Shakespeare was speaking of romance, not ministry, when He asked the timeless question, "What's in a name?" However, it also is an excellent question for those of us in ministry to ask from time to time.
I have been called variously a preacher, pastor, minister, and many other titles throughout my ministry. Although each conveys an element of what I do, I much prefer the word "shepherd." Why this distinction? Because I am convinced that nothing is more critical for pastors today than to regain their biblical identity. Wrong identity always leads to wrong preaching.
As Pastor, Your True Identity is Shepherd
Think about it: If you consider yourself simply a preacher, your identity isn't complete. As important as preaching is, it is only one facet of a true shepherd.
It is all too easy to view preaching as simply the crafting and delivering of words. Doing so creates the risk of losing the motive and force behind the preaching, which is shaping, feeding, caring for, and protecting the souls of the flock. A shepherd's goal is not simply to impress people with great preaching; our consuming passion is to care for the people of God.
The use of the word "preacher" is a cultural norm in some parts of our country, I realize, but it also communicates a deep misunderstanding about our calling. If all we do is preach (and if that's what we are known for), there never will be that shepherd-sheep relationship that creates the trust, care, and love that are so crucial to our ministry.
Our failure to create that trust relationship underpins much of the pastor-congregation conflict that has torn its way into countless churches. If we train our members to think of us only as preachers, it becomes pretty easy for churches to swap our voices for the latest and greatest. Likewise, it also makes it easy to for preachers to change congregations when they don't see results from their preaching.
The Bible Encourages Being a Shepherd
No wonder the Bible emphasizes the role of the shepherd from cover to cover:
"Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your inheritance" (Micah 7:14).
"Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with his own blood" (Acts 20:28).
"Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be" (1 Peter 5:2).
Few of you would need a concordance to find countless more verses from both the Old and New Testaments. Notice that both of the New Testament passages above encourage us to be shepherds. Shepherding is all about being before doing. We do what we do because of who we are—shepherds.
Shepherding Is Your Being, Not Only Your Doing
We tend to reverse that order. When the topic of shepherding is discussed, most gravitate toward the doing. They'll say, "Shepherding is pastoral counseling. Shepherding is visiting. Shepherding is personally signing the letters you write. Shepherding is having a meet-and-greet time after the service. Shepherding is saying ‘Our church is people.'"
Such descriptions not only are woefully inadequate in capturing the essence of shepherding. They do not even begin to address what's really at the heart of the matter, which is pastoral identity. The freedom and joy of ministry come when you escape the task list and begin living out who you are.
The concept of shepherd-leadership has far-reaching implications. Shepherds have a stewardship responsibility for the flock. This means that as they serve, at times shepherds need to be servants. At times they need to be strong leaders. They may need to rescue a sheep. They may need to discipline a sheep. And they may need to defend the sheep. They might find it necessary to shepherd with a staff. And they may need to shepherd with a rod. However, all of these actions flow from the meta-identity of shepherd.
Identifying their "leadership style" has led many pastors away from their true pastoral identity. Well-meaning people have convinced pastors to base their identity on specific actions (i.e., servant-leader, visionary or manager). The ancient metaphor of shepherd, however, embodies almost all leadership styles and the variety of spiritual gifts and natural talents, and says, "As a shepherd, I will assess what my flock needs at any moment, and as a shepherd will ensure their health, safety and vitality."
You Are Under the Care of the Chief Shepherd
A flock cannot thrive on servant-leadership alone. It cannot grow with only visionary leadership. Any one leadership style is insufficient to care for a flock. A flock requires a shepherd who is willing to do whatever is necessary to help it flourish (which does not always equal happiness). But a shepherd never needs to leave his or her core identity and calling as a shepherd to meet the needs of the flock.
Preaching is a primary way that pastors shepherd their flocks. And shepherds ultimately realize they are down under the Chief Shepherd. Jesus Christ shepherds His flock through a pastor's life and preaching. Far more is going on during the sermon time than just "Christian communication." Jesus Christ is personally reaching out to His people, and leading them into the safe pastures of his grace. What an incredible experience!
Looking for some practical steps for moving beyond a narrow role and becoming a true shepherd to your flock? Try these ideas:
- Preach a message to yourself on what it means to be a shepherd. Your congregation will be deeply moved as you insert yourself into the audience, even though you're the one preaching.
- Preach a message expressing your reasons for preaching. Communicate the fact that you preach to love, nurture, care for and protect the flock.
- Be sure to provide plenty of time for response and "soul care" in your preaching services. If we are shepherds, not just preachers, that means the effects of our preaching are more important than the preaching itself. Yet many choose to ignore the effects in favor of more "preaching time."
What's in a name? Everything. Envisioning and embracing our role of shepherd will go a long way toward fulfilling the calling of the one Good Shepherd.
E. Glenn Wagner is the founder and president of FutureLead, and organization committed to equipping people to live and lead with purpose, passion and power. He's the author of numerous books including, God: An Honest Conversation for the Undecided (Waterbrook Press) and Fire In Your Bones (Life Bridge).
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