The imagery of shepherd is intimately tied to pastoral ministry. In fact, some would argue that the metaphor of shepherding is the primary picture from which we should develop our understanding of pastoral leadership (See Tim Laniak’s Shepherds After My Own Heart). The ancient practice of animal husbandry consisted of the roles of provision, protection, and guidance.
The beautiful thing about the shepherding metaphor is that it instructs us on the nature of pastoral leadership with deep emotive insight. In many ways, this is why the Biblical writers employed the shepherding metaphor for pastoral ministry.
Shepherds Nourish Their Flock
One of the most pressing challenges for any shepherd is to provide nourishment (water, food, rest) for their flocks in harsh environments, environments that often withheld essential elements for life and flourishing. A good shepherd knows where to find pastures that are not only lush but safe enough for his flocks to rest in peace.
Eating and drinking bring nourishment (John 21:15-17). Rest is a function of being well provided for. Rest also points to a state of security that comes from the shepherd’s protective presence (Acts 20:29). The church is to be a community of rest, a place for the weary to refresh from the wilderness of everyday life. The call is clear for pastors to nourish the people God has placed in your care.
Shepherds Lead and Protect Their Flock
Psalm 23 is one of the most recognizable Psalms that utilizes the shepherding metaphor. In this Psalm David reflects on the confidence one can find in the good shepherds care, even in times of deep darkness. Laniak notes that “even in the deadly shadows that fall at dusk in the desert’s canyons there is safety in his presence. Though easily frightened by nature, this trusting sheep will move through the shadows without fear, (112)” The language of the psalm provides us imagery of the two simple but versatile tools that ancient shepherds carried to protect his flock.
The Rod: This defense instrument allowed the shepherd to be ready for any predator. This short club was a crude weapon for battle, it was also the shepherd’s implement used for counting a flock at night as the flock passes under it.
The Staff: This was the instrument that the shepherd used to nudge wandering sheep back in line, is was a source of comfort because it was used for picking off branches, snagging a trapped animal with the crook, or redirecting misbehaving members of the herd. The staff became a symbol for the protective presence of the shepherd.
Laniak notes that “these two rods may represent the two functions of a shepherd: protector from external threats and peacekeeper among the flocks" (54). Pastoral ministry calls for gentle assistance, direction, rescue, and encouragement among the flock of God. Pastors are also called to defend the flock from outside threats and even discipline the flock to avoid dangers from within. The fruits of this authority are security and comfort among the flock because of a good shepherds care and discipline.
Shepherds Intimately Know Their Flock
In his devotional book While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, Tim Laniak comments on the importance of knowing and naming the flock. “Naming is a powerful, tangible expression of the shepherds intimate bond that begins at birth and grows through an animal’s tenure with a flock. In the practice of animal husbandry responsible shepherds know every member of their flocks in terms of their birth circumstances, history of health, eating habits and other idiosyncrasies. One of the most striking characteristics of the shepherd-flock relationship is that control over the flock is exercised simply by the sound of the shepherd’s voice or whistle. This provides a rich depiction of Jesus’ words in John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
To know someone requires time and care. Isaiah provides a good picture of a caring shepherd in 40:11, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young”. This type of care would be expressed in the life of the church through pastoral visitation, counseling, and ministry in times of sickness and grief. Shepherds who love their sheep notice when their sheep are hurting and seek to be with them to care for them.