Developing the Heart of a Shepherd

Why it is vitally important that small-group leaders truly care

Scripture paints a lot of pictures concerning leadership. To be honest, I like some of them better than others. I love the image of the leader in Ephesians 4, where the goal is to equip people to do the work of the ministry. I love the picture of the co-architect and worker with God to build his people into a "spiritual temple" or community that would worship and point towards God (1 Peter 2:5).

But the image of the shepherd may be the best known of them all.

The shepherd is a prominent metaphor for leadership in the Bible. It is mentioned over 115 times, including some of the most famous passages of Scripture. Psalm 23 details the way that God shepherds his people. Ezekiel 34 issues a warning about the "shepherds of Israel" who have not led or cared for God's people well. Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10. After Christ's resurrection, he charged Peter to "feed my sheep" in John 21.

Shepherds Lead Sacrificially

Shepherds rise early in the morning to check on their fields and their flocks. They want to ensure that the sheep have not been harmed during the night and that the fields are sufficient for grazing.

Similarly, spiritual leadership does not come with a lot of privileges. Rather, it is a leadership based on self-sacrifice. In John 10:11, Jesus sets this example for us when he said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep." Spiritual leaders must sacrifice time, energy, and rights in order to care for the people God has entrusted to their care. If we are not willing to pick up the towel and serve, then we will never develop the heart of the shepherd.

To put this into practice, consider these practical ways to "rise early" and check on your fields and flocks:

  • Rise 30 minutes early tomorrow morning to pray for your group members.
  • Make a prayer list for your group and pray about one specific thing for each person over the next week.
  • Jump onto the computer before work begins to send them an email of encouragement or to check in on their life.

Shepherds Feed Flocks

There are three primary ways that shepherds bring food and water to their sheep, and a good shepherd is skilled at all of them. In most cases, the shepherds guide their flocks to good pasture and pure water. Psalm 23 says, "He leads me beside peaceful streams." Sometimes, a leader simply needs to guide people to sources of nourishment. Shepherds are constantly on the move, leading their sheep from one pasture to another and from winter ranges to summer ranges. A good shepherd knows that the sheep cannot just camp out at one place forever. Good leaders will not let their groups camp on one topic semester after semester. They will keep them moving and learning new things.

At other times a skillful shepherd will actually prepare the pasture for the sheep to graze there. It's hard work, but it's necessary for the sheep to get the best food and nutrients. As leaders, we must do the hard work of creating an environment in which people can be fed—which means we must do the hard work of preparing lessons that provide nourishment and the potential for growth.

There are some occasions where the shepherd must be more intentional and actually feed the sheep himself. For instance, shepherds sometimes cannot find pure water and must draw the water from wells to fee the sheep. It is unbelievably strenuous work to draw water from a deep well and then give it to each sheep individually. This cannot be the general practice, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary as a leader to draw from the deep wells and be more personally involved in ensuring that the sheep are "fed"—and fed well.

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