Shepherding the Flock: Leadership in the Local Church

The seashore seems like an unusual place to learn about shepherding, but it was the setting for two great lessons on caring for the church. The first was given at the Sea of Galilee by the greatest Shepherd of all (Joh 21). He was the ideal Teacher, but His student, a fisherman named Simon Peter, seemed an unlikely candidate – even when compared to the others there. He had made many mistakes; the worst was denying Christ a few weeks earlier. Even his attempt to lead a fishing trip the previous night had been disappointing.

A Humble Work

Yet the Lord was calling him to the work (1Pe 5:1), and this was part of the lesson that all under-shepherds must learn: “Without Me you can do nothing” (Joh 15:5).[1] Only the Great Shepherd is perfectly qualified and capable. All others serve beneath Him by His grace and power alone. We’re qualified only by the calling and work of the Spirit in our lives (Act 20:28).

A Loving Work

The key lesson that day centered around this question: “Simon, do you love Me? …  Feed/Tend My sheep” (Joh 21:15-17). Isn’t it interesting that the Lord precedes His call to shepherding by reminding Peter three times of the importance of loving – not primarily the sheep – but Him? The surest way to sustainably love the sheep is to love their Shepherd. Difficulties will come and interpersonal conflicts will arise, but the servant who truly loves his Master will also love the flock for which He died (Joh 10:11).

A Shared Work

We come to another seashore, near Miletus, in Acts 20. Once again, a beloved leader is sharing parting words on shepherding with those left behind. Thus far we have only spoken of “shepherds” – and that is scriptural language that communicates the essence of the work. But there are two more titles here: “elders” (v17) and “overseers” (v28). All three expressions refer to the same individuals in Scripture. They are also usually plural words, because the work is shared among godly peers. New Testament elders always serve collectively – whether in Philippi (Php 1:1), Antioch (Act 11:30), Iconium (14:23), Jerusalem (15:2) or Crete (Titus 1:5).

So when Paul called for the Ephesian elders (Act 20:17), a recognized body of men came. They showed their affection for him by travelling at least 30 miles to get there. And he waited for them while on a hurried journey (v16) because of his reciprocal love and the importance he placed on equipping faithful leadership in the local church.

A Feeding Work

Paul began by recalling how he had taught them God’s Word (v20). The food the flock needs is “the whole counsel of God” (v27); but there are both “lambs” (Joh 21:15) and “sheep” (v17), so the shepherd must consider how to vary the food’s preparation to meet their differing needs (1Pe 2:2; Heb 5:14). The wise shepherd is a teacher (1Ti 3:2) who carefully provides a healthy, well-rounded diet. Like Paul, he keeps nothing back that is helpful, teaching both publicly and in the home (Act 20:20).

A Present Work

Both those spheres of teaching are important. That is why the Holy Spirit places overseers “among the flock” (v28; 1Pe 5:2). We cannot truly know or “watch over” it from a distance or if our only contact is within the walls of our hall. Instead, the overseer opens his home hospitably (1Ti 3:2) and visits in theirs (Act 20:20). He goes the distance, like the great Shepherd who came so far to rescue us and then welcome us into His home (Joh 6:38; Luk 15:4; Joh 14:2).

A Watchful Work

The flock faces many dangers, like the devouring lion (Satan, 1Pe 5:8) and savage wolves (false teachers, Act 20:29). Sometimes threats arise from the most unexpected places (v30), so the overseer must be vigilant “night and day” (v31). By being constantly among the flock, he is able to see and guard against danger. Paul describes it as watching, warning and weeping (v31) – reminding us that the shepherd’s eyes, lips and heart all work together to guard the precious church of God (v28).

A Caring Work

Yet despite this watchful care, sometimes sheep still wander into danger or are wounded along life’s way. Like his Master, the Christian shepherd goes to find the lost (Luk 15:4). Gently, he feeds, gathers, and even carries the erring one (15:5; Isa 40:11). He binds and anoints (Psa 23:5); He supports the weak (Act 20:35).

It is a tremendously sacrificial work, so Paul closes with the Saviour’s words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (v35). No shepherd can ever out-give Christ in caring for His flock. He purchased it with His own blood (v28).

Just as Paul had often wept over them (v31), now these elders also “freely” weep, embrace and kiss him (v37). They were men with warm, affectionate hearts – like their Saviour.

A Leading Work

Some people think church leadership is mostly about who makes the big decisions – and it’s true that God has given this weighty responsibility to the oversight – but Scripture’s emphasis lies with leading by example. As Peter put it so well, “[Not] as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock“ (1Pe 5:3).

For this reason, almost all the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 relate to character rather than ability. It’s sobering to think that a local church often takes on the character of its leaders. Therefore unity, affection, openness and trust within the oversight are vital. These virtues flow down like the oil from Aaron’s head, like the streams from Mt. Hermon, blessing the whole congregation (Psa 133).

A Prayerful Work

Finally, it was time to leave, and Paul knew that he would never see them again. Dangerous times were coming (v30) to a church that was only five years old. Would the flock be vulnerable to attack? Who would help them once he was gone?

So Paul knelt and “prayed with them all,” committing them and their assembly into the greatest Shepherd’s care (v36). If only we could have heard him pray. Is there any greater need today, with regard to shepherding, than for prayer? Dear believers and dear shepherds, let’s commit by the Lord’s help to praying with and for each other.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the NKJV.