Shepherd Leaders are Sheep First

“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his namesake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:1-4, NIV)

Shepherding like a bedouin in Jordan

The only time I have seen a legitimate shepherd was in Jordan. A few summers ago, I had traveled with a large group from Lancaster Bible College to Jordan and Israel to tour Biblical and ancient sites. Within the first couple days, we made a stop in Petra and toured the ancient city. As we’re walking down into the valley, we begin passing many bedouins or desert nomads. One bedouin happened to be herding sheep.

treasury in petra jordan

It seemed like a tough job and not a job that anyone would’ve wanted. I’m not sure that if you asked a kid what they wanted to be when they grew up, even in the Middle East, that you would hear, “I want to be a shepherd!”

Being a shepherd is tough work. You spend long days herding lots of stubborn sheep, under the hot sun, in the desert where there is nothing to do. It wouldn’t really be my dream job and I’m guessing it wouldn’t be your dream job either. So, if it were up to you, what would your dream job be?

What would your title be?

If you could create your own title for what you do on staff (or what you hope to be doing in the near future!), what would it be, and why?

My guess is that you would probably choose a title like CEO, Owner, Director, Coordinator, Manager, or Associate. If you work in a local church, maybe your future title included Pastor.

Have you ever wondered what “pastor” means or where we got the title? It only shows up once in the Bible (Eph. 4:11). “Pastor” essentially means “shepherd”. Whether or not you ever have “pastor” in your title, you will be (or should be!) a shepherd leader (stay tuned for lots more on that!). But what if you’re not in a church? It doesn’t matter! We are all called to be shepherd leaders.

Shepherd or slave?

Two of the Bible’s primary metaphors, in regards to leadership, are that of a shepherd and that of a servant or slave. Most of us probably wouldn’t pick any of those terms for our job title, much less think about leaders when we think about those metaphors. Why does the Bible use these two metaphors to talk about leadership?

1. Servant or slave

Words like servant or slave may leave a bad taste in our mouths, especially Americans in regards to slavery. We typically view titles like servant or slave at the bottom of the pyramid. However, Jesus flips pyramid when he hears his band of disciples beginning to argue about who was the greatest among them:

“[25] Jesus told them, ‘In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ [26] But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant” (Luke 22:25-26).

Jesus changes the game, right here! Even Jesus is depicted as a servant and he tells us that he came to the earth to serve (Mark 10:45)! Jesus is seen as a servant leader in these moments when he humbles himself, like in his act of washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-15). Paul will often refer to himself as a slave of Christ (Rom. 1:1). When you think of being a servant or slave, don’t think of these as negative or undesired titles. Here’s a new definition of servant or slave: these are leaders seeking to serve God and serving those who are led.

2. Shepherd

While shepherds are typically seen as a lowly position, a number of shepherds seemed to fall into God’s leadership pipeline, being chosen to be significant leaders of God’s people. The big three are:

  • Joseph (Gen. 37:2; 47:1-4)
  • Moses (Exod. 3:1)
  • David (1 Sam. 16:11; 17:15; Ps. 78:70-72)

God is referred to as a shepherd over his people, as well as Jesus being the Chief Shepherd. God calls leaders to be shepherds and the role of a godly leader is to watch over, care for, feed, and protect the sheep.

This is where things can get confusing, because not all of may have had positive or negative influences that shaped our understanding of godly leaders.

Who have been the major influences in your life, whether positive or negative, that have shaped your understanding of local church leadership up to this point? What specifically did you learn from each of them?

In response to this question, you may have had a lot of positive influences that have shaped your understanding of local church leadership. Unfortunately, you also may have had pretty negative influences in church leadership. Would you like to know the good news? You’re not alone. That’s why it’s so important to study what it means to be a shepherd leader!

So, how should we live out this reality of being shepherd leaders?

11 Leadership Principles in Psalm 23

A great place for us to see what a good shepherd leader looks like, is from Psalm 23.

A psalm of David.
[1] The Lord is my shepherd,

1. Jesus is the authoritative guide.


I lack nothing.

2. They anticipate needs and systematically care for their flock.

[2] He makes me lie down in green pastures,

3. They must be watchful for a sabbatical rhythm in the life of his workers.


he leads me beside quiet waters,

4. They are called upon to see that all are treated fairly and justly, and the flock is rewarded for their work in as gracious a manner as possible.


[3] he refreshes my soul.

5. The result of shepherd leadership.


He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.

6. They earn the trust of their flock.


[4] Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,

7. They are able to lead their flock through the darkest valleys, while retaining the trust of their flock.


your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

8. They protect and rescue their flock.


[5] You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.

9. They are generous in their hospitality.


You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

10. They do not always need to seize on enormously expensive solutions in order to lead well.


[6] Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,

11. Just as God’s provision, abundance, and protection will always be there for the shepherd, they communicate the same to those under their leadership.

Walter C. Kaiser talks about the “shepherd” as a biblical metaphor for leadership in Psalm 23. King David wrote this poem about the Lord, who was true example of a Good Shepherd. In light of this, Kaiser asks a convicting question:

“If the followers whom I am leading were to write a poem about my ability to lead them and my personal style of leadership, what would they say about my leadership? Would they, perchance employ such gracious and complimentary words about us as those that are used in Psalm 23” (156)?

If not, what would they write?!

God’s Preference for a Leader

God’s not just looking for a servant leader, but he’s looking for a shepherd leader. Kaiser describes the major difference between these two types of leadership models: “Shepherd leadership originated in the sacred text, and servant leadership originated in a mystical novel” (162).

I believe that this is why it’s vital to understand that “Shepherd leaders are sheep first”. As shepherd leaders, we don’t arrive on the scene having it all together, because we don’t! We are not yet fully-developed leaders, but we are being formed by the Good shepherd and led to be leaders.

This means that good shepherd leaders are sheep first.

I Want to Hear From You!

In what specific ways do you live out this reality, where “The Lord is my shepherd”?

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