Ian M. Duguid wrote, “The shepherd image is the ‘pivotal analogy’ for leadership in the Scriptures. As we have moved from being pastors to ranchers, we have traded in the vocation of handcrafting saints for the business of mass-producing sheep. But what does it mean to be a shepherd? It is a unique combination of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. The bad shepherds of Ezekiel 34 were criticized because they ignored the fat sheep who were oppressing the other sheep, while they lived comfortably off the products of the flock. In contrast, the good shepherd will both confront the fat sheep and tenderly care for the weak sheep (34:16). Most of us who are shepherds fall far short of this standard. Sometimes, we don’t challenge those who are comfortable for fear of stirring up conflict – after all, the fat sheep are often big givers who underwrite the church’s budget. Nor do we always comfort the weak sheep as we should. Taking care of the weak sheep is hard, painful, time-consuming work, and we have been told that there are more important things to do with our time. As a result, we gradually turn into managers of the flock, and as long as the flock is growing in numbers, no one around us complains. God is against such shepherds. What will it profit us if we grow a sizable church, yet neglect our calling to shepherd the sheep? We will stand under his condemnation.” (Ezekiel, The NIV Application Commentary)
Many, even in denominations, often speak and write of the gradual shift from shepherd-leaders to corporate leaders within churches. It is a natural reflection of our culture. Over the years we have prided ourselves on following the patterns of first century churches as revealed by the apostles. But just as the Corinthians hired entertaining preachers that reflected the Greek culture, we are so far removed from literal “sheep-caring” that it is an immense challenge to apply shepherding to the nurturing of people. The more natural leadership style and the style that many have practiced in the past 50 years is that of running a company. But the church is not a company. It is a group of volunteers (Psalm 110:3) who are sheep-like, and whose allegiance is to Jesus, before all else.
Most are aware of God’s scathing rebuke of the shepherds of Israel in Ezekiel 34. However, many miss verses 11-16 where the Lord proclaims that he will take over the shepherding of Israel. He will be the good shepherd and do all that the wicked shepherds did not do. Later in John 10, Jesus proclaimed himself to be the good Shepherd in fulfillment of Ezekiel 34. In 1 Peter 5:1, Peter referred to the Lord as the “chief Shepherd” from whom all other shepherds are to find their shepherding pattern. Therefore, from Ezekiel 34:11-16, consider the chief Shepherd’s pattern for shepherding. In other words, here is what good shepherds do.
“Behold I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” What does a shepherd do? He actively searches for sheep. He does not allow weeks and months to go by before trying to figure out where they are. He understands the value of every lamb.
“As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep…” What does a shepherd do? He is among his sheep. He relates to them. In the kingdom, he is one of them because he too is shepherded by the chief Shepherd. He does not place himself above the sheep and act as if he is not beset with weaknesses like the rest of the flock.
“…and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” What do shepherds do? They rescue sheep during times of great trials. They are aware when those under their care are troubled and need help. They diligently study God’s word and are able to use their life experience to bring sheep through serious challenges to their faith.
“And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries.” What do shepherds do? When sheep are in dangerous places, among people and circumstances that can destroy them spiritually, shepherds lead them to where they are safe and secure.
“I will feed them with good pasture…and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.” What do shepherds do? Good shepherds are personally able to teach. They do not believe their job is to hire someone to do the teaching for them. They make sure their flock has rich pasture to feed on. They are not satisfied with superficial Bible teaching. They want their sheep to be filled with the fullness of God’s word (2 Tim. 3:14 – 4:4).
“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down.” What do shepherds do? As David said in Psalm 23, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” For sheep to lie down they need to be free of disease, well-fed, well-watered, and they need to feel secure from the attack of wild animals. If sheep cannot lie down, they will die. When Christians cannot “lie down,” they will drift away and either die or seek a place where they feel secure.
“I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured…” What do shepherds do? They have followed the chief Shepherd and have first-hand experience of seeking and saving lost souls. A shepherd without this experience typically lacks the compassion and patience needed to help those who have strayed or are spiritually injured. Such shepherds are unable to lead a church to obey the Great Commission. Good shepherds are examples of loving the lost (1 Peter 5:3).
“I will strengthen the weak…” What do shepherds do? Shepherds are proactive and preemptive. They recognize the typical 15% of a church who are spiritually vulnerable. They develop close relationships with these, especially so that if one stumbles, the shepherd has a deep enough connection to come to their aid without defensiveness from the vulnerable Christian. Good shepherds work diligently with the weak.
“The fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” What do shepherds do? Shepherds do not show partiality to those who make the most noise and who intend to get their way among the sheep. They are not afraid to stand up to the strong who want to bully the church. It is easy to say, “People are complaining,” when the people are the few who want the church to be their church, run their way. The local church is God’s church. Shepherds are caretakers of a God’s people.
God has called us to be shepherds. He has clearly defined what shepherds do. God has not called CEO’s, ranchers, or cattle drivers. If we are unable or unwilling to shepherd God’s way, we need to cease being shepherds.