Last week, we began to look at the term shepherd as an important metaphor for understanding the role of a leader (See: What’s in a Name?). We said that shepherds were often responsible for huge flocks of sheep and this required several layers of leadership. A faithful shepherd was always conscious of who owned the sheep and felt a sense of accountability to them. Even the king would say, “The LORD is my shepherd,” and recognize that he answered to another. So, the shepherd metaphor teaches that accountability to God and to others is an important facet of leadership. But another key part of a shepherd’s role involved providing water for the flock. This too points to a necessary part of a leader’s job description today, whether that leader be an executive, a ministry leader or a parent.
Shepherds were often forced to tend their flocks in areas that weren’t suited to much else. That drove them to slopes, valleys and dry regions often referred to as “wilderness” in the Bible. Water was crucial but was in short supply. The best place to get water was a spring or a stream but competition was great and even these could become contaminated. Rainwater also gathered naturally in low-lying areas in temporary pools. When the Bible speaks of “still waters” (Psalm 23:2), this is what it’s talking about. Shepherds also often built wells and cisterns to gather rain water. A shepherd’s job was to lead the flock to various pasture lands to provide them with a variety of vegetation, but always stay within 20 to 30 kilometres of a water source. A good shepherd would always be conscious of the sheep’s need for water and the next place where they could find some.
As soon as God leads Israel out of Egypt, one of His first acts is to provide water for them. He purifies a bitter spring at one place (Exodus 15:22-25) and makes water gush from a rock in another (Exodus 17:1-7). In the Old Testament God declares, “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them” (Isaiah 41:17). And in the New Testament, Jesus announces, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” While God provided actual water for thirsty Israelites as they travelled across the desert, today He quenches our spiritual thirst with His Spirit. And we are to be conduits of that refreshing water to others. In fact, Jesus commends people for offering those in need “even a cup of cold water” (Matthew 10:42) out of devotion to Him.
Leaders have to make tough decisions and chart a course for those they lead. Managers have targets and goals they’re trying to meet. Parents have homework and after-school activities to coordinate. But shepherds always make sure that the sheep are well-watered. Shepherd leaders realize that thirsty workers, thirsty volunteers and thirsty children, like thirsty sheep, will neither be productive nor content. A shepherd leader will provide for their refreshment.
This is a reminder for professional leaders to be concerned about the needs of those whom they lead. They will ask questions like, “How do our employees thirst? What are some of the signs of that thirst? How can we quench that thirst?” This is also a reminder for ministry leaders to be concerned about the needs of those whom they lead. They will ask questions like, “Do the volunteers seem dry personally or spiritually?” It’s also a reminder for Christian parents not to just heap expectations on their children without providing for their refreshment or leading them to Jesus as the One who fills them with living water. No matter what the capacity, the shepherd leader looks for ‘thirsty eyes’ and seeks to guide people to water.
Our world has lots of leaders, but it needs a lot more shepherds!
In awe of Him,
For more information, check out Timothy Laniak’s book, Shepherds After My Own Heart, which has been my guide in understanding the role of a shepherd in this series.