To Shepherd or To Sheep in the Day of Crisis: Metaphors of Church Life

Our most painful experience was also among the most instructive. One of the lessons learned in the crucible of our son’s murder in 2011 involved my role as the spiritual leader of a local congregation. One day in that grueling week a dear friend sat me down for some serious porch time. He was loving, kind, and wept as he spoke. He said, “We all know you and Harriet are broken by Brian’s death. We want to care for you. But, your shepherd heart is making it hard for us. Could you just be one of the sheep for a while and let this dear flock nuzzle you through this?”

Later I had time to actually reflect on what was said to me that day. Those words had come from a genuinely concerned church friend who wanted to reverse the dynamic of church life so Harriet and I could receive the love and care of the flock. It became a nagging theme of personal study as we labored through the grief and emotions of a dark time. But, the lessons were profound for me as a pastor:

  1. The shepherd/flock model is but one biblical depiction of the roles that define church leadership. It is our primary ideal because of the deep Old Testament precedents of spiritual leaders as shepherds and because we are to follow in the steps of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. So, it is a compelling model, hard to resist.
  2. In Scripture, the shepherd/flock relationship is a distinctly precious, but one-way dynamic. The shepherd leads, guides, and cares for the sheep, and the flock obediently, gratefully follows. This image is etched deep in the hearts of most pastors, the calling to be a faithful shepherd.
  3. Even in personal crisis the call to shepherd the flock (see 1 Peter 5:2) is a strong compulsion for pastors and church staff. Over us are the words of God to Zechariah, “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered” (13:7). It’s hard to lay this vivid picture aside even in the shepherd’s most trying hours. Also, we must be careful not to permit prideful elements to keep us out front even in times of hardship. There’s a step of humility that must happen too. It was a highlight of Christ’s example as well.
  4. The Apostle Paul used the word shepherd only once in the Epistles, Ephesians 4:11, when he described the spiritual gifting of the body of Christ. It was not his primary definition of the role of a spiritual leader. Maybe it was because he was an educated city boy and not a farm child. But, for Paul there were more compelling images in his understanding of spiritual leadership.
  5. Paul used familiar personal terms to define his relationship with the churches. His letter to the Philippians is an example of the unique fellowship he shared with the churches. Theirs was a “partnership” (Philippians 1:5, 4:15), where they were “partakers with me of grace” (Philippians 1:7), and “brothers: (1:12,14). Mutuality was the character of this interaction, and he readily opened his heart to their ministry and care as he endured the many hardships of leading the churches in those hard days.

The shepherd model of spiritual leadership must be our ideal because it was central to our Lord’s example and instruction. Today, there’s such a need for the shepherd’s heart in guiding congregations through the congested, complicated intersections of this life. The corporate and secular leadership systems so trendy right now just won’t work.

But, there are occasions when even that most cherished dynamic must be set aside so that the body can function under those other biblical precepts. An incident in Acts comes to mind. Peter and John had been arrested when their healing of a man at the Beautiful Gate created such a furor. Luke wrote, “When they were released, they went to their friends and reported…” (Acts 4:23). In that critical hour they gathered with the church, the people they considered as their friends, for prayer and worship. Something incredible happened: “The place in which they were gathered together was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). In that hard ordeal the body of Christ happened and moved them to the next level of mission.

My dear friend communicated that lesson to me during a particularly difficult time. It was a lesson that penetrated my stubborn heart then and still moves me deeply now. Paul said it, best: “If one member suffers, all suffer together, if one is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ…” (1 Corinthians 12: 26-27).

Authentic spiritual leaders are parts of his body too.

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