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In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. In this text he offers insight into the common practice of shepherding sheep. Jesus then describes the characteristics of a good shepherd. Jesus’ analogy becomes a great model for what it means to be a good shepherd to the congregational sheep. This passage illustrates four important points of a good shepherd:
It is the job of a shepherd (minister) to know his sheep. Some may assume that spending the majority of their work week preparing a message makes them a good shepherd. Scripture teaches that the good shepherd is one who knows his sheep because he spends time with them. He sees where they are hurting. He is aware of their bumps and bruises. A shepherd in the fields would inspect each of the sheep in his care on a regular basis. An inspection would call for the shepherd to take his time to look carefully at the sheep. He would look past the hair which can conceal ticks, bites, scrapes and anything out of the ordinary. If he discovered something unusual, he would examine that area more carefully. His experience with other sheep would then determine the proper course of treatment. Splinters would be dug out. Insects would be removed and destroyed and salves would be applied. The shepherd would perform these caring acts because he desires the best care for his sheep.
A good shepherd calls his sheep by name. I remember reading a story about John Maxwell. While pastoring a large church in California, he made it his business to know the names of those in his congregation. His strategy was to make a notebook of pictures of the members of his congregation labeled with the appropriate name of each person. He would then scroll through that notebook everyday praying for each person and putting names with faces. With the modern technology we have today, consider ways to incorporate systems to make better connections with the names and faces of your congregants.
Shepherds are responsible for developing a care strategy for their flock. I have had ministers tell me that their gifts are not in the area of pastoral care. I understand that to some degree, so I would suggest that the leader oversee the development of a plan for pastoral care within the structure of the congregation. This plan would include the names of the people responsible for this valuable ministry. It would also detail expectations for the staff that would provide the appropriate care for the members.
A good shepherd leads his sheep. Shepherds are not only concerned about the care of the flock, but they are out in front leading the sheep. As a born and bred Texan, it is hard for me to identify with this picture of sheep since my experience has been around cattle. One thing I have noticed about cattle is that when a rancher has a small herd he treats them differently. He doesn’t just regard them as a herd. He knows their names and he leads them where they need to go with special feed cubes. In this way he is leading them to a location where something significant needs to happen.
In the Middle East a shepherd rarely herds his sheep but instead leads the sheep. Lynn Anderson, in his book, They Smell Like Sheep, shares the story of a friend who witnessed a group of shepherds and sheep walking together until they came to a fork in the path. Each shepherd took a different path and most of his sheep followed him. Sometimes there were strays that were on the wrong path, so the shepherd called them with his special call. The sheep who belonged to that shepherd ran and got in line with the other sheep. This cycle continued with a different call coming from each shepherd. One by one the straggler sheep made their way to the appropriate herd until all the sheep were in the right spot.
As shepherd leaders we must be out in front of our sheep seeking God’s direction as we lead. We must gently lead them to where they need to go rather than herding them from the back or beating them as we go. A shepherd leader understands the balance of identifying where people are and where they need to move to. A shepherd leader may have a long term vision for the sheep but understands that it must be unpacked in increments along the way for the sheep to understand. If the shepherd knows his sheep, he will know at what pace to lead them.
Jesus is our example of a good shepherd. May we follow his lead as we lead the sheep he has given us.