Urban Church Leadership Center

Leading from the Middle

Pastor as Shepherd

By Natalie Hart

“What is success as a pastor? If the pastor is a shepherd, then success is the health of the sheep.”

That is one thing Khary Bridgewater wants each cohort of the Leading Community-Based Ministry course to take away from their time together.

If success is in the health of the sheep, how does the shepherd achieve that? What can the nitty-gritty of a shepherd’s work tell us about pastoring a church?

First, and most obviously, the shepherd has to lead the sheep to good food and quiet water. You may have in your mind the romantic image of the shepherd striding ahead with the sheep streaming out behind, at a respectful distance, obediently and meekly keeping pace with the shepherd, and not wandering off.

a shepherd leads a line of sheep that extends behind him

Kind of like this

That’s a fun image, and also a biblical one. Jesus said of the shepherd: “After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4, NLT).

But those of you who’ve been in ministry a while may already be laughing at how unlike that image pastoring people is.

Perhaps that isn’t the only way shepherds lead.

A shepherd walks in the middle of a flock of sheep, with the sheep crowding close.

Shepherds lead from the middle.

From the middle, they can be more aware of what’s going on. They can notice changes in sheep behavior that could indicate illness or injury. They’re right there to redirect a wandering sheep before the flock peels off to follow it. Shepherds can enjoy their sheep when they’re in the middle, playing around with the playful ones, being gentle with the quiet ones.

This is also how the sheep get to know their shepherd, how they get to know their shepherd’s voice, how they learn to trust that their shepherd will lead them to good food and drink, and not lead them into danger. Jesus speaks of himself: “I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father” (John 10:14-15, NLT, emphasis mine).

Every pastor’s style of being in the middle of his or her people will be different. Here’s an unscientific list of ways (besides preaching and teaching) I’ve heard of:

* hosting (and playing) pick-up basketball
* going to sports or arts events of members and their children
* going to concerts with members of the congregation
* playing tennis with congregants
* standing around after church, chatting
* being active on social media
* going out for coffee with members
* participating on the church team (softball, golf, basketball)
* mediating meetings between members who are in conflict
* sitting in the courtroom
* visiting, whether at homes, in hospitals, in prisons or jails

I am reminded of the words of Pastor Willie Waver, of No Greater Love Ministries, from an earlier article:

“Our people meet one-on-one with the pastor and the pastor’s wife, out to eat, and visiting in their homes. We know them and their struggles. It’s intimate, personal.”

Shepherding is intimate, one-on-one work.

A shepherd on a hillside bends down to tend to one sheep.

Sheep wander. If the grass looks sweet in another direction, they will head there, even if it’s at the edge of a cliff, even if it’s by a big rock that a predator could use as cover. Their wool can get snagged; a leg can get stuck. If they drink at a quickly-flowing stream, they can get so sodden that the stream sweeps them away. In a hilly spot, it can be easy to get lost.

Jesus spoke of this: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4, NLT)

People wander. Those who’ve been in ministry a while know all too well the ways people wander -- and they know the one-on-one work it takes to try to bring them back. Pastor Waver spoke of this, as well:

“We can relate to them and their struggles with drugs and with their families. We can say, ‘We’ve been there and we’ve reacted just like you are, and this is how we got out of it.’”

Shepherding gets messy.

a sheep with mud caked all over its fleece

The sheep get wet and muddy and shepherds sometimes have to pick them up or get close enough to dig a stone out of a hoof. Sheep go to the bathroom whenever and wherever, and shepherds are sure to step in some waste products. Jeremiah 43:12 (NIV) makes this analogy that reveals one side-effect of shepherding: “As a shepherd picks his garment clean of lice, so [the Lord] will pick Egypt clean and depart.”

Pastoring gets messy. Your stink and their stink (aka sins, personalities, past experiences, calamities both self-induced and imposed from outside), your care for them and their care for you and for each other, and all of your love for the Good Shepherd, are all mixed up together. You will grieve each other, whether because of direct actions or harsh words, addiction relapses or betrayals and broken trust.

Pastors need to have strategies so the messiness doesn’t take over. How does a pastor “pick his garment clean of lice?” 

* by having a regular spiritual and prayer life
* by talking to someone (whether friend, spouse, counselor, mentor-pastor) when things get messy
* by taking time to rest
* by building your own leadership capacity
* by establishing good administrative procedures at church so you are freer to pursue the other strategies
* by nourishing strong ministry partners in your own congregation so trusted people can relieve some of the burden

Shepherds provide direction.

Leading from the middle doesn’t mean they’re just going along with wherever the sheep want to go. Nogah Hareuveni, the founder of Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, explains that shepherds could use their staffs to lead, no matter where in the flock they were. They would cut a sturdy offshoot from an olive tree that included the thickened growth at the point of attachment, which would be smoothed and worked into a staff with a thick knob at its head.

“It serves the shepherd both as a weapon and as a tool for directing the flock. To keep the sheep and goats walking in the desired direction, the shepherd will throw this staff ahead of the flock, for it will always land on its heavier head” (Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage, p.86).”

the knob-end of an olive branch staff

Photo of the knob-end of an olive wood staff, by Jasper Winn. http://www.theslowadventure.com/2012/10/making-walking-sticks.html

Scripture is the pastor’s staff. Solid preaching and teaching of God’s Word will help the people know which way to go, and they will learn to trust that the Good Shepherd, and the pastor, know which way to go. This is also illuminates Psalm 23, verse 4: “Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.” Comforting is not the first word that comes to mind when I think of a large, knobbed wooden stick, but if I am anxious or confused, and I need direction, it is a comfort to know which way to go, and to know where the source of my true comfort is -- the staff/Scripture tells us that the Good Shepherd is with us.

Shepherds take the long view.

For this, the shepherd can’t be in the middle.

a shepherd is shown observing the flock as they graze

To be able to spot predators, to keep an eye out for changes in the weather, to plot the route to good grass and calm water, the shepherd has to step back and take the long view.

Similarly, a pastor steps back to cast a vision, to make long-range plans, to make sure the church is heading in the right direction, to see what the community might need from his or her church.

So why would anyone take this on? Especially for the bi-vocational pastors who do this all-consuming work during their non-paid-work hours.

Of course, as pastors, you are called and equipped to this work by God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. But Khary Bridgewater, Senior Program Officer for Gatherings of Hope, points out that something else is true of you:

“Let’s start with you not being normal because you like sheep and most people think sheep stink.”

You love those sheep.

That doesn’t make the job any easier or less messy, but it does help explain how you can not only keep going, but even long to be with those messy, wandering creatures. You’re not normal -- and we thank God for that.

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