by Bill Altman
The image of shepherd as caregiver, provider and protector is used throughout Scripture. It’s the prominent metaphor for leadership. We’re reminded of this from some of the most familiar passages of Scripture. The Lord is our shepherd in Psalm 23, and in John 11, Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life.
When it comes to leadership within the church, Paul places the role of shepherd in the same family as apostle, prophet, evangelist and teacher (Ephesians 4). Whether the image applies to God, Jesus or elders, the shepherd is with the flock, knows the flock and cares for each sheep.
For the past ten years, we have had a hairy shepherd living in our home. She’s a Border Collie named Skye. From the day we met her as a 6-week-old puppy, she had a strong instinct to herd. The first time we tossed a ball to the other side of the room, she bounded after it and brought it right back. After dropping it at our feet, she didn’t take her eyes off that ball until we picked it up and tossed it again. We soon learned that if there was a ball or a frisbee to chase down and return, she would play until she collapsed in exhaustion. Generations of breeding and training had made our puppy a natural-born shepherd.
Sadly, shepherding doesn’t come as naturally to me. And it probably doesn’t to you either. We understand that shepherding is the core of what we do as leaders. But we have limitations that my dog does not.
We lack focus. A collie has one job. We have many. Most church leaders serve as volunteers with day jobs and families.
We lack relational capacity. On YouTube you can see a single dog herding hundreds of sheep. It’s pretty spectacular! But you and I can have deep shepherding relationships with only a handful of people.
And we lack energy. Border collies don’t need to concern themselves with rest, balance and burn-out. To be effective, though, we have to be very careful with such matters.
Since we don’t have unlimited focus, capacity or energy, how do we shepherd the flock that has been entrusted to us? In this post and the next, I want to suggest that healthy small groups are the very best way to shepherd our flocks.
When I first came to Crossroads, we had a dozen cookouts with gatherings of group leaders. One of the questions I asked was, “What has been the high point of your small group leadership?” I was expecting to hear all sorts of answers: a meeting that went especially deep, a serving or mission experience together, or maybe going on vacation as a group. Instead, I heard the same story 100 times.
Each leader, without exception, told about a time the group came alongside one of its members in a tough season. They had walked through illnesses, deaths, lay-offs, family challenges, depression and many other crises together.
I learned something through those conversations. When a group gathers week after week to pray for one another, eat together, read and apply the Bible, it’s almost like a shepherding instinct comes out in the members of the group. Even a leader who is so-so at guiding the actual meeting can have a super successful group when it is truly a community of care. And this seems to happen so naturally that, from the perspective of those responsible for training and coaching small group leaders, it feels like a freebie.
If you want to increase the care people receive in your church, having a healthy small groups ministry is the best way to get there.
In my next post, I will share some other ways groups can shepherd their members. These, however, at not as instinctive and will require a little more intentionality and training.