The work of pastoral ministry is biblically described as the assignment of under-shepherding. Implicit in the biblical metaphor is that shepherds care for the sheep, protect the sheep, and lead the sheep to nutritious pasturelands. All of this seemingly necessitates physical presence as we lead under the authority of the Great Shepherd. The very language associated with shepherding connotes a proximity that keeps us smelling like sheep—we are intimately aware of their needs and constantly seeking out their best interest. The incarnational presence of the shepherd lies at the heart of Jesus famous illustration in John 10.
“Truly I tell you, anyone who doesn’t enter the sheep pen by the gate but climbs in some other way is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. -John 10:1-3 (CSB)
Jesus is the Good Shepherd for His sheep because He was among them—calling them by name and even sacrificing His life so that the sheep could be safe.
So, it’s difficult to imagine shepherding apart from proximity. Paul’s apostolic example of dictating instructions of what was best for the sheep, and then continuing to travel on his way, included the assumption of resident shepherds directing the tactical process. Shepherds had to live among the sheep, so that they could, in the moment, offer situational guidance.
But in the wake of our pandemic, many godly shepherds are now faced with the daunting challenge of shepherding from a distance. We can’t be with the sheep, at least not in the ways that were once understood. Zoom calls feel like an awkward substitute for the incarnational presence desired by the yearning hearts of faithful under-shepherds. Live-streamed services seem like a miserable substitute for a weekly gathering where shepherds once stood before their sheep, looked into their eyes, and guided them to God’s green pastures.
So, what’s a shepherd to do now that proximity with the sheep is impossible? Let me suggest 6 practices.
Thank God for what you do have.
Yes, technology is a meager substitute for presence, but the fact remains that you are not cut off from the sheep. You can still talk with them, see their faces, and hear their concerns. Rather than lamenting all that we’ve lost due to this pandemic, sensible shepherds remain thankful for God’s common grace. In His goodness, He created a world where technology allows for human connection in a way that was impossible mere decades ago. Shepherd yourself and your people toward a culture of godly gratitude – it will produce important spiritual fruit for the pandemic’s aftermath.
Depend on the Spirit’s work through Prayer
While you can’t be physically present, God, in His Spirit, is always present with His sheep. Perhaps this time of scattering is a gift to remind us that the assignment of shepherding was never our sole responsibility. The danger of proximity is that it can subtly lead us to believe that the care, protection, and direction of the sheep is exclusively our responsibility – and that the well-being of the sheep is our responsibility to procure. Now, more than ever, faithful shepherds will find grace to appeal to the Father to do for the sheep what only He can do in the first place.
Resist the Myth that Shepherding Happens Best in Crowds
Most faithful shepherds know that much of the effective discipleship they’ve done through the years has happened through individual, one-on-one discipling conversations. Today’s reality demands shepherds lean into this reality and prioritize individual shepherding. While it is simpler to have all of the sheep together at one time and provide unified teaching and exhortation – it has never been able to replace the need for life-on-life shepherding. The fact that shepherding a flock ‘as a crowd’ has become normative, doesn’t mean that it’s the only, or most effective way. Shepherding is as individualistic of an assignment as sheep are individually unique. Pastors must take the time to provide direction, care, and challenge to the sheep individually, rather than a singular dependence on the mass appeal (which may be a really good practice that lingers long after this crisis dissipates). This reality makes the next point a necessity.
Mobilize a Decentralized Church
Think back to the task of spiritual leaders explained in Ephesians 4:11-16. The assignment has always been to equip the saints to do the work of ministry. So, shepherds are at their best when they are equipping shepherds, and in so doing, are decentralizing the church’s ministry function from the center to the missional-margins. Every man, woman, and child indwelt by the Spirit is empowered to generously give care, challenge, and direction to one another. Those shepherds who have covetously malformed their role as functionally a priest between the people and God, now find that they have no ministry footing. The most that they can now offer is to digitally broadcast their ecclesiastical gift. Those leaders who have decentralized ministry and encouraged Christ-followers to live out their functional priesthood within a spiritual community are finding that this season is actually producing more meaningful, profound, and enduring care for the sheep.
Speak Prophetically, Not Reactively
Shepherding, by nature, is forward-facing in its orientation. The shepherd knows from which direction wolves are likely to come, or where treacherous passes make it more likely for sheep to stumble or fall. They know where to find good water and green pasture. Based on this knowledge, they are able to point forward to a preferred future and lead the sheep toward safety and health. This same forward-facing orientation is also true for under-shepherds. We must spend less time looking back; assessing what went wrong, analyzing how we got into this situation, or arranging to make this week marginally better than the week before. We need to step out in front and look at the months and years to come. We’re not called to make bold prognostications about the future, but we are called to help sheep anticipate the changes that this season is bringing and adjust to the life-altering realities that will almost certainly linger for months and years to come. Perpetuating conspiracy theories, assigning blame, and complaining about lost rights and privileges will not prepare God’s people for their future. The sheep need a shepherd.
Give Personal Care to a Few
Many have applied the mantra “do for one what you wish you could do for all” to things like short-term missions, foster-care, or adoption ministries. The premise is simple: We can’t do everything to make the world better but we can do something. The same applies to the work of shepherding today. We might not be able to provide personal care to all those in our churches. But through a decentralized leadership, we can provide more and deeper care than we imagined. However, we must see to it that we are modeling personalized care for a few of the sheep. We need to know the impact this season has on small subset of sheep under our care and strive to apply gospel truth to the varied nuances of their plight. While this work will not result in your personal ‘hands-on’ care for all, it will condition you to internalize the concerns of the sheep and then lead prophetically guided by their reality. And further, it shows the church a model of servant-leadership incarnating among them that sets the pace for others to follow.
So, fellow-shepherd, be encouraged that your work—while seemingly sequestered and detached—still matters. Perhaps more now than ever. Resist the lie that you are what you do. Rest in the Spirit’s care and embrace the calling that led you to shepherding in the first place. And remember, this pandemic did not redefine the biblical pattern for those called to lead God’s church – it only underscored it.