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.
The 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.