you to know about leadership, but what you really need to know about is the flock that God has given you. No matter what you want to think about yourself as a leader, if people aren’t following you, you aren’t leading. No one is going to follow you if they don’t think they matter to you.

Questions for Shepherds

Let’s connect the shepherd metaphor to real life. How well do you know the people God has called you to lead? Look at a list of people under your care. Select a person at random and see if you can answer some of these questions:

  • What was it that made them decide to join your church?
  • Do you know the names of their family members?
  • Who is someone at your church that they admire, who influences them? Why?
  • What was a formative faith experience in their life?
  • What recent class or sermon series connected with them especially well?
  • What are the concerns they have in their life right now about what’s going on?
  • How are they doing in their current relationship with God?
  • To whom do they turn when they need spiritual support?
  • When is the last time you prayed for this person? Did you tell them you were praying for them?

If you realize that you don’t know people as well as you should, any of the above items would make a great conversation to have. Good shepherding is not about the art of shepherding. It’s about the sheep.

Here below are a few of my favorite books on the subject of pastoral leadership. All but the Peterson book are authored by members of churches of Christ. What does quality pastoral leadership look like to you?


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