Leadership and the care of souls

peter brueghel unfaithful shepherd

Last weekend we had a fantastic time with 100 leaders from churches all over north London. We explored how the contemporary interest in “leadership” relates to the Biblical image of the pastor/shepherd.

It seems quite ambitious to be trying to convince anyone here that leadership is a good thing in the build-up to a General Election. There is so much scepticism around about politicians who break promises. But here are two reasons many are still convinced that leadership is a vital topic for us:

The Scriptures call us to it. The activity of overseeing or directing the people of God is common, from Moses and Miriam to Priscilla and Aquila. There are spectacularly bad leaders: but that does not mean all leadership is bad.

God gives us leaders for our good. There is no such thing in God’s purpose as a leader who does not care for those they lead. So in Acts 20 Paul calls the Ephesian church leaders “overseers” (from which we get “episcopacy” or “bishops”) and in the next sentence “shepherds” or “pastors” called to feed and care for the flock of Christ. Leadership and pastoral care may not be identical: but they are often inseparable.

Focus on giving not getting

The Biblical image of God as the shepherd leader is very common from the end of Genesis (48:15) and in no less than 11 Psalms.

Then in Exekiel 34 the leaders of the nation are false shepherds, 2bWoe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool, but do not take care of the flock”.

God declares that instead He will be shepherd to his people, and will send another David to lead and care for them properly.

Jesus is  “the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:10). He sees the crowds as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36) and predicts that at his arrest in Gethsemane, the shepherd will be struck and the sheep will scatter (Mark 14:27).

Not only is Jesus the great shepherd: The leaders of the Church are called overseers, bishops and elders but also shepherds in three distinct places (Acts 20:28, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Peter 5:2).

Yes, the Bishops and clergy, as the ordination rites remind us, are to shepherd and lead the flock. But the Great Shepherd has delegated his pastoral care of souls to all who lead in the Church. In  that all of us influence other people towards faith and following Christ, we are all pastors, shepherds and leaders to one another, whether given a title for that or not.

The letter of Jude underlines the difference between good and bad leadership, good and bad care of souls, in two very striking verses.

12 These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm – shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind, autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted – twice dead. 13 They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved for ever.

We can all think of leaders who are about all the wrong things – power, status and reward. Feeding themselves and their egos instead of feeding the flock with the truth and mercy of God. It’s easy to get sucked into a self-serving attitude once someone in the Church gives you a seat on a committee or a collar around your neck.

But shepherd leadership gives before it gets.

It also gives the hope Jesus brings. We are to promise sins forgiven, death defeated, sickness overcome, evil overthrown.

That is why “clouds without rain” (v12b) are so dispiriting – they promise much, but deliver nothing (again I suspect we will see a few political “clouds without rain” either side of this election!).

We do need vision, we need to paint clouds which people can see, targets to aim at – I do believe in mission plans and SMART goals. But we need to make sure those clouds deliver God’s rain too and are not empty promises, that they are prayer-based and Christ-centred.

Focus on character, not charisma

Three other images Jude gives us of faulty shepherds:

Fruitless trees (v12c) – you know the kind of person, who says the right things but they are only interested in their image, the fruit emerging from them is not mercy, love and goodness.

To his great credit, Bill Hybels includes a very searching chapter on “Self-leadership” in his book “Courageous Leadership”, because he knows the importance of character, and the temptations to stray from it as a leader.

Uncontrolled waves (v13a) foaming up shame – remember the floods on the coast this time last year? Leadership is about power, and power wrongly used may make lots of noise, but it leaves a trail of debris.

Wandering stars (v13b) – planets move in the sky, stars do not –  they are fixed points that we can rely upon and get our bearings from. We depend upon them. Bad leaders disrupt heavenly order, their contribution to God’s work may burn brightly but it damages our mission.

Character comes before charisma.

So how do I ensure that, whatever my role caring for the spiritual needs of others, I am fruitful, healthy and steady (instead of fruitless, destructive and erratic)?

The writer Eugene Peterson made a brilliant observation about leadership in his book “the Contemplative Pastor”. He heard a minister friend explaining that his job was to “run the church”.

He admits that sometimes we have to “run the church” –  just as we have to “run our homes” by buying the groceries and paying the bills –  but he was shocked that we could sum up leadership this way.

He suggests that when we lead or shepherd, we operate not only in the mode of “running the church” but also of caring for souls.

He identifies three areas this becomes apparent:

When we run the church we initiate, we strategise, we move things forward, all of which are essential to leadership.

But when we care for souls we react to God’s initiative, we look for where God is working, notice the traces of grace in a person’s life, and giving thanks for them.

When we run the church we use the language of motivation and description. We inform about next week’s events, we motivate people to volunteer their help.

When we care for souls we use the language of relationship, feelings are listened to, silences honoured, differences understood, compromises made.

When we run the church we solve problems, we answer queries, we tidy up messy situations, we use expertise.

When we care for souls we admit our inability to solve the deepest problems, we pray with the grieving, we live with mystery and believe that one day we will see clearly.

And godly shepherding is doing both.

Jude puts it like this to those who lead and shepherd in the Church, urging us to play our part (build up and keeping ourselves) – and let God do His (as we pray and wait for the coming of Christ):

20 But you, dear friends, by building yourself up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you eternal life.


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Rector of Holy Trinity, Norwich, since Sept 2017, writing on pastoring, preaching, resourcing discipleship, and apologetics/philosophy.

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