True Shepherds Know Their Sheep

Seth Brickley

.A successful pastor, like a farmer, is a jack of all trades. He needs to be knowledgeable in the Bible and theology. He needs to have public speaking skills. He needs to have the ability to counsel. He needs to have administrative skills. He needs to be a man of prayer. He needs to have leadership skills. Lastly, he needs to work well with people.

Here is a concern I have.

I am concerned that seminaries are producing theologians who are hired by churches, and once they arrive there is a profound disconnect between the pastor and the ordinary Christian in the pew. This disconnect is not something unique in young pastors alone, but some stay in this place their entire ministries, thinking this is what pastoral ministry is. This is not a new problem, but it might be more prevalent now than ever given the lust for knowledge to elevate one’s status in the broader evangelical movement, thinking that academic proficiency above all else is a measure of spiritual maturity.

The Greatest Model of a Shepherd

Obviously, it’s not a bad thing to undergo rigorous academic training – good shepherds should also be sharp thinkers, able to effectively preach, teach, and defend the truth from false teaching (Titus 1:9). But in most seminaries, there is far less emphasis on what it means to be a true biblical shepherd and more on the latest theological novelty.

The greatest model of a shepherd is Jesus Christ. He described what every shepherd should strive to be in John 10. There Jesus says,

He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. (John 10:2-5)

Jesus says later on in the chapter,

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

What is clear is that Jesus, the chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4), knows the sheep. They are drawn to his voice. There is an intimate relationship between the chief shepherd and the sheep. All undershepherds are to follow this example. The people feel safe with the shepherd who knows his people. They are wary of strangers but trust the true shepherd to lead them in the example of the chief shepherd (Psalm 23:1-4).

Access to the Shepherd

This raises the question. How many shepherds in the American church know their people well? Do they know their family, occupations, joys, fears, trials, and level of spiritual maturity? Do the sheep feel comfortable going to their shepherds with the challenges they are facing in life? A good shepherd is an approachable one. Sheep should not be intimated by his towering intellect, and they should not feel uncomfortable because he spends almost all his time in the study instead of with his people. They should not see him as the guy who preaches on Sunday and only sees from afar. The sheep should have access to the shepherd.

While he is in an authoritative position (Hebrews 13:17) he should be seen as “kind and gentle” (1 Timothy 3:3). In the modern-day, titles like “preaching pastor” and “discipleship pastor” are unhelpful. So-called “preaching pastors” need to know their sheep. They too need to be discipleship pastors. They need to know the ones to whom they’re preaching and how to apply the Word of God to their respective congregations. What churches don’t need is a theologian in a corner office that rarely shows himself. They need one who is knowledgeable in the Scriptures but also personable. They need one who shepherds the flock of God among them (1 Peter 5:2). By definition, a true biblical shepherd is approachable since he has a close connection with his sheep.

From Seminary to the Local Church

But what happens all too often is pastors fresh out of seminary find a church full of ordinary Christians and proceed to discourse at a level that most of the flock cannot understand. They use theological terms that need to be thoroughly defined. They need to be taken along slowly in the Doctrines of Grace, not force-fed right from the start.

Many new seminary graduates have been greatly influenced by evangelical leaders sometimes perceived nearly at the level of the apostle Paul. They come out guns blazing trying to copy famous leaders, but forget to consider the needs of the people in their flock. Their congregation is not full of intellectuals. They are ordinary people who have a sincere desire to follow the Lord and need to be led.

The people need a shepherd who is going to get to know the people. One who will be their friend. One who would take a bullet for them (John 10:11). One who isn’t going to laugh about the intellectual inferiority of his people in the presence of other pastors who are just like them.

Over the Long Haul

Truthfully, excessive intellectual knowledge can be dangerous (1 Corinthians 8:1). Just because a pastor got a 4.0 in seminary doesn’t mean he is going to be a true shepherd. Just because he has a thorough understanding of church history doesn’t mean the people are going to be blessed by his ministry. Churches need pastors who are there to slowly, over time, move people forward toward greater Christ-likeness.

The goal is to grow in biblical understanding and spiritual maturity over the long haul – not to create the most intellectual church in the community by leaving many in his church behind. Instead, the goal should be to build a church that most thinks, talks, and acts like Jesus (Colossians 1:28). Churches that have a true shepherd will be set up well to grow. They will see that their pastor has a hunger for the Scriptures, and this will encourage his congregants to have a hunger for the Scriptures as well. They will see a pastor who truly loves people, and this will encourage them to also love the people in their lives. Pastors need to be those who people want to follow as they follow Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Pastors should aim to live an inspiring life that inspires others to be soldiers of the cross.

True, Biblical Shepherds

The sad reality is that many churches are lifeless because their pastor’s ministry lacks the bond that should be between shepherd and congregant. Instead, they have a modern construct of what the broader church calls a shepherd.

The church needs true biblical shepherds. The bride of Christ deserves it.

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