A couple of years ago, an individual who thought he might be called to pastoral ministry informed me (Jones), “I love to teach, and I want to preach – but I can’t stand people.” He went on to describe his dream position: to provide a polished exposition of Scripture every Sunday morning, to decide the church’s vision and direction, but never to deal directly with the people in the congregation. It was a pleasant-sounding dream with one fatal flaw: no such position exists in the very Scriptures that he claimed he wanted to proclaim.

What this young man needed wasn’t merely an improvement in his people skills – though, frankly, he could have used that too. What he needed was to understand the difference between cattle and sheep.

Throughout Scripture, sheep provide a primary metaphor for God’s people (1 Kgs 22:17; Ps 77:20) and God himself is the great shepherd (Gen 49:24; Ps 23:1). Yet the imagery doesn’t end there. Divinely designated leaders are seen as shepherds too (Num 27:15- 18; 2 Sam 5:2). In the New Testament, “shepherds” (or “pastors”) becomes a term to describe the church’s God- ordained overseers (Eph 4:11).

So what does all this have to do with differentiating cattle and sheep?

Cattle might meander among the oaks of Bashan or find themselves being fattened in pens (Amos 4:1; 6:4); either way, their tending did not require their keepers to live among them. Sheep, on the other hand, need a shepherd, and shepherds live among their sheep. When the shepherd fails to guide his sheep, the flock becomes fragmented and vulnerable (1 Kgs 22:17; 2 Chr 18:16; Zech 10:2).

The young man who declared he wanted to be a pastor but didn’t want to deal with people was contradicting himself. You can’t be a shepherd without living among the sheep.

The struggle to live as a shepherd is not new, of course. Leaders who failed to care for their flocks were, in fact, part of the problem that the prophet Ezekiel saw in the sixth century B.C. when he looked at the rulers of Israel. Ezekiel’s inspired pronouncement did not point his people toward some new leadership technique; instead, the prophet pointed them toward the sacrificial life of a leader yet to come.

Shepherds or sovereigns?

Even in the nations that surrounded Israel, “shepherd” functioned as a metaphor for rulers and gods – but Israel’s kings were called to shepherd God’s people in a very different way. The kings of Israel were never to present themselves as royal owners of the flock. God alone was the Lord of Israel, and the people were his property. The kings were under-shepherds. Like shepherds in the field tending the flock of a higher lord, the kings were responsible to live among their subjects, to guide them and to guard them for God’s glory.

But the kings of Israel and Judah failed. In the decades after David, they began to treat God’s people as their own property. According to Ezekiel, they failed to feed God’s flock (Ezek 34:2). Instead of serving among the people of God’s flock, these kings “ruled them” with “force and harshness” like Pharaoh in the days of Moses (Ezek 34:4; cf. Exod 1:13-14). The protectors became predators. The people became like sheep without a shepherd, scattered and slaughtered for the sake of their rulers (34:3, 6).

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Fixing this failure would require something far more radical than a tweak in the shepherding habits of human kings. The sole solution would be the arrival of God himself. The Lord of the flock would live among his people as their shepherd (Ezek 34:12). God himself would show up to seek out his scattered sheep, to separate the sleek from the weak and to fill the feed-troughs of the oppressors with judgment (34:11, 16-22). Once again, it would be clear that these people were the property of God alone.

God did not, however, give up on working through the offspring of Eve. He predicted through Ezekiel that he would raise up a human ruler as well: one like David, who would live not as a sovereign but as a servant, a prince, and an under-shepherd (34:23-24). This ruler would also live “among” his flock, and God himself would remain “with them” forever (34:24, 28-30).

All of this was partly fulfilled in the post-exile period – but only partly. On this side of the cross and empty tomb, it’s clear that Jesus provided the ultimate fulfillment of both predictions. As God enfleshed, he was the rightful Lord and King of his people. Yet he willingly became not only the servant and the shepherd but also the sacrificial lamb. The shepherd was stricken by God for sins that were not his own and then rose to life to gather his own from every nation (Zech 13:9; Matt 26:31-32; 28:19; John 10:14-18; Rev 7:9-17).

As he gathers his own, Jesus the exalted Shepherd King has chosen once again to work through human shepherds. In the Gospels, the apostles began as sheep (Matt 10:16) but wound up as shepherds (John 21:15-18) who then recognized other God-appointed men as shepherds of this flock (Eph 4:11; 1 Pet 5:1-2). Yet, now as in the days of Ezekiel, God himself remains the Chief Shepherd, the true owner of the sheep (Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4). Pastors are not lords of the sheep but servants of the King, called to imitate the chief Shepherd.

Imitating the Chief Shepherd

So what does all of this mean for pastoral leaders in the church of Jesus Christ?

1. Shepherd leadership calls for feeding the flock.

The primary responsibility of the shepherd is to provide nourishment for the flock (Ezek 34:2). So it is in church life, the pastor must consider that his leadership is most strikingly demonstrated through his teaching and preaching ministry. The Chief Shepherd was known as one who taught with great authority (John 1:29; Matt 7:28-29). Remember when Jesus invited his disciples to retreat to a deserted place? When they arrived, the spot was no longer deserted because the people had anticipated where Jesus might be headed. Compassion welled up within Jesus when he saw the people because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” His immediate response is telling: “he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).

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“Pastoral leadership is rooted in the responsibility of living as an under-shepherd with eyes fixed on the Chief Shepherd.”

Later, along the shores of Galilee, Jesus prepared breakfast for the disciples. This post-resurrection appearance concluded with Jesus asking Simon Peter three times, “Do you love me?” The response to Peter’s affirmations of love were “Feed my lambs. … Tend my sheep. … Feed my sheep.” Peter was reminded that he had been called to serve Christ by being a servant who feeds the flock. It was through feeding God’s people he was to demonstrate authentic love for the Chief Shepherd.

Pastoral leadership is rooted in the responsibility of living as an under-shepherd with eyes fixed on the Chief Shepherd. True compassion for people and love for God compels the pastoral leader to make Christ known through the teaching of God’s Word.

2. Shepherd leadership calls for guarding the flock.

In God’s rebuke against Israel’s leaders, he indicted them as predators rather than protectors. The rulers of Israel were devouring the flock for their own gain so that God’s sheep were scattered and became “food for all the wild beasts” (Ezek 34:3, 5, 8). God, who who would reverse the evils of the leaders, declared that he would rescue his sheep and give them rest so that they would no longer be prey (Ezek 34:12, 14, 15, 22). A mark of divine leadership is protection. So it is with shepherd leaders in Christ’s church.

3. Shepherd leadership leads to sacrificial service among the people.

Jesus, the model shepherd, makes this clear in his words to the Pharisees: “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). This is exactly what Christ did on our behalf through his finished work on the cross. It is no wonder then that, immediately after calling Peter to feed his sheep, the resurrected Jesus also called Peter to follow him to the point of death (John 21:18-19).

The difficulty is that there are pastors who choose to live as self- centered shepherds, much like the rulers described in Ezekiel. But there is another category of shepherds in the church – those who are flock-centered. This descriptor sounds positive, but it too falls short of authentic imitation of the Chief Shepherd. These leaders encourage their sheep and may even know their sheep, but they are marked by a desire to keep the flock happy and satisfied. They keep peace in the fold at any price. This well intended desire can lead to unwillingness to deal with sin or false teachings. The result is contentment to gather with the 99 – and to gather more “99s”— without seeking or correcting the one who wanders (Ezek 34:4-5, 8; Matt 18:12-14). This approach to shepherding ultimately produces weakened churches and a diminished display of God’s holiness and glory.

Leaders who understand their role as shepherds do not peer down at their people from a holy hayloft and drop an occasional bale of sustenance in the form of a finely crafted homily. Neither do they allow their flocks to live in false peace. Shepherd leaders live among their people and pay “careful attention … to all the flock” (Acts 20:28). They see themselves neither as sovereigns over their churches nor as hirelings of their churches but as under-shepherds of the living God.

*This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.

Michael S. Wilder serves as associate professor of leadership and discipleship at Southern Seminary. He also serves as associate vice president for doctoral studies.

Timothy Paul Jones serves as professor of leadership and church ministry at Southern Seminary. He is also the associate vice president for online learning and editor of The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry at the seminary. Jones has authored or contributed to more than a dozen books, including, most recently Family Ministry Field Guide along with Conspiracies and the Cross, Perspectives on Family Ministry and Christian History Made Easy. You can connect with Dr. Jones through his website TimothyPaulJones.com as well as on Twitter.