Pastoral leadership is inseparable from the image of a shepherd. The word “pastor” is, after all, the Latin wordfor “shepherd.” The call to serve as a pastor or elder is a call to shepherd the people of God in a particular place (Acts 20:28–29; Eph. 4:11; 1 Pet. 5:1–2). AS I READ THE SCRIPTURES, I SEE THREE KEY PRACTICES OF A SHEPHERD LEADER THAT REMIND ME HOW TO RELATE TO THE PEOPLE FOR WHOM I AM RESPONSIBLE AS A PASTOR.

God, the Model Shepherd Leader

A shepherd leader is a leader who practices presence, protection, and provision. These three practices are particularly clear in God’s denial of David’s request to build a temple (2 Sam. 7). After rejecting David’s plan, God related the ways that he had shepherded David throughout his rise to power:

The Lord had remained present with David (“I have been with you,” 7:9).

The Lord had protected David (“I have destroyed all your enemies,” 7:9).

The Lord promised to provide a name for David and a place for the people of Israel (“I will make a name for you. . . . I will establish a place,” 7:9–10).

This threefold description of God’s care for David provides a helpful snapshot of the practices of an ideal shepherd: Shepherds remain with the sheep, rescue them from danger, and provide them with a place where they receive what they need to be secure. In other words, shepherds practice presence,

protection, and provision. One result of God’s shepherding would be peace for David and for his people (“so that they may . . . not be disturbed. . . . I will give you rest,” 7:10–11). If any future king of Israel became a beast who preyed on the people, God would discipline this king with a shepherd’s rod (7:14).

This covenant with David is far from the last place where provision, presence, and protection appear in connection with sheep and shepherds, however. In his most famous psalm, David recognized the Lord as his shepherd (Ps. 23:1). According to David, his shepherd God was:

Present to guide him (“he leads me,” “you are with me,” 23:3–4)

Powerful to protect him (“I fear no danger,” “in the presence of my enemies,” 23:4–5; see also Ps. 28:7–9)

Faithful to provide for him (“there is nothing I lack,” “green pastures,” “quiet waters,” “he prepares a table,” 23:1–2, 5)

Once again, the leadership of the Lord God led to peace and rest in a place that God himself had prepared (“he lets me lie down,” “I will dwell in the house of the Lord,” 23:2, 6).

Practices of presence, protection, and provision are entwined in descriptions of the ideal shepherd in Scripture because no sheep can survive long without a shepherd who is present, powerful, and faithful to provide. Without antlers or claws or fangs, sheep are hard pressed to strike back at predators. Lacking the capacity to climb or to run at high speeds, they can’t escape easily either. Simply put, an independent sheep is a dead sheep.

Because they are so vulnerable, sheep don’t typically rest unless they feel safe and secure. In the words of Timothy Laniak, for sheep “rest is not only a function of being well provided for. It is a state of security that comes from the shepherd’s protective presence.”1 This is why God called for leaders who would not only lead his people but also shepherd them. Every sheep needs a shepherd and a flock.

Shepherd Leadership as a Way of Leading

When God raised up human leaders as shepherds, he was calling them to participate in his work of rescuing his people, remaining with them, and providing for them. This calling did not elevate leaders to positions of sovereign lordship over the people; instead, it placed them in positions of sacrificial stewardship among the people of Israel. God alone remained the supreme shepherd of his people, because only a sovereign God is capable of perfect provision, protection, and presence (Ps. 80:1; Isa. 40:11; Jer. 31:10; Mic. 7:14). The position of the God-called shepherd leader is one of service and obedience, guiding and guarding the people under the authority of the supreme shepherd. In the early church, this way of leading would become so closely tied to the work of the church’s leaders that the word “pastor”— which means “shepherd”—developed into a title for the office of elders and overseers in the new covenant.

The Presence of the Shepherd Leader

To be a shepherd leader requires us to be present with our people, protecting them from error and providing them with the rich fodder of God’s Word. In the world’s way of thinking, successful leadership correlates with inaccessibility; the most successful leaders are protected by layers of security, staff, and secretaries. Unfortunately, church leaders can easily fall into similar patterns. Among pastors, however, such inaccessibility should be seen not as a badge of honor but as a shameful signpost of capitulation to the world’s values. We cannot be present with our people to protect and provide for them if we aren’t accessible to them. If shepherds cease to be available to the sheep, they cease to behave as shepherds. This is not to suggest that a pastor must be leashed to every member’s passing whim or present at every church function. Pastors must schedule consistent times for the purposes of study, prayer, and spiritual refreshment (Luke 5:16; Acts 6:2, 4), as well as making space for rest and recreation and time for family. And yet pastors must also prioritize patterns of presence with their flock.

The Provision and Protection of the Shepherd Leader

When it comes to provision and protection, the world’s priorities might call us to pay the most attention to the people who are most powerful, or those whose bank accounts are most likely to multiply the church’s budget. Godly shepherds, however, are called to provide and to protect by seeking the lost, bringing back the strays, bandaging the injured, and strengthening the weak (Ezek. 34:16)—which sounds like a shepherd’s priorities should be shaped not by people’s positions, but by their brokenness and need. “If I do not show concern for the one sheep that strays and gets lost,” Augustine remarked in the fifth century regarding his congregation in the city of Hippo, “even a sheep who is strong will think it’s nothing more than a joke to stray and to be lost. I do indeed desire outward gains, but I’m more afraid of inward losses.” 2

1 Timothy Laniak, Shepherds after My
Own Heart (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 55.

2 Augustine of Hippo, “Sermon 46: On the Shepherds,” in Sermons 20-50, vol. 2 of The Works of Saint Augustine, pt. 3, Sermons, trans. Edmund Hill, ed. John E. Rotelle (Brooklyn: New City Press, 1990), 272.