Over 4 billion viewers were estimated to have watched the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. As the pallbearers lifted her coffin onto their shoulders, it occurred to me how terrifying that must have been. Doing anything in front of a global audience of that size would be intimidating enough, but they were hoisting up both the late monarch and the imperial crown, orb, and scepter. It’s hard to imagine a more valuable load to carry.
But there’s an even more daunting load: the responsibility of pastoring God’s people. The weight of it might fuel our pride or scare us off altogether. We can find humility and encouragement when we reflect on what it means for Jesus to be the Good Shepherd. His presence as the perfect leader of God’s people provides three key insights for healthy thinking about leadership.
Sheep Belong to God
In Ezekiel 34, God rebukes the wicked leaders of his people. He calls the people “my sheep” in verse 5 and continues to do so through the rest of the passage. This is foundational to a healthy ministry. It’s convenient shorthand to call a particular church “Pastor So-and-so’s church.” After all, Paul himself talks repeatedly about “my” (Rom. 11:13, 2 Tim. 4:11) or “our ministry” (2 Cor. 3:3, 6:3), but the people under a pastor’s leadership are ultimately not “his” people but God’s. Every single believer we encounter belongs to God.
Paul makes this point when he charges the Ephesian elders to “care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Paul stresses not just God’s ownership of the flock but the unimaginable price by which he obtained it. The church body is inestimably precious to God.
It’s not surprising, then, that Paul would also recognize the ministry itself is God’s: “If only I may finish the course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus” (v. 24). Again, we need to be careful with our perspective. The work is the Lord’s.
Pastors Are Undershepherds
Peter calls church leaders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among [them]” while also reminding them that “the chief Shepherd” himself will one day appear (1 Pet. 5:2–4). The pastoral authority of a church leader isn’t ultimate. He’s there to serve under the real Shepherd. Whatever the church org chart may say, Jesus is the head pastor of the congregation.
Whatever the church org chart may say, Jesus is the head pastor of the congregation.
If this is humbling, it’s also reassuring. If God is the ultimate Shepherd, I can breathe. Pastors have a sobering responsibility but not ultimate responsibility. I can do no better as a pastor than to lead the sheep to the voice of Jesus. When I’m bringing people under his Word, to be led by him, I can rest assured I’m being faithful.
A significant part of that faithfulness is ensuring my leadership reflects his. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we undershepherds must lead like he does. Faithfulness isn’t just a matter of having the right content in our teaching but the right posture, tone, and demeanor too.
The pastor is a reference point for what Jesus is like. People’s impression of Christ’s heart to them will likely come from what they perceive of their pastor’s heart to them. Having known us, would people assume Jesus is “gentle and lowly of heart” or “demanding and aloof” or “irritable and exasperated”?
Pastors Are Both Shepherds and Sheep
The pastor is a sheep too. Unlike human shepherds, he isn’t a different species from the sheep. He’s one of them. Although the pastor is set over the flock (1 Thess. 5:12), that’s not his only relationship to it. Peter writes, “Shepherd the flock that is among you” (1 Pet. 5:2). This flock is not only “under you” but “among you”; the pastor is both over them and with them.
Because the pastor is a sheep, he too is continuing to grow in his spiritual life. Paul therefore says to Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:14–15).
Timothy still had progress to make. Even Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own” (Phil. 3:12). His sanctification wasn’t complete, so he continued “pressing on.” All true disciples are aware of how much further they must go—pastors included. This ongoing development of the pastor shouldn’t be hidden from the church. They need to see the pastor is also a work in progress and not a finished product. He is learning, growing, and developing in both life and doctrine.
The church needs to see the pastor is also a work in progress and not a finished product.
This means the pastor must demonstrate ongoing repentance. A pastor I know once confessed in a sermon how irritable he’d been while driving to church that morning—he’d felt convicted by the text as he was preaching. Another pastor—a single man at the time—confessed that when his friend had sex before marriage, he’d felt brokenhearted for his friend but also a little jealous. In each case, the admissions were appropriate given what was being preached and how they were expressed.
There may be times pastors need to apologize to the church. It hurts the ego, but it reassures the church their pastor is a real Christian and that he, like them, is striving to put sin to death and press on in holiness. It also makes it a little easier for others to move forward in their own confession and repentance.
Peter points to this as the antidote to domineering ministry: “Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3). What should make a pastor compelling to the flock isn’t the force of his personality but the genuineness of his example. That will be a more powerful energizing force in the church. The best pastor shows you what kind of sheep he is.
The task of carrying the flock of God would be far too much for us were it not that God has stepped in as the Good Shepherd. Everything else we think about pastoral ministry should flow from this.
Sam Allberry will lead a microevent on “You’re Not Crazy: Gospel Sanity for Weary Churches” at TGC’s 2023 Conference, September 25–27, in Indianapolis. You can browse the complete list of topics and speakers. Register soon!