Where Have All the Shepherds Gone?

We are told in the gospels how Jesus was not hesitant to unwrap his emotions, which was only one sign of his full humanity. His full deity was seen in his mighty miracles, not only his miracles of healing, but his power over nature as well as disease. He commanded the wind to stop blowing and it obeyed. He commanded the waves to “be still” and the storm on the Sea of Galilee was stilled. Jesus also had power over demons, casting them out of those who were possessed. He had the power to forgive sins, which was something that only God has the authority to do.

So many of the things Jesus did could not be explained apart from God. However, there were other things Jesus did that did not require God to explain them. We are told, “Jesus wept.” He shared our sorrows. He was touched with the feelings of our infirmities. He experienced the agony of betrayal. There were times during his humanity, (i.e., as the “Word made flesh”) in his own earthly ministry, when Jesus himself needed to be ministered to; times when he did not want to be alone and needed the presence and support of friends, as in the Garden of Gethsemane.

So, those of you who are lonely — our Lord experienced loneliness! Those of you who know the pain of desertion — Jesus was deserted! Those of you who are going through grief — Jesus grieved with the widow whose only son had died. He grieved over the death and loss of his friend, Lazarus. Furthermore, when he looked out upon the crowds following him, he saw many of the people “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” and he was “moved with compassion”. The Greek New Testament word that is used here actually means that he was “deeply moved, at the gut level, even brokenhearted”. As followers of Jesus, we need to let our hearts be broken with the things that break the heart of God.

Jesus didn’t just shed a few tears as he scanned the crowd. He was able to see people at a much deeper level than anyone else. He knew some of those following him were hurting, and he hurt because they were hurting. He knew some were terribly lonely and, since he too had experienced loneliness, he was able to identify with them. Some people in the crowds pressing in upon him, like the poor woman with the “issue of blood”, wanted to know if he was truly the “Great Physician” many said he was. That unnamed woman had “been to many doctors, but was no better.” She thought if she could only touch Jesus as he passed by, perhaps just the “hem of his garment”, she would be healed. Then when she was finally within reach and managed to touch him, Jesus asked amid the pressure of that crowd: “Who touched me?” He was able to recognize that one magnetic touch of faith. He knew many in that throng were merely curious, but knew others were convinced he was no mere man and wondered if he could possibly be the Messiah whom God had promised to send. It was being said, “No man ever spoke like this man!”, for Jesus taught with divine authority, as one who knew all about God from the inside. He did not speak “as the scribes and Pharisees”, who kept repeating the same old teachings day after day, year after year. The teachings of Jesus were always fresh and new, amazing truths they had never heard before, and not only truths about God, but also truths about themselves, truths that had the power to convict and convert.

Furthermore, Jesus was making such amazing claims — he claimed he was “one with God the Father” and that those who had seen him had “seen the Father”. He claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life”; “the Christ, the son of the living God”; “the bread of life, who had come down from heaven”. He called himself “the light of the world” and promised that all who followed him “will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life”. He told his followers he was “The Good Shepherd” (John 10) who knows his “own sheep” (these words are repeated several times in the parable in verses 3, 4, 12, and 14). Jesus also says his own sheep know him; they have learned to recognize his voice and they trust him. They know he cares for them, that he will guide them and guard them. He will tend their wounds. I find it very significant that Jesus chose the relationship of a good shepherd with his sheep, and their relationship with their shepherd, as a metaphor for his relationship with those his Father in heaven had “given” to him (John 17:3).

It is significant that following his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus’ greatest concern was for his sheep. In appearances to his disciples before ascending into heaven, the burden of his heart was for the care of his flock after his departure. He asked Peter, who had been the first to confess him as “the Christ” (i.e. the Messiah – Matthew 16), but who had denied him three times during the last week of his passion in Jerusalem, “Simon, do you love me?” Three times he had denied his Lord and three times his resurrected Lord asked him to confess his love for him. Each time Peter said, “Lord, you know that I love you” — and each time, the Shepherd of his soul told him, “Tend my sheep”, “Feed my lambs” (John 21: 9-17).

From Old Testament times (see Jeremiah 23), God had announced his judgment of those shepherds who had not cared for the sheep of his pasture, the lambs of his flock, entrusted to their care. This was also true in the time of Christ when there was still a shortage of true shepherds, when too many shepherds were more concerned for their own needs than for the needs of the sheep of God’s pasture. Some false shepherds had even allowed God’s sheep to be “scattered” and they were wandering “like sheep without a shepherd.”

The lack of true shepherds continues to today, and God’s heart is still broken when he sees his sheep scattered. They have had no shepherd to care for them, guide them, tend their wounds, prevent them from straying, and protect them from the evil one who seeks to deceive, divide, devour, and destroy (see I Peter 5:6-9). Suffice it to say, our hearts should be broken by the same things that break the heart of God!

It should come as no surprise that the apostle Peter, who was exhorted by the resurrected Lord to tend his sheep, was the one who admonished all elders in the young churches: “Tend the flock of God that are in your charge, exercising oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you to do it… not lording it over them, but being examples to the flock, and when the Chief Shepherd appears you will win the crown of glory that never fades away” (I Peter 5:1-5). Peter never forgot his Lord’s final lesson.

Even now, as our reigning Lord sits on heaven’s throne as our “Great High Priest” — forever interceding for all the “saints” (i.e. praying for all the sheep of his flock on earth) — there is nothing more heartbreaking for him than to see his sheep still scattered. They are scattered now perhaps more than ever before, without shepherds to guide, guard, and care for them. There are only “hired hands” paid for doing a job in sheepfolds (John 10:12) and “gatekeepers” in the parable Jesus told (vs. 3) — apparently a reference to someone hired to do a specific job, but not “shepherds”.

I do not believe I am doing any violence to the text when I suggest that there are those today in Christ’s Church who are more like “hired hands” and “gatekeepers”, for they are certainly not shepherds who are lovingly and tenderly caring for the sheep of God’s flock. After my retirement in 1993 as a full-time pastor, I served as an interim pastor in nine churches, serving congregations during their search for a new pastor. I learned a lot from those experiences and since serving those churches I have felt constrained to share some of my observations as well as lessons learned.

I have seen new pastors come and go. Some had good experiences in the churches that called them, but some did not. A few even left the ministry after serving their first church. I remember the words of Dr. C.M. Hanna, the professor of pastoral care during my student days at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in the 1950’s, when he told those of us in his class: “Your first year of ministry as a pastor may prove to be the hardest of your life and the first church you serve may be the most difficult of all the churches you are called to serve.” To say the least, those were not encouraging words, but they have unfortunately proved to be prophetic for many young pastors. From my own experiences, I can share a few observations that may be helpful to other pastors, especially some of you who may be at the beginning of your career as a “minister of the Word and sacraments”. Some of you may now be serving your first church. Hopefully a few of these thoughts and suggestions may help you to not only avoid some of the common pitfalls of pastoral ministry but also enable you to enjoy more satisfying and fulfilling years of ministerial leadership in Christ’s church.

I do not know the origin of these words of wisdom regarding pastoral leadership, but they are certainly worth sharing: “Just remember if you get too far ahead of your people, they may mistake you for the enemy, and shoot you!” Michael Jenkins, a former president of Louisville Seminary, shared this quote in his own blog in 2017. It reveals the careless and reckless tendency of some pastors (especially recently ordained seminary graduates serving their first church with a passion for congregational redevelopment and transformation) to be “agents of change.” This often includes introducing new and more creative forms of worship too soon, sometimes even changing the “order of worship”, as well as substituting new hymns that nobody knows, often without even gaining the approval of the “worship committee” or consulting and communicating with the organist and choir director. Even in churches where changes may be needed, this is more than just a huge mistake, it is a colossal blunder that creates controversy and conflict. The new pastor is seen as an apostle of discord, even perceived as “the enemy”, and it isn’t long before they shoot him or her! This is a warning that all pastors need to hear, regardless of their age and experience. No church or pastor is immune to this potentially dangerous dynamic of leadership. Both the smallest and largest congregations, as well as the most educated and qualified pastors, are subject to it.

Suffice it to say, the pace of change, as much as the purpose of change, has led to many failures of leadership and caused some disheartened pastors to leave the ministry, even after serving their first church. So, those of you “who have ears to hear” — listen! This is not something that applies only to more conservative churches which can be resistant to almost any kind of change. It also applies in more liberal congregations where the social implications of the gospel are strongly emphasized. When it comes to the history of particular churches and their traditions, including traditional styles of worship, most congregations are inevitably conservative. Therefore, take time to learn the history of the church you are serving. Allow sufficient time to establish relationships of trust, especially with the leadership of the congregation, before beginning to make any significant changes. Avoid the danger of moving forward too quickly and getting too far ahead of the congregation, even leaving the lay leaders of the church further and further behind, until — you guessed it — they “mistake you for the enemy and shoot you!”

Remember that any hasty changes to worship will be considered significant changes by the congregation! With this understanding, it would be wise to make the policy of no significant changes the first year, a pledge which you share with the governing body of the church. This could alleviate fears and eliminate concerns, especially if a particular church has had some bad experiences in the past. The first goal and priority of a new pastor should be getting to know his or her people. Every pastor should also become familiar with the history of every church he or she serves, honoring the past, as well as celebrating the present and being enthusiastic about the future. Let the congregation know you love their church, appreciate its history, and are proud to be a part of their continuing story and history. Pastors should also intentionally serve to create a climate of hope and optimism about the future of every church he or she serves. Let them know you look forward to sharing with them in strategic planning for their continuing story. This will undoubtedly, in the “fullness of time”, include taking some risks — a few bold and forward steps, changing things that need to be changed —as well as preserving those things that should not be changed. Many beginning pastors have had bad experiences because they did not communicate a deep respect for the members and leaders of the church they had been called to serve, including their traditions and historic way of doing the work of ministry, and were not willing to delay personal gratification by waiting for a sufficient period of time before making any real changes.

Of course, every leadership practice, policy, and procedure has its exceptions, and this certainly applies to the need for less delay in making needed changes in churches that have been in a “survival mode” for too long. A church might have been suffering continuing decline for years due to any number of reasons, including the lack of visionary and effective pastoral leadership, as well as a complacent congregational satisfaction with “business as usual.” But from my own personal observations, another common cause of continuing decline in many churches has been the lack of “shepherding” of the remaining flock. There is no plan for developing an effective congregational “ministry of caregiving”, including leadership training for deacons, elders, and interested members for serving as “undershepherds.” The Stephen Ministry is one widely used shepherding/caregiving ministry that provides excellent teaching and equipping materials. Any such program should be supplemented by a pastor’s own experiences as a shepherd in congregations he or she has served — but how can that happen if pastors have never actually devoted themselves to this vital dimension of pastoral ministry?

The term “undershepherds” implies a group serving under the guidance and oversight of a pastor who: (1) has had personal experience serving as a shepherd of the sheep under their charge; (2) has a desire to share the joys of that ministry; (3) can offer wisdom about the practical lessons learned. But when pastors have little or no personal interest or experience in pastoral care, they have nothing to share except what they have learned from reading what others have written in books or teaching materials on the subject. Furthermore, it makes one wonder how they can speak on this topic with any authority and authenticity without a sense of hypocrisy.

When I was a seminary student, the ministry of pastoral care was not seen as something optional for pastors. It was an essential part of the training for ministerial leadership for all students hoping to become pastors. Times have changed and perhaps the expectations of many churches have also changed. However, the needs of “the sheep of God’s pasture” have not changed; they still need feeding and tending. So I find myself wondering — where have all the shepherds gone? Why is it that so many contemporary pastors feel this is one aspect of pastoral ministry they can forget about, especially with so many other demands on their time? Who is to blame for this shift, this reordering of priorities for pastoral leadership? The result is disturbing: many churches have preachers, but no real “pastors” (for pastoral care is what this title implies). They are without a shepherd to lead and guide them. They have preachers, but no shepherd. They have administrators, but no shepherd. They have program coordinators, but no shepherd. They have fundraisers, but no shepherd. They have organizers who enjoy delegating the ministry of caregiving to others, but they themselves are not examples to the flock.

This applies to both small and large churches, but large congregations have the advantage of a multiple staff, hopefully some of whom enjoy pastoral care. It is easy to assign that responsibility to one or more pastors who are tasked with recruiting others from the congregation to train for this important dimension of ministry. Pastoral care is often the ministry of “retired” pastors (who only retired from a job, not from the work of ministry to which they were called by God for their lifetime), who are now doing “interim ministry” and still enjoying pastoral care because they have the heart of a shepherd. Their style of leadership has always been modeled after that of Jesus, who exemplified servant leadership (i.e. caring leadership) and called himself a “servant” of all.

Since we are now approaching the Lenten season, all pastors would do well to pause long enough to take a long, hard look at their style of leadership in the light of “Jesus-leadership”. We remember how he was not concerned for recognition and reputation, but “emptied himself”. He did use his power and authority for his own glory, but denied himself, “set his face” toward Jerusalem and became “obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” Jesus had told his disciples he was “the good shepherd” who was going to “lay down his life for his sheep.”

How renewing and rewarding it might be if, during Lent, all of you active pastors decided to add some of these truths to your own job descriptions, as a reminder of Christ’s example and, even more important, if such Bible verses could be written on the tablet of all our hearts!