Hope Network Newsletter: They Smell Like Sheep (Nov 96 – Mar 97)

By Matt Dabbs

by Lynn Anderson
November, 1996 – March, 1997

25One Sunday a friend cornered me after I had preached a sermon on Elders as Shepherds. “Why don’t you find a better way to communicate this spiritual leadership idea?” he asked. “No one in our church knows anything about shepherds and sheep, especially the way all that stuff worked in the ancient world. People like me just can’t get it.” Admittedly, the shepherd metaphor does sound strange in today’s cyberworld. But God keeps sending me back to the pasture. The shepherd notion is not original with me, of course, nor with Paul and Peter. Not even with Jesus. Shepherd walks through the whole long story of God’s people, showing up more than 500 times in the Old and New Testaments. Without question, the shepherd motif is the dominant biblical model for spiritual leaders.

After mulling things over for some time, I explained to my modern friend who had trouble with ancient shepherds, “I can’t find a current metaphor to fit the biblical leadership model. And I don’t want to rip about 500 pages out of my Bible, or risk feeding the church wrong-headed ideas. So I’m sticking with ‘shepherd.’”

Pull up a chair as we dust off the various notions of shepherd we may have. What is a shepherd, anyway?

Shepherds in “Olden” Times

Shepherds in Bible times were as familiar in the Middle East as are automobiles and telephones in modern America. But in those days, sheep were not crowded into feedlots and tracked by computers. Shepherds did not get their jobs by answering “Help wanted on Bethlehem-area sheep ranch” ads at the employment office. Shepherding was no part-time fair-weather affair. Ancient shepherds actually lived a sheep’s lifetime in the pasture with the flock. When a tiny lamb was born into his wilderness world, among the first sensations felt by the shivering lamb was the tender touch of the shepherd. And the shepherd’s gentle voice helped awaken the lamb’s delicate eardrums. The shepherd protected the lambs, talked to them, caressed them, and led them to the fresh pools and luxuriant pastures, day and night. By the time the lambs reached “ewe-hood” or “ram-hood” they completely relied on that one shepherd and followed his voice and his alone. That is how flocks were formed.

It’s how spiritual flocks are formed today as well. People naturally gather around a loving, serving Christian who nourishes their faith, guides them, protects them, and affirms them with affectionate touch and loving word. What is a shepherd? Grab your pencil and circle the profound answer: A shepherd is someone who has a flock.

God As Shepherd

The Bible first applies the word shepherd to God himself. “The Lord is my shepherd…” (Psalm 23:1). “He tends his flock like a shepherd. He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart” (Isaiah 40:11). Get the picture? An awkward new-born lamb, ears askew, one gangly leg dangling from near the shepherd’s elbow. A bearded head muzzling the lamb’s cheek and a resonant voice murmuring gently to the delicate creature as shepherd and lamb move through the twilight. Oh, yes, “We are the people of his pasture, and the flock under his care” (Psalm 95-7).

Prophets, Priests and Kings as Shepherds

Scripture also pictures God’s prophets and priests and kings as shepherds. God “chose David his servant…from the sheep pens, from tending sheep God called David to be the shepherd of his people…” (Psalm 78:70-72). God also warned false shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture. I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done…. You have not strengthened the weak or… bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally” (Ezekiel 34:1-4). Church leaders, listen up!

Jesus, The Good Shepherd

In New Testament times, Jesus himself said, “I am the good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11, 14). Jesus did not describe himself as “the brave cowboy.” The cowboy rides a cutting horse, cracks a whip, and wields a shock prod. He forces the “herd” to go his way. Not so the shepherd. He depends on relationship. Jesus does not force us; he leads us. “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4).

Some years back, my friend Roy stood on a ridge in Palestine, overlooking a long, narrow gorge. Below him, the gorge opened out into rolling, grass-covered pasture lands. A single trail meandered downward through the ravine to branch out into dozens of trails where the gorge met the valley floor. Several shepherds strolled down the gorge trail, chatting with each other, followed by a long, winding river of sheep. Roy stood amazed at what followed. At the forks of the trail, the shepherds shook hands and separated, each taking a different path into the grasslands. As the shepherds headed their separate ways, the mass of sheep automatically divided into smaller flocks, each stringing down the trail behind its own shepherd. When the shepherds were distanced from each other by considerable space, each turned to scan the terrain behind him for strays. Then one of the shepherds cupped his hands around his mouth and called in a strange, piercing cry, “Ky-yia-yia-yia-yia.” A couple of stray lambs perked up their ears and bounded toward his voice. Then a second shepherd tilted back his head and called with a distinctly different sound. A few more strays hurried straight toward him. Yet another called his strays with a third distinctive sound. Each stray, hearing a familiar voice, knew exactly which shepherd to follow. My friend marveled, “None of the wandering sheep seemed to notice any sound but the voice of his own shepherd.” This is what Jesus meant when he said, “My sheep hear my voice” but refuse to “follow the voice of a stranger.”

Jesus shepherded his twelve. They went where he went: weddings, fishing, temples, villages, fields, city streets, synagogues, sickrooms, everywhere. Day in and day out, they heard his voice way down in their souls. How different from some who aspire to be elders, but who have no flock. They have none who come for shepherding, none who listen to their voice, none who cluster around them.

The Gate

Jesus continued, “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7). Make up your mind, Jesus. What are you? A shepherd? A gate? This looks like a mixed metaphor to us, but first-century hearers saw a clear image of shepherds who had literally become gates. Roughly constructed temporary sheepfolds dotted the pastoral landscape, makeshift circles of brush and rocks piled into barricades four or five feet high to form safe little “fortresses” in the wilderness. Sheepfolds. But each circle was broken at one place, leaving a gateway into the fold. At the end of the day, the shepherd would take his place beside this portal to gather his flock into the fold. Each sheep passing under his rod for inspection would feel the shepherd’s hands and hear his voice speak its name. “Good evening my friend, Yellow-wool. You look tired. Long day. Come in. And you, Ragged-ear… and Spotted-face…” until all the sheep were safely in the fold. Finally, as he bedded down for the night, the shepherd stretched his own body across the opening. The shepherd physically became the door! His body kept the sheep in and the dangers out. Morning, it is said, occasionally found sheep carcasses scattered around the fold, and the bleeding, battle-worn body of a shepherd lying near the gap. Jesus is both “the gate” and “the good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Good spiritual shepherds today imitate the Chief Shepherd. Like him they attract flocks through loving service and authentic relationships. They feed and protect their flocks. They know their flocks and are known and trusted by their flocks. They put their very lives on the line for the precious people they lead.

Hirelings Need Not Apply

The good shepherd Jesus described is not at all like a hired hand. The hired hand “administers an organization.” He withholds or grants permission “in the best interests of the institution” with little feel for real, live persons. When his back is to the wall he may resort to “the organizationally expedient” thing, may even throw lambs to the wolves in order to save his own reputational skin. This kind of leader need not expect the affection and loyalty of “a following.” Jesus was no hireling. Nor are true shepherds today.

Apostles as Shepherds

Jesus also charged the apostles to shepherd his flock. “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15). “Take care of my sheep” (v. 16), and “Feed my sheep” (v. 17).. The apostles were to continue in the leadership style of their teacher. That was Jesus’ statement to the Father: “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Like Jesus their teacher, the apostles shepherded “flocks” of ministry apprentices. One even spelled out the procedure: “What you have learned from me, pass on to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Good shepherds still do this today.

Elders as Shepherds

Finally, Scripture describes elders of the church as “shepherds of God’s flock.” Paul urged elders, “Keep watch over…the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church … savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock” (Acts 20:28). Peter wrote, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care” (1 Peter 5:1-4).

Modern church leaders, please don’t miss the point. Surely the apostles’ choice of the word shepherd is quite intentional. They called elders shepherds because, across the centuries of Scripture, a massive iceberg of divine meaning had accumulated beneath the surface of the word shepherd. The apostles’ elder friends knew this well. So, with the word shepherd, Paul and Peter did not merely throw in a colorful figure of speech, but invoked a whole theological paradigm of spiritual leadership. While other metaphors for spiritual leaders, such as dpiskopoi and presbuteroi, appear in Scripture, the dominant one is poimainoi or shepherds. Good elders are gentle, hands-on shepherds who smell like sheep!

Fast-Lane Flocks and Cyberworld Shepherds

Harold’s lip quivered slightly and he wrung his napkin. “Shepherd is a beautiful idea,” he began, “looks like it’s what God wants of me as an elder in this church. But how do I make this happen in the real world? Why, the first three days of last week I was in New York, the last two in Houston. I roll out at 5 a.m. and run all day. Most of our congregation does the same. Not much sheep-smell rubs off from a quick Sunday handshake in the foyer.”

Harold and his flock live in the express lane of a cyberworld—yet he longs to be a biblical shepherd. Can it happen?

Modern day shepherds in need of time shortcuts may be tempted to transfer popular models from secular management. But Jesus said, “Do not be like them.” Quaint as it may seem, elders are still spiritual shepherds, not one minute managers. Jesus is still—and always will be—the model for ministry and leadership. We must follow only him. As Jesus modeled it, a good deal of authentic shepherding is hands-on and personal. While few shepherd-hearted elders would militantly defend the “distant CEO” view of eldering, some personalities regard the relational dimensions of shepherding as “touchy-feely” kind of stuff that, like quiche, is not palatable to “real men.” But flocks feel a sense of loss when elders neglect informal bonding with their people. Put plainly, church systems that impede this function are not from God! Elders who shepherd well, however, foster congregational infrastructures that leave them plenty of time and opportunity for flock-building.

Smelling like sheep is a tall order for modern, fast-lane shepherds, but some are pulling it off. Hugh, for example, backed into shepherding Steve without even realizing it. Steve came to Christ through M. J. Then M. J. moved away. But Steve was still God-hungry. He wanted the skills to feed himself spiritually and to lead his wife, Mary, to Jesus. We encouraged Steve to meet with Hugh, and, although Hugh is a very busy executive, he met weekly with Steve for several months and shepherded him to such levels that Steve now shepherds his own lunch-hour flock. Hugh never called it shepherding. But it was.

Harold, whom we met earlier, has discovered that his fax and email have become “rod and staff” in the hands of this thoughtful shepherd. His flock swaps prayer requests, accountability, and biblical insights on their daily email roundtable.

Other skilled shepherds orchestrate magic shepherdic moments where they can meaningfully touch several sheep at once. I watched our shepherds “tending the flock” in this way on a Monday evening at their “shepherds’ circle” (read elders’ meeting). First up, these elders drew the Carter family into their shepherds’ circle to pray for little Cameron, the Carter’s precious four-month-old daughter who was facing major surgery to correct a congenital heart problem. Our shepherds gathered around the Carters, laid their hands on them, and spoke loving concern for the family—especially baby Cameron. One shepherd voiced a stirring prayer for peace upon dad, mom, and big brother. Another shepherd took little Cameron’s face in his hands and his voice trembled as he spoke a blessing on her and prayed God’s healing touch. Then hugs, tears, powerful shepherding!

Praise God, Cameron’s surgery was successful and she is a healthy, growing girl. Plus, long after Cameron’s full recovery, the Carter family will feel those hands and hear those voices—maybe for a lifetime! All that from a few “magic shepherding moments.”

That same evening, Dr. Jan Dunn’s Challenge group brought a report. Each person reporting lives under the time crunch of the fast-paced marketplace. Challenge is a special support group sponsored by our church. It began as a divorce recovery group, then broadened to include any persons struggling with painful relationships. I watched the eyes of our elders glow as Jan and friends described the ways God touches hurting people through Challenge. Divorced people finding recovery (three sat right there in the circle). Troubled marriages finding healing. Then our shepherds poured out affirmation for Jan and her team. They roundly endorsed the Challenge ministry and the people it brings our way—many of whom wear scars received at the hands of churches! One shepherd said, “You folks are simply being Jesus Christ. Jesus spent most of his time loving the crushed and broken. We thank God for you.” More prayers ascended, and our shepherds walked from that room smelling like sheep. Their flock left feeling deeply cared for, and with new tomorrows written across their faces.

Thank God that shepherding can and does happen in our fast-lane cyberworld! God designed a model, revealed it in Scripture, embodied it in Jesus, and passed it on to spiritual leaders of all time. He called it shepherding. And when elders do it, they imitate the ways of Jesus and reflect the very heart of God.

Several years ago, Carolyn and I rode a tour bus through Israel’s countryside, spellbound by Ahim, our unusually gifted tour guide. Ahim, who likes to laugh at himself, told how one of his tours fizzled. Ahim said he was reeling off his spiel about shepherds, who don’t drive the sheep, they lead them, etc. etc., when he suddenly realized he had totally lost his audience. They were all pointing out the bus window at a man chasing a “herd” of sheep, siccing the dog on them, throwing rocks at them, and whacking them with sticks. “The sheep-driving man in the field,” lamented Ahim, “torpedoed my whole fascinating story, metaphor and all.” Ahim said at that point he jumped off the bus, accosted the man, and scolded him. “Do you understand what you have just done to me? I was spinning this charming story about the gentle ways of shepherds and her you are hazing and assaulting these sheep! What is going on?”

A bewildered look froze on the face of the poor fellow driving the sheep, then the light dawned and he blurted out, “Man, you’ve got me all wrong. I’m not a shepherd. I’m a butcher!” Nuff said!

We need shepherds. Please, no more hirelings…no more board members… no more cowboys… and, especially, no more butchers. Give us shepherds… ‘til the Chief Shepherd comes…Wineskins Magazine

Lynn Anderson

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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