Shepherd Leaders Needed: Others Need Not Apply

John ArmstrongPastoral Renewal

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.