Shepherding God's People

by Jim Fowler October 8, 2015

One aspect of the eldership candidacy process at Redeemer Fellowship is required reading. For the next year I read assigned books and once complete, write a short summary and discuss. For some of the books I have the pleasure of reading along with Brian Malcolm, an elder at Redeemer. We recently began reading The Shepherd Leader by Timothy Witmer. Witmer draws a distinction between the metaphors of father and shepherd, he writes:

The shepherding metaphor is not only comprehensive with respect to the nature of the care received but also with respect to the extent. This is one important distinction between the metaphor of father and that of shepherd. Children grow up and become less dependent on their earthly fathers, though the relationship continues. Sheep, on the other hand, are always completely dependent on their shepherd. They never outgrow their need for the shepherd to care for them, feed them, lead them, and protect them. The shepherd cares for the newborn lambs and is still there when the sheep grow old and weak. – pg. 13

As I am learning what it means to shepherd, Witmer (directly and indirectly) gives five important aspects of shepherding. While Witmer is going to unpack these along the way, (I am admittedly on chapter 1) here are some initial thoughts.

A Shepherd Feeds

Part of caring for the flock is to feed the flock. A true shepherd gives opportunities for their flock to head into pasture and be fed. As shepherds of local churches, we are called to feed the people of God. We provide nourishment that can only be found in Christ. We encourage our people to feast on His word. We provide opportunities for Gospel proclamation, during the sermon, the sacraments, and in community. Our people need Jesus. Unfortunately, in some churches, what is served up is not the Gospel, it is not Christ. Unknowingly, some churches have their people feed on programs, performances, and personalities.

A Shepherd Leads

A shepherd goes before the flock. This is where true leadership can be seen. Are you consistently having to force your people to go where you want them to go? Are you manipulating or strong arming them? Then maybe instead of leading from the front (which means people are following), you are pushing from behind (forcing your will upon them). True leadership inspires trust. Trust inspires a willingness to follow. No following, no trust, not true leadership.

Granted, there may be situations where people are stubborn. Some don’t want to lose the historical ways things have been done, or people can be steeped in their sin and refuse any accountability. I do not know what to do there. I am not sure what the way forward is. What I do know, is a shepherd leads from the front.

A Shepherd Protects

Shepherds not only feed and lead, but protect. When wolves come to devour the sheep, a real shepherd steps in. We protect from false teaching, false teachers, and unrepentant sin. When individuals refuse to abandon sin, I don’t mean they are trying but failing, but truly refuse, then a shepherd protects the flock by calling them out on it. From one on one, to bringing along another, to before the elders, and if needed, the church. Unrepentant sin cannot be allowed to run wild within a church. We are called to protect the sheep from negative influences from outside and inside the church, as well as from themselves.

A Shepherd Commits

As mentioned above, Witmer writes “The shepherd cares for the newborn lambs and is still there when the sheep grow old and weak.” A shepherd is around for the long haul. Unfortunately, some see a church as a stepping stone, moving from one size to the next, trying to make their way to the church of 5000. Others, when things get tough they get out. A shepherd sticks it out and moves forward. There are times when one needs to move on, but what is seen in the modern church is a revolving door. For whatever reason. The heart is the issue here. Is one taking on the role truly committing that they will serve for many many years?

A Shepherd Dwells

Implied in the shepherd/sheep relationship is that of dwelling among. A shepherd spends time with their flock. In the church, a shepherd lives in community with their people and spends time with their people. They themselves get involved in community groups and/or ministry opportunities. How can one minister if one does not know their people? How can one preach if one does not know the joys, struggles, issues, and pain of the congregation? It makes no sense. I find it incredibly arrogant to minister without dwelling. It communicates an attitude that sees themselves above others and cannot be bothered to “stoop” to their level and dwell. Someone once said to me (and it made such an impact on my life) a shepherd must smell like the sheep.

Are you shepherding? As an elder/pastor, are you feeding, leading, protecting, committing, and dwelling with the flock? I see some areas in my life where I have not shepherded well. I praise God for being faithful during those times and the people for being patient. I pray God will soften and mold my heart, to give me a burden for His people.

Maybe you are not called to shepherd. What you can do is pray for your elders. Pray that they may serve well. Pray for wisdom and discernment. Pray for boldness when dealing with unrepentant sin, whether in the congregation or even in the leadership. Pray for their hearts, that they may flee sin and run to Christ. Pray for protection. I am learning more and more, leading is hard. Walking with people can be messy. Pray for joy, that they may serve the Lord with joy and gladness. Pray for the Spirit’s presence upon their lives.