Shepherd Leadership

I recently finished work on my master’s degree with a concentration in church revitalization at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. To be completely honest, I had never heard of this field prior to realizing I was actually doing the work of revitalization in the church I am currently pastoring. What was initially a surprise has quickly become a passion, a passion to see churches rekindle their love for the Lord and the mission He has called them to. In the final class for my degree plan I wrote a paper entitled Theology of Leadership. This paper was broken down into various sections that addressed a developing theology of leadership for the pastor who is working through revitalization. Over the next few weeks I plan to share each section of this paper, adapted to make sense in a stand-alone blog entry. I pray these pieces will be a blessing to churches, leaders, and anybody who has considered the valuable work of church revitalization.

Shepherding Leadership

Every Christian leader should understand and appreciate the role they have been called to as a leader. In the same way, those who are being led should appreciate and respect those who lead them. The author of Hebrews makes this clear when he says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.”[1] Augustine understood the weight of this leadership responsibility when he says,

You see, we whom the Lord has deigned, thanks to no merits of ours, to set in this high station (about which a very strict account indeed has to be rendered) have two things about us that must be clearly distinguished: one, that we are Christians, the other, that we are placed in charge. Being Christians is for our sake; being in charge is for yours. It is to our advantage that we are Christians, only to yours that we are in charge.[2]

As John Maxwell says, everything rises and falls on leadership, and throughout Scripture shepherding has been used to illustrate the picture of ideal leadership. Within the church, those who have been called to revitalize are called to lead. The question then is not, if one is a leader, rather the question is, what kind of leader? Within this paradigm bad shepherds are condemned, and the promise of the good and great Shepherd is promised.[3] It is the latter that leaders in the church ought to emulate.

It is necessary to identify markers of bad shepherds and contrast them with the character of the Good Shepherd. When this is accomplished it is then imperative to evaluate one’s own leadership style to see where improvements need to be made. As a theology of leadership is developed, it is the desired goal of this blog to provide some biblical concepts to consider.

In his commentary on Ezekiel, Lamar Cooper points out a number of helpful aspects to this conversation. First, it was common for kings and leaders to be referred to as shepherds in the ancient Near East, but says, “These “shepherds” were more than military-political leaders. They bore a primary responsibility for the moral and spiritual direction of the nation.”[4] This makes sense when Ezekiel condemns the shepherds of Israel for feeding themselves and neglecting the flock.[5] Second, rather than care for the flock, the shepherds of Israel had totally neglected them. Cooper then identifies Ezekiel’s indictment of the bad shepherds in Ezekiel 34:1-6 on three fronts: (1) they did not seek to meet the needs of flock, rather they used the people they were to care for to satisfy their own selfishness, (2) they failed to care for those who were in special need, rather they responded with harshness and cruelty, (3) their failure to lead spiritually and morally left the people prone to wander, resulting in immorality and idol worship.[6] In other words, the shepherds had completely neglected their role in caring for the needs of the people they had been entrusted to lead. The result was a people who were scattered like sheep without a shepherd.[7]

The cost of this poor leadership was severe. Ezekiel tells these shepherds that the Lord is going to remove them from the role of shepherd, and He is the one that will care for and tend the flock. This is a clear foreshadowing of the role of Christ in the New Testament. A similar example to see is also in Jeremiah 23:1 where the prophet says, “Woe to the shepherds.” Here the word woe (הוֹי) is used to communicate a grievous or threatening cry against the shepherds.[8] Walker and Martens translate this word to be, “What sorrow awaits…”[9] In both cases the result is YHWY taking lead of the flock. Under the care of the Good Shepherd, God’s people will be cared for, healed, fed, gathered, and led.[10] This will be done with a rod for correction and a staff for guidance.[11]

As a biblical theology of leadership is developed and as the theme of shepherd leadership is understood, it stands to reason that the leader who is leading through revitalization and renewal in the visible church of Christ would then mirror the shepherd leadership of Christ. The leader the must take his ques from the Good Shepherd himself. The shepherd leader will establish trust with those he leads. This will be done through intentional investment of time into building relationships, often with people who would otherwise be written off.[12] It is when a leader meets those who follow him in their time of need that trust is fostered. An aspect of shepherding that must be understood in the context of investing of time is the hands-on part of relationship development. Simply put, shepherds smell like their flock. They often help in birthing process; they are constantly on their feet leading to greener pastures or fighting off predators. Leading is not done from an armchair, but with boots on the ground. God cares about His children, and He expects those who are called to be under-shepherds to care as well.

In conclusion, let me sum this up by providing a few points to consider in your approach to leadership:

  • Consider the needs of those you lead. Is your leadership meeting those needs?
  • Examine the model of shepherd leadership provided by Scripture. Is your shepherding more like Ezekiel 34 or John 10?
  • Do the ones you lead trust you?
  • Have you spent the time to develop the relationships?
  • Positional authority must not be negated (this is the authority that comes from holding an office or title), but it should also not be isolated from proper shepherding leadership.


[1]Hebrews 13:17 All Scripture references from NASB 1995

[2]Kenneth Stevenson and Michael Gluerup, eds., Ezekiel, Daniel, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 105.

[3]Jeremiah 23:1-2 and Ezekiel 34:1-10

[4]Lamar Eugene Cooper, Ezekiel, vol. 17, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 298.

[5]Ezekiel 34:2

[6]Cooper, Ezekiel, vol. 17, The New American Commentary.

[7]Taylor, John B. Ezekiel: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 22. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1969.

[8]Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson, and Johann Jakob Stamm. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000.

[9]Walker, Larry L., Elmer A. Martens. Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Isaiah, Jeremiah, & Lamentations. Vol. 8. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005.

[10]John 10:1-22 cf. Mark 6:34 and Matthew 9:36

[11]Psalm 23

[12]Luke 19:1-10, Mark 2:15-22, et al.

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