by Bill Altman
Google the word leadership and you will get more than 6.5 billion results. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but it seems there are as many definitions of leadership as there are books, articles or podcasts on the topic. We’re familiar with some of them. John Maxwell’s motto is: leadership is influence. Steve Jobs described leadership as innovation.
In the Bible, leadership is most often defined by the role of the shepherd.
Last week, I advocated for small groups as the best way church can provide adequate shepherding care. Loving one another and lifting each other up through life’s challenges happens instinctively when people are gathered in groups. Today, I want to share several other shepherding functions that small group leaders can learn to fulfill with careful modeling, training and coaching.
In the ancient world, shepherds had many responsibilities. Item number one on their job description was to feed the flock. A shepherd may move their herd three or four times a day to make sure that the sheep eat the right amount and the right variety of vegetation. He must be mindful of nearby sources of clean water. Care must be taken to prevent overgrazing in one area.
In his excellent book, While Shepherds Watch their Flocks, Timothy Laniak describes shepherds as scouts, always seeking to lead their flocks to better sources of provision and protection. In the same way, small group leaders can be trained to know what kind of “pastures” (studies, experiences, conversations) will bring about healthy growth. They pay attention to their members’ life stories and scout out, through prayer and listening, what their next spiritual steps might be.
That spiritual step will always involve obedience to our Good Shepherd. Jesus said in John 10 that He calls His sheep by name and leads them. In response, the sheep follow Him because they know His voice. Small group leaders are strategically placed to help their group take steps of obedience.
We train our leaders to divide their group meetings into three equal sections: Look Back, Look Up, and Look Ahead. As you can guess, looking up is the Bible discussion. And that is followed by looking ahead, where everyone is encouraged to share how they will obey and with whom they will share what they have learned. We pray for one another and ask God to help us follow through. When we meet the following week, we begin by looking back and sharing how things went. These conversations and loving accountability are nearly impossible in the context of weekend gatherings. But with training and practice, they can happen very naturally in small groups.
Finally, shepherds gather the scattered. In Ezekiel 34, our Divine Shepherd promises to “seek the lost, bring back the strays, bandage the injured, and strengthen the weak” sheep. Jesus saw the crowds as sheep without a shepherd and longed to gather them to Himself. In Luke 15, He is the shepherd who leaves the 99 safe sheep to search for the one who is lost and in danger.
There are many ways a person can become lost. They may drift away. They may become discouraged and walk away. Or they can be lured away from the flock by temptation from the enemy. If they are only connected to the large gathering, it may be a long time before anyone notices that they are in danger. But when they are connected to a much smaller flock, their shepherd-leader can go after them before they have wandered far. Something as simple as an invitation to coffee when the leader senses a change in a person’s engagement or attendance can prevent a person from becoming scattered and lost in the first place.
Leader, you are a shepherd who does the messy work of caring for people. This is what our Good Shepherd has called us to do. When He invited those first shepherds-in-training to follow Him, He gathered them into a small group to love, feed, train and correct them. And He sent them out to train others to do the same. We can do no better than to gather those God has entrusted to us into groups led by well-trained and well-coached shepherd-leaders. The health and safety of the flock depends on it!