Equipping Pastors Part 2: The Pastor as Shepherd

[Note: this article by professor Steven Wade is the second in a semester-long series on Mondays describing various ways we at SEBTS seek to equip pastors for local churches. Dr. Wade serves as Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and the
Director of the Great Commission Equipping Network and Student Field Ministry]

Models for pastoral leadership are seemingly legion today. At the same time, a model too rarely noted in the discussion, the shepherd model, finds significant biblical support. Some say this model lacks relevance.  One contemporary pastor goes so far as to confidently state that if Jesus were on the earth today he would not use the shepherding imagery to teach his followers about leadership.[1] On the contrary, I want to suggest that God’s paradigm of a shepherd leader for his people is as old as Abraham and as relevant as your skinny jeans and black t-shirt.

The image of a shepherd as the model for God’s chosen leaders fills the pages of Scripture. As a matter of fact, it is hard to find any period in the Old or New Testament that does not use shepherding imagery as a model of leadership. Many of Israel’s greatest leaders received their on-the-job training as shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph were all shepherds. God took Moses from Pharaoh’s house into the wilderness and trained him as a shepherd in his father-in-law’s house for 40 years before he sent him back to Egypt to shepherd the Hebrew people out of bondage. When God called David, he called him from the sheepfold and made him King of Israel. When God rebukes the leaders of Israel through his prophets, he refers to them as shepherds. He goes on to promise that he himself will rescue his sheep and shepherd his people. This of course sends us to the New Testament where Jesus declares himself to be the Good Shepherd who knows and is known by his own sheep, the flock of God (John 10).

Jesus came from God to gather up his sheep and shepherd them. This imagery continues in the New Testament as Jesus establishes the church and calls men to shepherd his people. Paul refers to “shepherds and teachers” as a gift God has given to the church (Eph 4:11).  The word, “shepherds” (poimenos), is translated by most as “pastors” in Ephesians 4.  This is where we are introduced to one of the terms used to designate the NT office we refer to as pastor/elder/overseer.  The term is also used as a verb instructing the elder/overseer in his duty: shepherd (or pastor) the flock of God (e.g., Acts 20:28 & 1 Pet 5:2).

If God chose to train, exemplify, rebuke, and exhort those who lead his people with shepherding imagery from the Pentateuch through Revelation, perhaps we should not quickly dismiss it as irrelevant or outdated, but rather ask what we can learn that will shape our own ministry.  Many places in Scripture teach us the shepherd’s role (e.g., Psalm 23, Isaiah 40, Jeremiah 23, Ezekiel 34, John 10, Acts 20, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 5).  Here are at least four overarching characteristics we learn about shepherding from these passages.

First, shepherding requires leading the sheep. Leading entails the authority to manage and rule as well as the humility to do so from a servant’s heart (cf. 1 Tim 3:4-5, 5:17; 1 Pet5:5; Mark 10:42-44; John 13:12-15). The authority to lead comes from God as the pastor serves under the authority of the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:4) and is filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). Further, the authority to lead is recognized and affirmed by the congregation of believers, is found primarily in the special duties of the ministries of prayer and the Word, carrying with it accountability for the souls he leads (cf. Acts 17:11; Heb 13:17).

Second, shepherding requires caring for the sheep. While pastors may be tempted to glory in the parts of ministry that do not involve diving into the lives of people, Paul, by his example and instruction, in Acts 20:18-35 clearly argues that the shepherd must live among the sheep not only by doing public ministry but by getting involved from house to house. So, he instructs the pastors at Ephesus to “pay careful attention . . . to all the flock, . . . to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28). He goes on to make it clear that this entails guarding the sheep from the wolves that will attack. As a matter of fact, a primary theme of the Pastoral Epistles is guarding the church from false teachers and false teaching. As our example, the Good Shepherd says he “lays down his life for the sheep” to keep the wolf from snatching them away (John 10:12-15).

Third, shepherding requires exemplary living. Peter instructs his fellow elders to be “examples to the flock.” The shepherd walks with the sheep, caring for them and leading them in such a way that the sheep begin to follow the shepherd. They know his voice and find security and joy in his presence. This means that he must exemplify what he desires the sheep to do. In Paul’s instructions to Timothy & Titus about the qualifications for pastors, he is clear that the man’s current life must be an example of Christ-likeness. The pastor is the under-shepherd that the flock looks to in order to know how to follow Christ. He should be able to say with Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).

Finally, shepherding requires teaching. Just as the shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures and beside still waters for their nourishment, the pastor must feed the flock a steady diet of God’s Word. The Word of God is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness,” so Paul commands Timothy to “preach the Word . . . reprove, rebuke and exhort with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim 3:16; 4:2).

Southeastern Seminary not only affirms the inerrancy of the Scripture we also believe it is sufficient. In this case, that means that while we may challenge the student to study and know all of the latest leadership paradigms (as well as glean from them), we believe God has given us both an authoritative and sufficient model to train pastors to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission in the Scripture. Therefore, we seek to instill in students this shepherding perspective seen throughout the Scripture as we prepare them for ministry.



[1] Andy Stanley. “State of the Art: Andy Stanley on God’s Ways, Cultural Assumptions, and Leading.” Leadership Journal (Spring, 2006).

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  1 Comment

  1. Dr. J. Michael Palmer   •  

    Of all the scriptural terms for pastor this one is most identified by the people; at least that has been my experience. I do think that there has been a misconception of the role of the shepherd though. The leadership aspect of shepherd is lacking. And there is sometimes a sense of entitlement by some that are a part of the flock. We still battle this and other misconceptions today. Even though I would like to be “stronger” in other aspects of pastoring; this role always seems to provide the connection with people that CAN result in some leverage for expression of other pastoral roles. I had a couple bring by a fruit basket two days ago (I have had a recent minor surgery). And this very couple is one that really does not understand some of the need for a change in the life of the church. BUT, they still love their pastor because he has shepherded them through some dark days in their life. And I know it sounds strange, even though they fell somewhat short of what I believe was God’s best….they will always be special to me. This role can provide the needed salve to other relational needs in the life of the body.

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