Over the past month, we’ve been considering the Bible’s use of shepherd language in making a unique contribution to understanding the role of a leader. We’ve looked at a shepherd’s accountability (See: What’s in a Name?), guidance (See: Plan), protection (See: Authority), as well as the balancing of productivity with refreshment (See: Thirsty) and provision (See: Provision) for the sheep. The final category that the Bible emphasizes is the seeking heart of a caring shepherd. While negligent shepherds will scatter the flock or be content to make a living from the gathered flock, a good shepherd will risk comfort and safety to seek lost sheep. While the primary applications may be related to church ministry, the implications for relating to disgruntled customers, disillusioned constituents, and prodigal children may be just as relevant.
One of the characteristics of sheep is that they are followers. It’s a good, healthy quality. But in the absence of effective leadership, sheep will scatter. Adam failed to protect Eve and so she was deceived by the serpent and they were sent out of the rich, bountiful garden as a result. There were periods in Israel’s history as a nation where their leaders were negligent and failed to lead them in right and true ways. As a result, the people were exiled from the Promised Land, first to Assyria and then to Babylon. God describes the situation in Jeremiah 50:6, “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains.” In some cases, leaders can actually lead people astray, in other cases, they merely fail to watch them closely enough. They’re too self-absorbed to adequately care for those entrusted to them. In Jeremiah 23:2, God charges Israel’s leadership with negligence. “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.” To be a shepherd leader is to live with the vigilant recognition that sheep will either follow or wander. That shouldn’t breed anxiety or panic, but it should instill a healthy sense of watchfulness. Complacency in ministry or naiveté regarding dangerous influences will result in scattered followers. Today’s satisfied business customer may become tomorrow’s lost opportunity. And children and youth can easily fall prey to destructive influences and ideologies.
Since the Garden of Eden, the wandering of sheep has been assumed. In fact, all human beings have strayed to some extent (Isaiah 53:6). As a result, God expects shepherd leaders to seek lost sheep and it grieves His heart when they don’t. In Ezekiel 34:6, God laments, “My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” When human leaders wouldn’t take up the task, He Himself vowed to pursue the lost. In verse 11, He says, “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” Jesus came as the fulfillment of this mission, declaring, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
One of Jesus’ most famous parables was of a shepherd with one missing in a flock of a hundred sheep. Jesus argues that a worthy shepherd will leave the ninety-nine sheep (presumably in the care of fellow shepherds) and go track down the lost sheep. In both cases, when Jesus tells this story it is to make a point about leadership. In Matthew’s account, it follows on the heels of an argument among the disciples about who the greatest disciple is. He feared that in their ambition for greatness they might devalue the lost who were central to the heart of God (Matthew 18:10). Church leaders today can similarly be tempted to devote themselves to climbing the ladder of position and influence at the expense of reaching people who have taken a wrong fork in the road. In Luke’s account, Jesus tells the story of the lost sheep in response to the criticism He’s facing for spending so much time with the morally dubious “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 15:1). The religious insiders think that He should spend more time with them.
In perhaps every generation, religious insiders who don’t share God’s heart for the lost will demand more time, more attention, and more preference from the church and its leadership, but Jesus’ words point in a different direction. A faithful shepherd will be gone looking for sheep, at times. A faithful shepherd will take risks and sacrifice the preferences of the righteous sheep in order to reach the lost ones. A shepherd who always huddles with the faithful and never goes looking for the lost isn’t a good shepherd. The same is probably true of the business leader who becomes so complacent with their market share that they never lean in to address the concerns of their critics or the customers they have lost. And a shepherd leader parent will make sacrifices for the child who has strayed but will also model the heart of God by seeking to draw the lost in the community into the family circle. This is what shepherd leaders do, after all. And this is what Jesus is doing in our midst.
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.