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Strange Shepherding Styles

by Bob Young
©, 2012, Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]

As I consult with churches and church leaders, I have observed something strange. In some places, the shepherds of God's people are trying to shepherd the flock in new and different ways. My mother grew up in New Mexico in a sheepherder family. My granddaddy was a sheepherder (early 20th century jargon for shepherd). Shepherding is not rocket science. The best way to shepherd is by shepherding--taking care of the strays, protecting the flock, taking responsibility for feeding and watering, and avoiding the tendency to overeat. Spending time with the flock, leading (not driving), walking among the flock--these are the activities of the shepherd.

Good shepherds recognize that 90% of what can go wrong with a sheep involves its head and its thinking (or lack thereof). We even have a distinct vocabulary to reflect this in terms such as muttonhead or pull the wool over his eyes.

This articles identifies four contemporary leadership techniques being employed in some churches. These are strange leadership styles when considered against the background of shepherding.

Shepherding By Announcements
With even an elementary awareness of the nature of shepherding, it seems strange that any would conclude that a flock could be led by announcements, yet I know of congregations where the shepherds constantly make announcements concerning what they want the sheep to do, hoping that a few of the sheep will actually follow this unusual method of shepherding. Plans are announced with the expectation that everyone will follow. Gone is walking among the flock with the personal touch, the compassionate hand on the shoulder urging greater involvement, expressions of belief in others, encouragement and equipping. The longer I study the methods of the shepherd, the stranger this approach seems.

Shepherding by Commands
I also know of churches where shepherding is done by public requests or demands for compliance. This usually involves elders (or the preacher) standing before the flock urging compliance, greater attendance ("you ought to be here") or great involvement based on guilt ("we don't have anyone to do this!"). I can hardly imagine my mother as a teenager standing before her flock making announcements or commanding. You can teach a dog to obey, you can train other kinds of animals--but when it comes to sheep, forget it! I think it no accident that God decided to use the metaphor of sheep to describe his people. This was a familiar concept in former days; perhaps we need to become more familiar with the metaphor. It says a lot about the church.

Shepherding by Decision-Making
Then there are numerous churches where well-meaning leaders try to shepherd by decision. Generally we have made decision-making exclusively the work of a shepherd. Certainly leaders must lead, but think further. Once the decision is made without the involvement of the flock, guess who is going to implement it! Not the sheep--the shepherds! Sheep may be willing followers when they are shepherded, but sheep don't have much initiative. Shepherds have to make decisions, but shepherding by decision-making still requires the individual touch.

Shepherding by Proxy
Finally, I remind that shepherding by proxy has never been very effective. Jesus even spoke about this fallacy (John 10). The proxy shepherd (the keeper of the cote) is a hireling and seldom has the well-being of the sheep foremost in mind. Shepherding is dirty work. Shepherds have to be where the sheep are, to go where the sheep go, to find them, recover them, rescue them, restore them, protect them, guide them, and nurture them. Effective shepherding never depended upon loud announcements, requests for compliance, commands, or making decisions hoping the sheep will catch on. (They won't! Remember, they're sheep!)

May God give us his church in this age shepherds who will shepherd the flock in the most logical way--by shepherding!

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Last updated November 1, 2012