We’ve come up with many different titles for leaders today. And the titles matter. You feel different sitting down with the president of a company than you would its manager. Someone given the title supervisor will relate differently to employees than a director. An executive coach will see their position differently than a company’s officer. And calling someone “the boss,” carries with it a whole set of connotations and expectations. While each of these titles have value, the Bible defines leadership in a unique way that may help people serving in all levels of leadership better understand their task. The primary metaphor that the Bible uses for leadership is the shepherd.
Not only does the psalmist declare, “The LORD is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1) and Jesus call Himself, “the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14), but the language of shepherd is frequently applied to God (Genesis 48:15; Psalm 28:9; 80:1; Revelation 7:17). So, God’s leadership can be viewed through the lens of a shepherd. But so too can church leadership. Interestingly, the word “pastor” doesn’t appear in the Bible. The English word, pastor, comes from a Latin word meaning shepherd. Shepherd does appear in the Bible frequently to describe the task of a church leader. When we call someone a pastor, we’re calling them a shepherd. But the term shepherd doesn’t just describe God’s leadership or the leadership of those in the church, it is also frequently applied to kings and others in leadership in society. Israel’s kings and leaders are often called shepherds (Jeremiah 12:10; Ezekiel 34:2; Jeremiah 3:15) but so are Assyrian generals (Jeremiah 6:3) and Persian kings (Isaiah 44:28). It seems that whether you are a prime minister, mayor, CEO, director, manager, elder, ministry leader or parent, the Bible would invite you to see your role through the image of a shepherd.
Over several posts, I’d like to consider what leadership lessons we can learn from the image of the shepherd, but first we need to understand the role of a shepherd, particularly in biblical times. Most people, myself included, have never met a modern-day shepherd and so the term is foreign to us. Timothy Laniak’s book, “Shepherds After My Own Heart,” has been my guide in better understanding the role. Today, I’d like to consider a function of leadership that comes from the scale of the role.
I always pictured shepherds with a few dozen sheep, but in biblical times, shepherds might manage flocks of tens of thousands of sheep both for food and religious sacrifices. Such large herds required several layers of leadership, including an overall owner/administrator, middle management and hands on shepherds. A single shepherd might be able to handle as many as 500 sheep in open fields, but additional workers were needed for shearing, milking and other tasks.
One of the problems that occurred in shepherding, was that an under-shepherd would start using their role for their own gain at the expense of the sheep they were called to lead and the owner-shepherd they were called to serve. In Ezekiel 34:2, God rebukes the nation’s leaders with these words, “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves!” The picture is of an under-shepherd who is not content to just receive income from the owner-shepherd. Instead, the under-shepherd feeds on the flock and so robs the owner. In fact, just a few verses later God makes that point by calling those whom the shepherds were supposed to lead “my sheep” (v. 6).
The message for us is not just against stealing time or supplies from work and remembering your accountability to the owner or shareholders – although this is part of the message. If God is the ultimate owner-shepherd, we need to see our role as accountable to Him. When we lead people as shepherds, we remember that those people ultimately belong to God and we will be held responsible to Him in how we have treated them.
When we think of a leader as a shepherd, it reminds us to think of the One who owns the flock and carry out our role with a sense of accountability to Him. Our world has lots of leaders but it needs a lot more shepherds!
In awe of Him,