So You Wanna Be a Shepherd

kinnon —  June 18, 2008 — 17 Comments

One of the common ways church leaders see themselves is as shepherds. They lead their flock. The sheep, dumb animals that we are, follow. (Or we are at least, supposed to.) These shepherds cite scripture to justify their position. Jesus is the over-shepherd, they are the under-shepherds – and the rest of us are mutton.

But, if you’re going to call yourself a shepherd and justify your actions via such usage then it’s important to understand what a shepherd was in biblical times.

Shepherds were decidedly lower class. Many writers call them a "despised class." Most were youngest sons or hirelings. (See Jesus’ comments on sheep, shepherds and hirelings in John 10.) They lived with their sheep, smelled like their sheep, defended their sheep from prey (physically) and their world revolved around their sheep. They knew their sheep by name.

shepherdcarryingsheep.jpgThe rod and staff were tools of their trade. The hook on the staff would be used to pull sheep out of danger. The rod would be used for both protection and discipline. It is said that a sheep that constantly wandered away would have a leg broken by the shepherd’s use of the rod. But then the Shepherd would carry that sheep while the leg healed – taking intimate care of it during the healing process – and the sheep would become so attached to the shepherd it would never run away again. (The leg-breaking part sounds a lot like church discipline – I haven’t heard of many cases of care and love during the healing process, however.)

Shepherds only managed flocks to a size they could handle – probably in the 100 sheep range. Sometimes they would combine their flocks with those of other shepherds – and work together – while still remaining completely aware of which sheep they were responsible for. (Jesus’ parable of the Lost Sheep would suggest the hearers of that parable understand the importance of each sheep.)

So. Present day Christian leaders (or wannabes) who want to be known as shepherds and want to call the rest of us sheep, (and yes, whining Mega-Church, pirate-fearing, gold-loving Pastor I’m talking to you) if you want to be known as a shepherd – live the life. Recognize your humble station in life – decidedly lower class. Live amongst the sheep you’ve been called to. Smell like them. Know their names. Protect them. Carry them when necessary.

All the while realizing that you are but one of them.

UPDATE: The Hanster and Sarah roll with this one. Sarah’s post helps me understand my own, oddly enough.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

17 responses to So You Wanna Be a Shepherd

  1. Have you ever read “A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm”? It’s quite eye-opening …

  2. Sonja,
    I haven’t…but I should, obviously.
    link to

  3. Awesome.

  4. Leighton Tebay is looking at authority over at his blog The Heresy.

    There are rare days being a Canadian evangelical isn’t painful. Posts like this and LT’s makes this one of them. Thanks.:^)

  5. Reminds me of a similar description of the role of ‘apostle’ which I read a few years back. Frankly, a job that nobody in their right mind should want.

  6. First, “Tim the Enchanter” wins for coolest commenting name.

    Second, I love this post. (No surprise for you, Bill.) And it points out, again, how wonderful someone with a true heart of a shepherd really is.

  7. actually i’ve heard it suggested that many shepherds of the day were young women…. (think of Rebecca and how Moses met his wife etc.) …. might also suggest that not only were women the first witnesses of the resurrection…. they may have been the first witnesses of the birth of Christ too. Hmm. bookended female witnesses …. ooh i can just feel the estrogen rising.

    so all the alpha male preacher dudes can put that in their pipe and smoke it.

  8. i wish more preachers smoked a pipe while telling stories to the rest of the sheep.

  9. Leighton Tebay’s parable post is fantastic, BD. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Jared, thanks for the encouraging comment.

    TtE, bang on. And Brant’s right about your “handle” (that’s trucker-speak).

    Brant, thanks. Thanks for the link love at the best blog on the Christian interwebs.

    Wendy and Dave, pipes are great for keeping mosquitoes away. Wendy, thanks for the insight – and I’m very excited about your new blog! Dave – more people need to be reading your blog, too.

    I recieved an email from Keith Giles where he pointed to a post where he addresses So You Want to be a Pastor. It’s worth the read.

  10. I really loved this post. Thanks!

  11. But who would WANT to be a shepherd then ? πŸ™‚

    No perks. No status. No worship from others. Next thing ya know you’ll want all the preachers to give up their weekly golf time, conferences, and the like.

    So you are saying being the shepherd is all about the sheep?

    Hmm……..interesting concept. I bet that’s found in a book somewhere πŸ™‚

    Bruce πŸ™‚

  12. cheers bill. we will need to ruminate in between pipe-puffs sometime.

  13. I know there are leaders out there who won’t like this, but doesn’t it mean a lot of freedom? It takes a lot of energy to be right all the time. Easier to be a small smelly, lower class hireling and love your sheep and let them love you back.

    I originally wanted to ask if I could quote this on my blog, but that would defeat the object. I’m giving it my best shot to be like this description anyway. Maybe I get it right sometimes and then, hopefully, people will see what you describe.

    Thanks for the encouragement from a being a small scale shepherd in a hierarchical church obsessed with numbers, who sometimes wonders if he’s just missed the plot somewhere.

  14. Hey Bill. I’ve been musing about this post for the last few days, and I realise there’s one more aspect of the life of a shepherd that we should really consider carefully if we want to call ourselves pastors, and it’s this – a shepherd is a midwife!
    At lambing season they have to spend hour upon hour helping the ewes to birth, an exhausting and intensely intimate process. The shepherd has to make an internal examination of the mother, and if the lamb is in the wrong position, physically reach into the mother to adjust the lamb.

    Sometimes lambs are stillborn, sometimes the mother can’t care for them and the shepherd needs to help them become fostered by another ewe. In all cases the ewes and the lambs need careful monitoring, care and where necessary, medical intervention.

    Like you say, this image seems a very long way from the ‘visionary CEO megachurch leaders’ that get called pastors these days.

  15. Great post. I am not a pastor, but I am a mother, and I think there are similarities in the role. You are greatly needed in the family, but much of what you do goes unnoticed and unrewarded. It calls for great wisdom and endurance but from day to day, very little changes. It is very repetitive. You make a meal, the family eats, and are hungry again quite soon. You make another meal.

    I honor those pastors who understand their role in this way, and I hope that they too find nourishment to keep going. As a mother it always helped me to be reminded that my role may be difficult, invisible and thankless, but it is still an important role to fill and a way of Christlike service.

    These “visionary leadership conferences for leading leaders” types of things make me nervous for every day pastors. I worry it will take their eyes off what a true shepherd’s life is like.

    By the way, I have never found anyone who could verify that shepherds break the legs of straying sheep, and quite a few say the opposite-that a shepherd would *never* do that. I think that story is basically an urban legend, usually used as though it were an authoritative, almost biblical, “fact” to support a questionable idea.

  16. Thanks, Kathy for a great response. Like you, I’ve tried to find a definitive response to whether shepherds wounded their sheep or not.

    Discipline is one of those areas that I struggle with. I hate being “disciplined” by someone else. However, I do discipline my kids lovingly as I’m sure you do. If the breaking of a leg insured the sheep’s ultimate safety – then would it be too high a cost for the sheep to pay.

    I think of Jacob wrestling with God and walking with a limp everafter.

    If the sheep/leg story is simply a metaphor – then what I take from it is not the pain of the initial discipline but the love and care that comes in the bonding relationship. Instead, most church discipline appears to be of the avoid or shoot the wounded variety. There is little love.

  17. “Letters from Kamp Krusty” linked to this entry, and it has haunted me ever since. I only know one pastor who qualifies, and it makes me very sad. Because he isn’t MY pastor.

    There is much to ponder on, here.


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