The Leader as Shepherd
Literature reveals much debate over the leadership style of Jesus. Dr. Gerrit Van Vuuren asserts there are “many writings about Jesus including some about His leadership style.” However, Van Vuuren argues that researchers have done “very little research” into His actual leadership style. This paper will explore the nature of Christian leadership by considering Old Testament figures and the leadership style of Jesus using the metaphor of a shepherd. This paper will show a correlation between shepherd leadership and the servant leadership model.
The New American Standard Bible defines Shepherd as “a caretaker or tender of sheep and goals.” One would note that the image of shepherd as leader would have been perfect, given that many of the “Israelites were sheep farmers and knew exactly what the job of a shepherd entailed.” Many of the Old Testament figures were shepherds. Among them would have been “Abraham and Jacob, the twelve tribes, the prophet Moses, and King David; and the Old Testament prophet Amos.” However, Gerrit Van Vuuren contends, “On the issue of Christian Leadership more is written about King David than Jesus.” Yet, he goes on to say, “All of the Old Testament serves as an indicator towards Jesus Christ.” To understand the nature of leader as shepherd, scholars have asserted that shepherd metaphorically represents “God the Father, Jesus and the leaders of a congregation who help the flock to feed on the Word of God and protect them from false teachers and unsound doctrine.” One could argue that the metaphorical use of shepherd throughout scripture points to the leadership style required by God of those he places in positions of authority. Therefore, as a shepherd one presumes an authority over those being shepherded. If one were to refer back to the NASB definition, one could argue that shepherd leadership includes organizational goals.
Throughout scripture, there are many examples of God giving authority for a specific purpose. In reading scripture, one could argue that one would need authority to become a shepherd over those in which they would lead. For example, starting in Exodus 3:1 we find Moses who was “pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.” From this scripture, one will note the authority given Moses by his father-in-law over the flock. To parallel this idea of authority, one can look to the later dialogue between God and Moses in Exodus 3:10 in which God says, “Come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel out of Egypt.” In this passage, one can conclude that God provided the authority to Moses necessary for him to go to Pharaoh and deliver the Israelites out of slavery. One could argue that Moses otherwise would not have been able to go before Pharaoh and deliver the Israelites from Egypt without such authority from God. Scripture indicates a discourse between Moses and God in which Moses argued, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” Scripture presumes reluctance on Moses part as he felt was not equipped for such responsibility and authority. Yet one could argue that Moses already obtained the needed skills to lead the Israelites out of Egypt through his upbringing in Pharaohs palace as well as his experience shepherding the flock of sheep belonging to Jethro. Further, 2 Samuel 5:2 illustrates the authority given Moses to shepherd as leader by stating, “And the Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd My people Israel, and you will be a ruler over Israel.’” Matthew 2:6 carries forward the idea of shepherd leadership when it states, “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” One will note the theme in both scriptures, “Shepherd My people.” Both scriptures connote a given authority for someone to take leadership over a group of people. Scripture notes Gods deep interest in shepherding people. Numbers 27:17 illustrates the leadership style of a shepherd when it says, “…and who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep which have no shepherd.” Comparatively, Matthew 9:36 states, “Seeing the people, He [Jesus] felt compassion for them because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” In both cases, the scriptures capture the idea of leading, serving and providing a covering of safety for those whom God gave responsibility over.
The Leader as Servant
Leadership has been defined as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.” Yet, when one looks at the concept of shepherd leadership, one notes the need to serve others. Shepherding appears on the surface to be in conflict with the worldview definition of leadership. To understand shepherding leadership one must understand and define servant leadership. A servant leader is that of a leader who “seeks to serve, and that this serving is a natural component of the leader.” Servant leadership implies a natural calling to serve others. Could this possibly mean that this is not natural for all? Through the interaction with His disciples, Jesus spent much of his time mentoring and teaching them on the acts of service. One could argue that Jesus mission was to show the disciples that this requires a commitment on the part of the leader to serve others without potential of immediate reward. Matthew 16:24-26 illustrates this notion, “Jesus spoke of another kind of commitment. He told His disciples and made it clear that He wants total commitment. Jesus said, unless one commits everything, one loses everything. He urges His followers, take up your cross and follow me.” One could conclude, based on scripture, that servant leadership is a learned skill based on the mentorship of Christ over His disciples.
From Ezekiel, one could further argue that a shepherd is nothing more than a servant leader. One must understand however that a servant leader “is not a particular style of leadership, but rather relates to the motivation behind a leader’s thoughts, words and actions.” Ezekiel 34: 11-31 outlines the differences between a bad shepherd and a good one. One will note that there is a distinct difference in motivation behind both the bad and the good. The following table illustrates Ezekiel 34:11-31 and the differences between bad shepherding and good shepherding:
Bad Shepherds Good Shepherd
Takes care of themselves Takes care of the flock
Worry about their own health Strengthen the weak and the sick
Rules harshly and brutally Rules lovingly and gently
Abandons and scatters the sheep Gathers and protects the sheep
Keeps the best for themselves Gives their best to the sheep.
It is important one note that the desire to serve is selfless. Ezekiel illustrated this notion through the idea of taking care of the flock, strengthening them and protecting them. One can look to Isaiah 40:11, which states that, “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.” Again, the selflessness of leadership is exemplified in scripture. Jesus further expressed this selfless giving in Matthew 20:26-27 “…but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” Jesus taught that one did not have to be a hero to be a leader. Actually, He taught just the opposite. To be a leader one must be a servant. He taught in Matthew 23:8 that there is no need to pull rank on each other, and that “the greatest among you will be your servant.” It can be argued, “Servant leadership may be a style of management to corporations, but to Jesus it was an attitude of heart.” Jesus displayed this in Matthew 20:21 when he said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” One could conclude that shepherd and servant leadership both begin within the heart of the leader to humbly serve and protect those whom authority has been given.
Scripture reflects one of the final acts of empowerment and instruction of shepherding by Jesus. In Matthew 6, we find a dialogue between Peter and Jesus in which Jesus tells Peter that on this rock (Peter) He will build his church. John 21:15-17 confirms this statement when Jesus restores Peter. Jesus provides three commands to Peter: John 21:15 Tend my Lambs, John 21:16 Shepherd my Sheep and John 21:17, tend my sheep. The first instance of the word “tend” one can find translation that indicates the meaning to be “feed my sheep” or to watch after the flocks physical health and wellbeing. Then he commands Peter to shepherd the sheep, which scholars argue is the act of leading the church. The final instance of the word “tend” indicates a spiritual feeding of the church. One would note that Jesus was doing nothing more than “instructing the founder of His church that he would have to lead the disciples and members of the church of the future in a specific way.” As one looks to the model of Christ, it is noted that the leadership style he provoked was not only of shepherd but of servant. One could argue that it is not possible to be a true shepherd unless one is also a servant.
A review of literature indicates very little scholarly research on the matter of shepherd leadership. Regardless of the deficit, one need only look to scripture to understand that shepherding is an important concept to God. One could conclude that God points to shepherd leadership style as a requirement of those placed in authority over others. One could argue that shepherding and servant leadership are synonymous with and interdependent on each other. One must understand that effective shepherding begins with a heart for service and authority to hold leadership over others. When considering the definition of leadership and the influence required in achieving common goals, one must maintain humility and service to those they serve. The difference between a good shepherd and a bad one is rooted in the motivation of the leader. A bad shepherd will be more concerned with his or her own wellbeing. Shepherd leadership is a matter of selfless service to subordinates. This service to others will require a commitment to serve without the potential of immediate recognition or reward. Shepherd leadership will require, at times, gently leading those in their charge, mentoring and sometimes teaching them along the way. One must avoid the danger of Moses who considered himself ill prepared to serve. While humility is an important aspect of shepherd leadership, it may also lead one to miss the skills and abilities already in place to serve. Shepherding begins with ones heart and extends to the skills and abilities they bring to the table to serve as a leader. Like the shepherds of old, one must have the skills, the authority and above all the heart of service to lead others.
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Philip A Foster, MA is a professional life and leadership coach with Maximum Change Inc.
He works with leaders to develop their purpose, life balance and achieve greater success. Encouraging leaders to take active and consistent steps toward reaching goals and objectives. Specializing in Organization and Strategic Leadership.