Calling all shepherds

The past few years have witnessed a steady stream of high-profile church leaders being removed from leadership as patterns of abuse, impropriety, and pride have been brought to light. And there are likely more to come, along with many others whose profiles are not prominent enough to gain attention. It’s not just the leaders themselves who are in the spotlight, but also the churches whose culture tolerated such behaviour as long as it brought “success.”

It’s enough to make a godly person think twice when considering a call to pastoral ministry. Why would I want to be a part of that? Is that how pastors—or at least, effective pastors—inevitably end up?

But that would just perpetuate the problem. What’s desperately needed is not just a new generation of leaders to answer the call, but a different kind of leader. Someone who doesn’t go into the ministry wanting to be the next CEO or rockstar style of pastor-leader that’s failed so dismally. But someone who wants to be the kind of leader Jesus wants for his church, when he commissioned Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17). The church needs more shepherds.

Let’s take a look at one passage from the New Testament; Peter’s first letter, which he concludes by talking about leaders and uses the metaphor of “shepherd” (5:1-11).

1 Peter 5:1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed…

This is a solemn charge for a serious calling. And he mentions Jesus’ suffering, which frames Christian leadership in light of the experience of our chief leader. If Christ suffered, those he calls to lead his church should also expect at least a degree of suffering, rather than expecting popularity, book deals, and a social media following. A shepherd’s path to glory is the same path Jesus took: that of a suffering servant.

5:2a 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;

A shepherd embraces their invitation to a cause, rather than giving grudging service. Our motivation needs to be more than the likes of “if I don’t do it, no one will.”

5:2b-3 not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

A shepherd doesn’t lead for their own benefit. Don’t seek wealth—something usually not on offer in most churches! But don’t seek power, influence, or the deference of others. Don’t chase the feeling you get when you speak into people’s lives, thinking you can run them better. If you find yourself enjoying your status as “guru” more than watching those you care for grow in maturity and independence, check your motives.

5:4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

A shepherd answers to the Chief Shepherd. The background here is from Ezekiel 34, where God pronounces judgement on Israel’s bad shepherds, because they were abusing and profiting from their sheep rather than caring for them. Instead, God promised to turn up and shepherd his people. He did this in Jesus, who had compassion on the people because they were like “sheep without a shepherd,” (Mark 6:34) so he made them “sit down in green grass” (cf. Ps 23:2) where he fed them with words, bread, and fish. Later, he showed himself to be the “Good Shepherd” who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). Having given that example, he’s now left undershepherds to carry on. But he’s still shepherding, caring for his flock. And just like in Ezekiel’s day, he’ll continue to remove bad undershepherds. (He’s done a bit of that in recent years.)

5:5-6 In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.

The sheep are to humbly follow their shepherds, as those shepherds humbly follow God. Now let’s be clear: Peter isn’t telling the flock to blindly obey their shepherds without being discerning. He’s not telling them to put up with abusive leaders; or to cover for them. He’s not wanting them to feel they aren’t allowed to challenge “the Lord’s anointed,” if they’re clearly acting in an ungodly or selfish or abusive way.

But in context, it’s about humbly submitting to godly leaders. Leaders who are themselves humbly following God. Not always thinking you know better than your pastor. Or could do a better job than the leadership. Having a default attitude of prayerful support, rather than a Christian “Karen” who’s always ready to complain to management about the poor service.

Now although Peter has widened his focus to speak to the whole flock, let’s keep listening to what he says still with the leaders of the flock specifically in mind.

5:7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

A shepherd isn’t anxious, but leads knowing God is the one who’s at work. This guards against two opposite errors. One is a failure to answer the call, because you don’t think you have the ability to shepherd God’s people. (Newsflash: no one does!) And the other is to the pride that comes from thinking that it’s all up to you. Cast your anxieties on God, trusting him to do his thing.[1]

5:8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

A shepherd seeks accountability, lest they fall. Don’t go into leadership thinking that it can’t happen to you. And congregations have a responsibility to insist on a leadership structure and culture that involves an accountability and plurality of leadership.

5:9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

A shepherd doesn’t justify their own failings. Don’t use the stress or hardships of ministry to justify sin. Everyone suffers—some more so than you!

5:10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.

A shepherd knows that God is the one who’s at work and the one who rewards. He’s the one who will give you the strength to endure in leadership. He’s the one who will ultimately vindicate you, if you have remained faithful in a difficult ministry setting. And it’s the eternal glory that he offers which should be the only glory we seek.

It’s this kind of leader the church is desperately crying out for: humble shepherds rather than CEOs or entrepreneurs. This doesn’t mean they won’t need to make tough calls, or be a visionary, or do creative things. But it does mean they can no longer be the sort of leader who “gets results” but tramples on everyone in the process.

The Western church—and my own Baptist denomination here in Australia—is facing a shortage of undershepherds. Are you eager to humbly serve God, and feed his sheep?

Tim serves as Dean of the Bible & Theology Faculty at Morling College, which (among other things) is training the next generation of undershepherds. You can start your exploration of God’s call here:

[1] One of the best leadership books I’ve read recently is Mark Sayers’ A Non-Anxious Presence. It’s all about leading in a changing, uncertain, post-pandemic world. Where it’s not just individuals who are anxious, but communities and nations and organisations and churches. It’s a systemic anxiety that comes from power and authority moving away from the traditional strongholds that we used to trust in for our sense of stability—discredited governments, banks, media organisations, and churches—replaced by viral movements, popular uprisings, and TikTok influencers. It’s natural to be anxious when the world order is changing before our eyes.

But it’s precisely in these “grey zones,” as Sayers calls them, where Christian leader can have a great influence. By not buying into the anxiety of the system, but being a non-anxious presence; modelling what it means to trust God, and for our sense of security to come from him, rather than human institutions. By trusting in the number of angels God has at his disposal, rather than the number of backsides warming our pews each week.

Our churches are crying out for non-anxious leaders.

3 thoughts on “Calling all shepherds

  1. A timely reminder …& so much truth . Thanks Tim . I enjoyed this reminder about true shepherding

  2. This is fantastic. Thanks Tim. Such a beautiful and humble vision of ministry and leadership that looks like Jesus.

  3. Happy new year. Thank you for upholding family values, lifting us with hope and faith filled messages, and being a light and source of inspiration to our world. May God continue to guide and richly bless you always. ~ Paul F. Davis ~

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