Called to be Shepherds

In this series of reflections based on Stephen Cottrell’s seminal book, On Priesthood: Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels and Stewards, this week we explore the term ‘shepherd’ as a metaphor for ‘ministry’. The fact is that church leaders are called to care for those in their charge – and they do so by being ‘pastors’ (a word derived from the Latin, pastor, shepherd).

Strangely the noun ‘pastor’ or ‘shepherd’ for a ministry in the church occurs only once in the New Testament: viz. in Eph 4.11 where Paul included “pastors” as being gifts of the Risen Christ to his church. However, the related verb ‘to shepherd’ appears several times in this sense. First, there is Paul’s charge to the Ephesian ‘elders’: “Keep watch over yourselves and over the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the Church of God that he has obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20.28). Similarly, Peter exhorted  the ‘elders’ in his churches: “Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it – not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock” (1 Pet 5.2.3). Then in John’s Gospel there is the commission of the Risen Lord Jesus to Peter to “tend my sheep” (John 21.16).

In addition, we need to note that the shepherd metaphor is above all developed in John 10, where Jesus speaks of himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10.11). While there is no reference to future leaders acting as shepherds, nonetheless the occasion when Jesus commissioned Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21.15-19) together perhaps with the more general commission of John 20.21 (“As the Father has sent me, so I send you”) provides a model for today’s ‘shepherds’ in the church.

There is much that these passages teach us. For instance, Peter’s emphasis on the ‘non-coercive’ nature of leadership: leadership is not the same as lordship. People need to be given the freedom to choose whether or not they will follow the lead that is being offered to them. Power may manipulate, but love always gives the choice. Then there is Jesus’ emphasis on the costliness of the call: unlike the hired servant the good shepherd is not motivated by self-interest, but rather by his concern for the welfare of the sheep. However, rather than develop my own thinking, I wish to highlight four points made by Stephen Cottrell in his exposition of shepherding.

First, he notes that we “have turned the word ‘pastoral’, and with it ‘pastoral ministry, into something rather insipid, as if to be pastoral was just about keeping people happy and being nice to them”. The fact is that in New Testament times shepherds were tough. “When they directed the flock to new pastures, they led from the front, striking out ahead of the sheep; and when a lion or a bear did threaten the flock [see 1 Sam 17.34-35], the shepherd was ready and equipped to fight them off.” I find this a helpful reminder. It wasn’t by chance that in the ancient world as also in the Bible rulers were often referred to as ‘shepherds’. Today’s shepherds need to have the ability and the strength to lead people out in mission.

Secondly, although Jesus said, “the good shepherd knows the sheep” (John 10.4), “If by ‘knowing all the sheep’, we mean ‘knowing each of them personally’, then we may as well put up a ‘full up sign outside the church once our congregation has grown to a certain size…. If our model of leadership and ministry is based around our ability to have a meaningful relationship; with each member of the congregation we will probably have a happy church, but its size will be limited, its people dependent, and its priest exhausted”. This too is a point well made. As I look back on my own experience of church life, although I ensured I knew the names of my people, there was no way in which I could have a deep personal relationship with everybody. True, I tried to visit everybody once, but after that, unless there was a crisis, pastoral care was delegated to others. As Cottrell says:

’Being known’ and ‘feeling you belong’ are vital for church growth and for church health. But it didn’t have to be my job to do all the ‘knowing’.

Thirdly, being a shepherd is much more than caring for the needs of individuals; it involves, says Cottrell, taking “responsibility for the well-being of the flock” as a whole. “Real pastoral ministry” is about becoming “the leader in mission”. If shepherds are not to ‘burn out’, then they need to share ministry, which in turn means they need to be “constantly investing in others”. In the words of the apostle Paul, ‘pastors’ need to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4.12).

Fourthly, shepherds need to be good at their ‘job’. They need, says Cottrell, to have a degree of “expertise”: “firstly, in the things of God, the life of prayer and the spiritual pathways we must follow, with all their attendant dangers, darkness and snares; also a study and knowledge of God, chiefly the Scriptures themselves, but also liturgy and doctrine; and then in pastoral skills, by which I mean the actual leading of the church”. Cottrell quotes St Ambrose: “Who is going to entrust himself to someone whose wisdom seems to be no greater than his own? Who wants to quench his thirst with dirty water?” To which I would add, it is not enough to be well-meaning. Competency is call for. This in turn demands continuing ministry development!

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