By Berry Kercheville
The work of a shepherd is the highest calling to which one can attain. What work could be more important than watching after souls with the goal of bringing them to heaven? Israel of old had a perfect culture from which God could picture the work of shepherds, since by nature the Israelites actually were shepherds. On the other hand, our culture is counter to a shepherding culture. Our culture is filled with corporate and military leaders that in many ways are very different from the picture of a shepherd.
I am awed by what it takes to be a good shepherd, and I’m appreciative of the men who have taken on this challenge and dedicate themselves to it. Unfortunately, to some, the idea of shepherding is completely foreign. They see themselves as bosses, CEO’s, and decision-makers. They are more concerned with knowing the bank account than knowing the men, women, and children under their oversight.
The following are eight ways local shepherds should excel in their work.
- Excel in growing in the knowledge of the word of God. “Traditionally” Christians have been more concerned with knowing what is “right and wrong” than knowing God. Paul defined maturity as “knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection” in order to “share in his sufferings” and “become like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). Too often elders have been appointed who can detect doctrinal error but do not have a deeper textual knowledge. They have the “topics” down pat, but struggle with knowing the Holy Spirit’s message in a text and are weak in their understanding of major sections of scripture (for example, the poetic books and the prophets).
- Work at becoming a good teacher. The primary picture of elders and shepherds in Israel was that they were teachers. They led the people by teaching. That is exactly the picture Paul gives of elders in Titus 1:5-9. Therefore, good shepherds will work on their teaching skills. Too many are boring teachers. They lecture a Bible class instead of leading a discussion that helps a Christian discover Bible truths. Improving teaching skills means learning from Jesus’ as the model teacher and getting honest feedback from the members. Great leaders are great teachers.
- Determine to grow as a shepherd leader. Shepherds know their flock. In Jesus’ analogy of John 10, the shepherd calls the sheep by name and they hear his voice. Attaining to a relationship like that takes extraordinary effort and people skills. One of the reasons elders are to be hospitable is because the home is conducive for knowing and connecting to others. Unfortunately, some men have become elders who do not really enjoy people. In fact, many of us men prefer being alone or just with our families and shun close outside relationships. A shepherd must resist this tendency. Good books have been written on leadership that are scripturally based. Every man needs help to be a good leader. See Ezekiel 34.
- Resist the desire to control the church. Peter clearly warned elders against being “lords over those entrusted to you” (1 Pet. 5:3). The word literally means, “to control or exercise dominion over.” Just as there are husbands who see headship as ruling over their wives, so it is common for elders to picture themselves as “rulers” in a church. In this regard, some have misunderstood Hebrews 13:17, “Obey those who rule over you…(NKJV), or ESV, “Obey your leaders…” The text is primarily emphasizing submission of members. “Rule” or “leader” does not mean that elders are free to make rules or are rulers. Again, they lead by guiding the flock with the word of God. They have life-experience and should be listened to. But when an elder pictures himself as a ruler he typically fails as a shepherd. Further, resist the typical paradigm of treating the preacher as your employee. Evangelists and pastors are a team (Eph. 4:11-12), and need to act that way (see 1 Timothy).
- Be honest about your weaknesses. Everyone has flaws and elders are no different. We should not expect an elder to have perfect abilities in all areas of the Lord’s work. That is why there are many members, but one body. But an elder who is uncomfortable with admitting that others are better at a particular work than he is, tends to be like King Saul. These elders become defensive about their “position” and fear losing their “authority.” They are unable to accept criticism and will come down hard on anyone who challenges them. This is counter-productive to shepherding. Instead of drawing people closer, causing them to want to submit, these elders distance the flock, making it difficult for members to follow.
- Encourage individual initiative. An elder should be an overseer of the work Christians do. Just as a husband would not want his wife to constantly ask permission in regard to the details of her work in the home, so elders should be happy that members take the initiative in pursuing areas of the Lord’s work. I have known elders who were upset that members were meeting for prayer, setting up Bible studies, or organizing singings without asking them first. Nothing will kill growth faster.
- Be involved in the primary work of edification and evangelism. This point is simply a part of being an effective shepherd and overseer. An elder who is just a “decision-maker” and is not actually involved in the most important parts of the work, will weaken his ability to lead in two ways. First, he will not be respected because he is not living as an example to the flock. And second, his ability to lead and make wise decisions will be seriously skewed because he is not personally evaluating the work being done (See Nehemiah 2).
- Delegate work that is outside the realm of shepherding. Just as the apostles in Acts 6:1-6 delegated the responsibility of caring for needy widows so they could devote themselves to the word of God and prayer, so elders must resist the temptation to manage parts of the local work that others are quite capable of doing. Shepherding is the primary work. It is typically more work than a group of shepherds have time for. Why micro-manage the church and neglect the prime directive?