Church leadership is often a sticky subject. For those who have experienced toxic leadership, this topic brings feelings of fear and concern. Those who have been blessed by solid, godly leadership welcome these discussions. Sometimes, churches that are stuck in a rut think that more study about this topic will bring them out of their rut, while churches that experience good shepherding know that it is the action, not the information, that creates a good shepherd.
By "shepherding," I simply mean that biblical image used to describe church leaders in many different texts (John 10:11; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:2, 4; Acts 20:28; and Ezekiel 34). Shepherds work with sheep. They protect sheep; they guide sheep; they comfort and nurture sheep. Jesus describes all these qualities, relates them to himself, and calls himself the "good shepherd." Shepherding is a good image for Christian leaders--it calls us to be among our people, serving, guiding, and loving them.
But in Ezekiel a much different perspective on shepherding is presented. In fact, though writing in the ancient world, Ezekiel describes a stunningly contemporary lesson on bad and good shepherding. As a prophet, Ezekiel wrote during Israel's Babylonian exile. In this time of dislocation and distress, the people needed strong leadership to remind them they belonged to God and God was delivering them. Sadly, they didn't receive it.
What they received instead was terrible, self-serving, and ungodly leadership. These "shepherds" served themselves at their flock's expense. Rather than leading people to a greater knowledge of and obedience to God, they led people to serve them (the shepherds).
These false shepherds used their leadership to benefit themselves (Ezekiel 34:2-3). They took care of themselves, took the best food for themselves, and clothed themselves with the finest articles of clothing.
They neglected the health and safety of their flock (Ezekiel 34:4). They were harsh and brutal leaders. It was likely their way or the highway. And for those who left, whether intentionally or unintentionally (by wandering off), they were left to stray. The people began wandering far from God and were not tended to by these leaders who were too busy tending to themselves to even notice.
They oversaw the ruin of the flock and scattered it through their lack of leadership (Ezekiel 34:5-6). This destructive tendency in leadership results in blaming others and ruining them. Churches have been destroyed by leaders who have led only to enrich themselves.
Their lack of leadership became so bad that God finally stepped in. God revealed himself to be the good and true shepherd. He is our example and the one who truly leads us. When good shepherds are good, it is because they are shepherding just like God did.
First, God stated that he was against bad shepherds and would remove them (Ezekiel 34:10). No longer would God allow the false shepherds to feed off of God's own sheep. He was holding the false shepherds accountable, which means, for God, they were being held under judgment.
Second, God determined that he himself would shepherd his people (Ezekiel 34:11-16). Through God's shepherding, we see what real and godly shepherding is. God will search for and find his sheep (34:11-12, 16). This involved cleaning up the mess of the false shepherds. God also says he will feed his sheep (34:13-15). God will provide what his sheep need and he will nurture them. God will take care of those sheep who are sick and weak (34:16) . He will give special attention to them to heal them. Finally, God will feed justice to his flock (34:16). Part of this justice involves eliminating those who took advantage of this bad situation to benefit themselves.
What does this mean for church leadership and shepherding today? Well, it's this simple: Good shepherds shepherd the flock just like God did. They imitate God.
Good shepherds search and find sheep. They are committed to evangelistic outreach. They accomplish this through hospitality. They warmly welcome guests to the worship service; they have church members and their non-churched friends over to their homes. They go after church members who have wandered away, calling on them instead of blaming them.
Good shepherds feed their sheep. They teach their church members through public instruction, through small group discussions, in one-on-one conversations over coffee, and by their example. They model the life of Christ before others. They pay attention to the spiritual growth of their sheep and mentor them into stronger faith.
Good shepherds take care of the sick and weak. They visit. They know which church members are shut-in, which are in the hospital, which are in nursing homes, which have special needs. They even know this information about the families of church members. And when they visit, they serve and meet needs.
Good shepherds feed justice to their flock. They look out for those who might deceive their flock or who are around just to enrich themselves. And they care about justice--they are involved in outreach to the community on behalf of the poor, the widows, and the orphans, those most in need of the justice of God.
Good shepherds are good not because of the actions they take for themselves. They are good because they shepherd like God. Look around you at your own spiritual leaders. Who meets these criteria? Who shepherds like God? Follow them and their leadership, because if you do, you, too, will become more like God.
1. Which of the criticisms God levels against the bad shepherds did you find most disgusting? Why?
2. What is the result of bad shepherding? How do you know it?
3. In which specific ways is God's shepherding different than that of the bad shepherds?
4. Is it possible for us to shepherd like God did? Does he expect that from us?
5. Which of these acts of shepherding do you find most useful? Why?