For some years I have taught biblical and common sense principles of leadership to churches. This all began by way of a two-day seminar I taught for another ministry back in the 1980s. This experience actually launched my present ministry but I did not understand this at the time. I found that I spent lots of time with pastors and other church leaders, in these local-church based seminars, teaching sessions to between 10 and 40 people about ten to twelve times a year. This experience forced me to listen, interact and develop people skills in the process. Being a student of anything that interests me at all (including theology, film, political theory, public policy, history, baseball and college football) I found that I wanted to study this subject of leadership much more intensely. I thus read lots of books, Christian and non-Christian. I talked to lots of leaders, some well-known and some not well-known at all. This all impacted my own sense of being a pastor and helped me to grow in that role during my sixteen years in my second church (1976-1992). (I was a church planter in my first four years of pastoral ministry, 1972-76.)

This is one of the reasons why the present controversy over my working with University Bible Fellowship (UBF), a controversy which I shall comment upon more fully in the not too distant future, strikes a unique cord in my own soul. Whenever a key element of biblically-based ministry is lost to an entire generation the dangers of a false recovery are very real. UBF is trying to do something that is both needed and very dangerous. This is one reason why they have made mistakes and also a major reason for why they get such strong reaction against them. The church in North America, generally speaking, has all but lost the older pattern of biblical shepherding. Seminaries don’t teach it, and haven’t taught it for decades. We generally seek catalytic change agents to lead our congregations, not shepherds who will care for sheep, or who at least make certain they are cared for by a team that knows how to do this ministry well.

We have plainly bought into the modern CEO model of leadership more than the humble disciple of Jesus model, which is relationally-based. This is so obvious that I would be surprised if anyone would challenge it. What people will challange is the idea that this change is an entirely negative one. Many would insist that we really do need the CEO approach, given the missional context of our time. Part of me resonnates with this point but part of me reacts strongly against it. In the end, we simply can’t escape the strong and clear biblical teaching about shepherds and sheep. This metaphor can be abused, and is often misunderstood or misapplied for sure, but the metaphor is still rich and extremely important. I would argue that we must not loose it. (We must take some risks to recover it too.) But that is what I see happening in the American church, where there is an almost complete loss of the idea and what it means. And this has all happened in my lifetime, from the 1960s on.

The Denver Seminary Magazine (Winter, 2006) gave a very good definition of a shepherd leader in four points. See if you don’t find these four extremely useful criteria good for beginning a serious discussion about this topic.

1. Good shepherd-leaders build relationships with people and people follow them because they know and trust them. They are not distant and isolaated, not strangers.

2. A good shepherd-leader exercises influence with people by walking in front of them and setting an example for people to follow.

3. Good shepherd-leaders are not selfishly focused on building themselves up.  Instead they focus on building other people up, helping them to grow and live a full life.

4. A good shepherd-leader serves people sacrificially. He or she protects people when they are threatened and continues to take care of them even when it requires personal sacrifice. Good shepherd-leaders don’t run away when the going gets tough.

A biblical leader knows this reality of serving and being misunderstood and even rejected. A biblical leader knows he or she will be lied about, maligned and sometimes even attacked by people from within their own ministry or leadership team. This is a sad fact of spiritual warfare. But a real servant-leader must understand that the real battle is not with "flesh and blood." Such a Christian must be willing "to lay down their life" for the sheep if they are real shepherds.

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  1. Joe Schafer February 8, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    Hi John,
    Thanks for another thought-provoking article.
    This historical drift that you mention in the role of the church
    pastor–the drift from shepherd to CEO–is real. Nearly every
    church in every state (except West Virginia) is a nonprofit
    corporation. Corporations are a legal construct. They are great for
    doing business and for getting us tax breaks from the IRS. By design
    they stand for principles and promote causes greater than the
    individual members. But the Church is something else. The Church is
    not really about causes. It is about Jesus Christ and the people (not
    ideas) for whom he died.
    To the four criteria you cited, I might add one more: A good
    shepherd-leader loves individual people and, if necessary, is willing
    to put the well-being of one person ahead of the interests of
    the organization. This may be the crux of the matter.
    It’s easy for pastors to be passionate about ideas and principles.
    But to be passionate about helping a person is an entirely different
    matter. That kind of passion does not come naturally. It is a gift
    from God. It flows from the mind of Christ.
    But this drift that you observed is not really new. Jesus spoke about
    it in John chapter 10. A CEO, after all, is just a fancier name for
    “hired hand.”

  2. ex ubf member February 8, 2007 at 8:37 pm

    I read the article on the Denver Seminary Magazine (Winter, 2006). I find that the four criteria are very good for beginning discussion about the shepherd leadership.
    As I was reading your article, I remembered what a German philosopher said long time ago. He said that by defining what truth is we also define what truth is not. I think it is importnant to discuss what shepherd leadership is all about. But I also think that it is equally important to discuss what shepherd leadership is NOT.
    The article in the Denver Seminary Magazine gives a good picture of what thief leaders are like–which by the way is what shepherd leadership is not.
    1. “Thief leaders use people for their own benefit…Thief leaders take credit for the work that other people do.”
    2. “Thief leaders kill enthusiasm and confidence in a group of people when they dominate them for their own selfish purposes.”
    3. “Thief leaders focus on building up their own reputation, their own power and their own resources.”
    4. “In their attempts to make everything in the church honor or highlight their accomplishments, these thief leaders greatly diminish the honor of Christ: they steal from Christ, the Head of the Church! More interested in their own agendas and ego needs, they lead their churches away from the purposes of Christ toward a personal agenda that allows them to look good with their peers or people of influence. What greater thievery than to draw more attention to themselves than to Christ?”
    5. “The hired hand runs away because he doesn’t really care about what happens to the sheep. There are many hired hands who serve in positions of leadership. For them, leadership is just another job. There is no commitment or sense of ownership when it comes to the people or the group. The hired hand leader doesn’t protect people when they are in
    trouble. When the going gets tough, the hired hand leader runs away. As soon as the hired hand leader can find a better job offer, he or she is gone.”
    I want to add one more thing to 5. A hired hand may not be a leader (CEO) in an organization. He/she could be anybody who would care more about organizational doctrines than about the spiritual wellbeing of sheep. When he/she finds that the sheep would not go with the organizational doctrines, he/she considers the sheep ‘Satan’ or ‘rebel’.

  3. Wes Wetherell February 10, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more… your article articulated something that I’ve been thinking about in our sub-culture. I’m also struck frequently by the callousness of some in leadership towards those under their care – sometimes even at the slightest provocation. The “CEO/shareholder model” seems to fit the consumer nature of some congregations better than that of a loving and concerned shepherd for his sheep.
    With the trend seeming so clearly pointed towards the “corporate” and away from the “pastoral” style of leadership, I’d be interested in your thoughts about a way forward – or places where you are seeing exceptions.
    Again, thanks for the clarity of thinking and challenge as well!

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