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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.
We spend much of our energy calling people to our mission, to advance our church, to be evangelists, or even better—missionaries. And we do this with the best of intentions. We want to see God's work accomplished. What we forget is that Christ has called us to be shepherds who feed and tend, not masters who call. That is his job; they are, after all, his sheep. In Matthew 9 Jesus says, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few," but he does not tell his disciples to find, call, and send out more laborers. Instead, he instructs them to "pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers." Jesus does not outsource his responsiblity to call to us.
The instinct to protect the sheep under our care is a good one; heaven knows they need it. But when feeding and tending becomes controlling or determining life direction, we've overstepped our role. We may think it's our job to call as many people as possible into missions or church work. But a disciple's specific calling always comes from Christ. Our task is to lead them into deeper communion with him. Christ's sheep need a shepherd. They already have a Lord.
Skye Jethani is senior editor of Leadership Journal.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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