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Home > Issues > 2012 > Fall > What Good Shepherds Don't Do

In 2005, townspeople in Gevas, Turkey, watched in horror as one sheep jumped to its death, and then 1,500 others followed over the same cliff. When the villagers, whose livelihoods depended on the flock, reached the bottom of the mountain, they found a billowy white pile of death. Some 450 sheep were lost, but amazingly 1,000 survived. As the pile grew, the dead bodies cushioned the fall of other sheep.

How did this accident happen? The shepherds responsible for protecting the flock had left the sheep on the mountain to eat breakfast, and then the fleeces started to fly.

The importance of a shepherd is inversely proportional to the intelligence of the animal being shepherded. Dogs, for example, manage to survive fairly well without human oversight. Dolphins do even better. Sheep, on the other hand, don't have the good sense not to jump off a cliff. They need a shepherd to survive.

The fact that Scripture compares God's people to sheep ought to humble us. We need godly shepherds to lead, feed, and protect us from the world and from ourselves. We are irrefutably sinful (and often stupid) creatures willing to throw ourselves off cliffs of self-destruction. This truth, however, can tempt shepherds to overstep their role. Sometimes the most difficult part about pastoral ministry is knowing what is not our responsibility.

After the Resurrection, Jesus restores Peter and tells him three times to "feed" or "tend" his sheep and concludes with an allusion to his eventual martyrdom. Peter seems less than thrilled with this assignment, because he immediately asks Jesus about John's calling. The Lord rebukes him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?" (John 21:22).

We see Peter's temptation to overstep his role. He wants to know, and perhaps influence, John's calling. But Jesus makes it clear that determining John's calling is not Peter's responsibility. Essentially Jesus says, "You feed. You tend. You do not call. That is my prerogative. You are the servant; I am the master."

This has always been a temptation for us pastors. Knowing how helpless and stupid sheep can be, we come to believe that without our guidance, they can do nothing. So beyond feeding and tending, we assume it is also our responsibility to call—to tell Christ's sheep what they are to do.

Feeding and tending includes teaching. We instruct God's flock from the Scripture and teach them to obey all Jesus has commanded. The general commands from the Bible that apply to all disciples are sometimes known as our corporate calling.

Where we overstep as shepherds is when we assume the responsibility for a disciple's specific calling. This is what Peter questioned regarding John, and it's a tendency often encouraged by our culture's understanding of leadership. In corporate America the leader is the person with the vision. She or he then calls others to a particular task in order to accomplish it. We've accepted this view of leadership within the church, too, assuming the pastor's role is to articulate a particular vision and call all people to that singular work. Success is then measured by how many people answer our call.

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Skye Jethani is the executive editor of Leadership Journal, an ordained pastor, and the author of numerous books. He co-hosts the weekly Phil Vischer Podcast and speaks regularly at churches, conferences, and colleges. He makes his home with his wife and three children in Wheaton, Illinois.

Related Topics:CaringDiscernmentMentoringPastoral Care
From Issue:Ministry's Core, Fall 2012 | Posted: December 17, 2012

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Rparlo

December 22, 2012  1:10am

For, how can a man come into his own unless he first properly handles his part in that service under another man's God-given authority. It's no mistake this process follows the pattern of Jesus life imparted to the apostles concerning teaching, gaining knowledge, understanding, learning, utilizing wisdom, & organizing for successful service. We don't determine people's ultimate calling but we do help guide them according to the biblical pattern to help them walk in the unity of the Spirit and be fitly joined to the Body providing what every part needs so they can be entrusted with the true riches of Heaven as a result of properly handling earthly responsibilities. People following this pattern come into their own (the individual call of God for their lives) in a God-pleasing manner. Our hands and hearts should always be so un-grudgingly open that people wanting to walk outside of this pattern are free to do so knowing that the Spirit can work more in them than we can force on them.

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Rparlo

December 22, 2012  12:37am

Part of the issue of discipleship and the mentoring that takes place (like Jesus and the disciples and Apostle Paul and those he mentored) is that in learning we do take on the tasks of another man that is called of God with an understanding that these services (handling that which is another man's) are steps and pathways that help us get to the place God wants us to go and fulfill the purpose He has for us. This doesn't mean that we are to control the person we are helping disciple but we can be important in helping them draw closer to Christ, gain skills, gain experience, become excellent in what they do, build great relationships with others that will help them grow in stature before God and man, etc. In fact any one of them should be able to at any time decide they will not do what we suggest or instruct as leaders and mentors. Yet, every disciple including the leader and mentor should recognize that God's plan for our future includes oversight and instruction from other people.

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bil_

December 20, 2012  12:00am

I appreciated the article, as it speaks to a real issue. Yet there are a few tensions that remain. First, pastors are sheep too, before they are shepherds (I mean that in a responsibility way, not a time-line way). So we pastors, are still stupid sheep. How do we seek shepherding? How is that different than other believers? (Or is it?) Secondly, Jesus also calls Himself the Good Shepherd. This is always ironic to me, because the ensuing verses basically says no matter how "good" we think we are, we will all flee/fail when trouble comes. It is for this reason that I quickly (re)direct God's sheep under the charge of their Good Shepherd, then graze among them as our Lord Jesus leads. Thanks for the thought-provoking article!

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Becky Kenyan

December 18, 2012  10:37pm

This ia a good article that provides one part of a conversation. The emphasis on men and women who are dependent on God's grace takinga position above others as shepherds is one way to impede the spred of the gospel. At what point do those viewed as sheep become mature enough to 'go to the world to preach and teach obedience to Christ'. Every believer who has submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and is living in obedience to the word, and in fellowship with others who share in the same faith, should be a witness of Christ wherever he or she is. The concept of shepherd is derailing and arrogant and it represent dominance which must be sustained through giving 'tithe' instead of investing in what spreads the Good News. Organizing thegathering of believers so that they come together to encourage one another is not shepherding and giving it more emphasis that it should denies the Lordship of Christ for his church.

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Chantell

December 18, 2012  9:58pm

What a powerful article! This is so true. As pastor we have been instructed by Jesus to feed and tend, not to count, manipulate, control, or abuse. Thank you for hearing from God on this one.

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