If I were to say, a church leader is a shepherd of God’s people, we would probably all agree.   After all, it’s biblical.

“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, NIV

“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; not greedy for money, but eager to serve,
not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”    I Peter 5:2-3, NIV

But, what does it mean to be a shepherd?   Shepherding involves two basic functions:  tending and taking.  One without the other falls short of a biblical understanding.  Let’s take a look.

Tending is a basic function of shepherding.  Most everyone understands this and values this activity.  When a church leader comforts a hurting soul, visits a lonely person, listens to someone’s story, invests in the spiritual development of his flock, he is tending.   This is a relational piece of shepherding that builds deep connections within the flock and results in a sense of family and togetherness.

In one of the earliest records of church life (Acts 2:42-47) there is evidence of tending going on.  The word “together” is used three times in this NIV text and is manifest in a variety of activities.  They were sharing their personal possessions with one another, enjoying fellowship, praying and breaking bread in their homes.  And of course, there was the teaching of the Word which is critical to the tending of the flock.

It’s hard to talk about shepherding without making reference to the Good Shepherd as seen in Psalm 23.  You cannot read the text without seeing the tending activity of the shepherd at every turn.  He “restores”, he is “with me”, “your rod and your staff, they comfort me”, “you anoint my head with oil”.

Tending is a vital part of shepherding, for it is the demonstration of compassionate care.  People need care, and therefore they need a shepherd.  Jesus taught us this by His own example:  “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36, NIV).

Tending is almost universally accepted as a function of church leadership.  Otherwise known as pastoral care, tending has been a valued and important function of shepherding since the earliest days of the church.  In our day,  churches of all sizes engage in the important work of pastoral care.  In many larger multi-staff churches, the importance of tending the flock is evident even though it may look different than the more traditional single shepherd model.  Some churches may hire staff with focus on tending ministries, others may create congregational care teams, while others may find that caring can best take place in small group communities within their church.

Taking is also a basic function of shepherding.  From my vantage point, this is not universally understood.   The role of a shepherd is not only to tend the flock, but to also take the flock to the next pasture.  Sheep need a leader, one who will take them to the next place God has for them.  Sheep love tending but don’t always love taking.  Perhaps that is why this function of shepherding is often overlooked or avoided.  Yes, a shepherd is a caregiver, but a shepherd is also a leader who is willing to do the hard work of taking the church to the next level.

Taking implies movement, journey, destination.  Taking almost always faces some sort of resistance.  We, like sheep, do not always go willingly or easily.  We often like the pasture we’re in because it’s familiar and comfortable to us.  We have a natural bent toward personal comfort and that’s where the role of a shepherd is critical.  Think of a shepherd’s staff with a crooked end and a straight blunt end.  The crook of the staff is used to rescue and pick up the lamb, while the blunt end is used to gently nudge the sheep.  Sheep need the tender care of the shepherd, but they also need to move toward a destination, and that is where the shepherd comes along to nudge.  He’s charged with taking them to the next place.

Most churches would say they want their pastor to be a shepherd, but if you scratch beneath the surface what they are really wanting is a tender of the flock.  Some unlearning and relearning needs to take place in our churches and it begins within the mind and heart of the leader.  We need to understand the calling God has placed upon our lives as one of tending and taking God’s people.

If I fail to do both, I have failed to shepherd God’s people.  This is not an either or proposition, as both are necessary components to effective biblical leadership.  If I tend without taking, I will inevitably overgraze the pasture we are in and will begin to see the church and the people become spiritually unhealthy and wither away.  The church was designed to be missional, to move forward and outward into new pastures.  God’s people were never meant to remain where they are, but to move to the next level of spiritual growth and kingdom expansion.  If I take without tending, I will inevitably leave a wake of casualties along the way, for people need to be cared for.  People need a loving shepherd who will look out for their best interests and encourage them along the way.  God’s people will not readily follow a shepherd who is driven by task, but lacking in tender care toward them.   Your care for them builds relational trust and makes it all the more likely you will succeed in taking them to the next level.

In the life of a church leader there is an ever-present tension between tending and taking.  I encourage and challenge you to embrace this tension and seek, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to fulfill your calling to “be shepherds of God’s flock”.  It is a holy calling and it is a key to the advancement of His kingdom.

May God give you great joy in shepherding!