CEO, president, even king—there are several leadership models that inform and define how modern pastors function in their churches. And with the current obsession of innovating new leadership styles, techniques, and structures, you can be sure that many more will rise in popularity in the coming years.
However, as Cameron pointed out last time, the one leadership model that Scripture repeatedly emphasizes—the shepherd—has been cast aside and trampled over by many of today’s church leaders.
And while I will agree that it might not be the most relatable illustration for modern audiences, I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit chose to include disposable metaphors in the Word of God. Let’s not pretend that we have outlived the shelf-life of the New Testament, or that we need to breathe twenty-first-century life into an ancient text.
The writers of Scripture did not land on the imagery of shepherds by coincidence, or for lack of a better option. God chose it for a specific purpose: to illustrate precious truths about the role He designed for pastors.
Employing the rich metaphor in Acts 20:28-31, Paul helps us understand the work the Lord has set before His shepherds:
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.
Paul highlights three basic duties for every godly shepherd: watch out, care, and guard.
All successful shepherds are vigilant. You can’t spot thieves or other threats to your sheep if your eyes are constantly wandering and distracted—you can’t even keep track of the sheep. Fundamental to the shepherd’s job description is an attitude of watchfulness.
And Paul says that the true shepherd’s vigilance starts with his own self-examination. How can a pastor rightly appraise the spiritual needs of his people if he can’t properly assess the nature of his own heart? Conversely, how can a self-deceived leader ever provide leadership worth following?
In his commentary, John MacArthur explains how biblical leadership hinges on faithful self-examination:
The first step in being on guard is self-examination. After a whole chapter of exhortation to the young preacher (1 Tim. 4:1–15), Paul summed up what he had said by calling Timothy to examine himself (verse 16): “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” He charged Timothy to scrutinize his life and doctrine to make sure both honored God. Such was crucial to his own perseverance and to the salvation and perseverance of others.  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 13-28 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996) 222.
God’s faithful shepherd is careful and thorough when it comes to examining himself before the Lord. He understands the gravity and influence of his own spiritual condition, and is vigilant in identifying sin that could encroach upon his flock—particularly sin in his own life.
The shepherd’s job is not just about watching out for his flock. He doesn’t merely sit high above them in a lookout tower—his primary work is accomplished at ground level, in and among his sheep. John MacArthur describes what that vital work looks like:
After making sure that his own life (and consequently that of his family, 1 Timothy 3:4–5) is in order, a leader’s second priority is the spiritual care of his flock. Positively, that care involves the feeding and leading of all the flock. The metaphor of a flock and a shepherd is often used to describe God’s relationship to His people. It is an apt one, since sheep are helpless, timid, dirty, and in need of constant protection and care. . . .
Shepherd is from poimainō, a comprehensive term encompassing the entire task of a shepherd. The most important part of that task, however, is to feed. In John 21:15–17, Jesus three times instructed Peter to care for His sheep. The second time He used poimainō, but the first and third times boskō, which has the more restricted meaning of “to feed.” Obviously, then, the primary task of an undershepherd of the Lord’s flock is to feed the sheep. Sadly, many undershepherds today fail to do that, seemingly content to lead their sheep from one barren wasteland to another. The tragic result is a spiritually weak flock, ready to eat the poisonous weeds of false doctrine, or to follow false shepherds who deceitfully promise them greener pastures, while leading them to barren desert.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 13-28, 224.
No faithful shepherd would permit his sheep to starve; nor would encourage them to gorge on junk food, or let them wander to find whatever sustenance they might prefer. It’s his job to keep them healthy, well-nourished, and fit.
Moreover, he shows the same care for all of his sheep. He’s not a CEO, concerned only with the bottom line and looking to cut out anyone and everything that’s not working. On the contrary, the shepherd shows extra care to those sheep that are struggling. His love for his entire flock is equal and comprehensive, and he labors to see that their needs are faithfully and thoroughly met.
The Lord doesn’t call men into ministry so they can be ruthless, heavy-handed, or dismissive with their flocks. Pastors must prioritize the spiritual health of their people, and sacrifice themselves to meet the needs of those under their care.
Finally, Paul warns shepherds to faithfully guard their sheep. He understood the threats that face a church—both from outside and from within—and he warns leaders to carefully guard their flocks from those deadly dangers. In his commentary, John MacArthur explains the vivid picture Paul paints:
It is not enough for a faithful shepherd to feed and lead his flock, he must also protect it from predators. Paul had no doubt that after his departure false teachers would threaten the Ephesian church, as they already had entered the church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 11:4) and the churches of Galatia (Galatians 1:6). Whenever the truth is proclaimed, Satan can be expected to counter it with the lies of false doctrine. . . .
True to Paul’s prediction, false teachers did come in among the flock at Ephesus and attack it (cf. Revelation 2:2). Even more subtle than the attack of false teachers from outside the church, however, is the defection of those within. Accordingly, Paul warned them that “from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” “Perverse” is from diastrephō, which means “to distort,” or “to twist.” False teachers twist God’s truth for their own perverted ends. “Draw away” is from apospaō and could be translated “to drag away” or “to tear away.” If the undershepherds are not vigilant, Paul warns, the wolves will drag their sheep away to devour them.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 13-28, 226.
And one of the primary ways the shepherd protects his sheep is not by concealing and ignoring the threats outside the flock, but by faithfully warning them and training them to spot the dangers for themselves. Such faithful exhortation was a vital part of Paul’s shepherding ministry.
The faithful shepherd must also warn his flock. Paul had done so during his own ministry at Ephesus; he reminds the Ephesian elders of how “night and day for a period of three years he did not cease to admonish each one with tears.” “Admonish” is from noutheteō, which refers to giving counsel with a warning involved (cf. Colossians 1:28). The pattern of Paul’s ministry shows the importance of warning believers about false teachers. He admonished the Ephesians for a period of three years, caring for each one of the flock (cf. Acts 20:20). So compelled was he to warn them that he hardly had time for sleep, ministering “night and day” (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8). Nor was it a mere academic exercise for Paul—he punctuated his warnings with his tears. He wept because he knew the terrible consequences when false teachers infiltrate. Only by following Paul’s example can the faithful undershepherd protect Christ’s flock from the savage wolves and diseased sheep who constantly threaten it.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 13-28, 228.
In his book The Minister as Shepherd, Charles Jefferson sums up the protective role of the shepherd this way:
The Eastern shepherd was, first of all, a watchman. He had a watch-tower. It was his business to keep a wide-open eye, constantly searching the horizon for the possible approach of foes. He was bound to be circumspect and attentive. Vigilance was a cardinal virtue. An alert wakefulness was for him a necessity. He could not indulge in fits of drowsiness, for the foe was always near. Only by his alertness could the enemy be circumvented. There were many kinds of enemies, all of them terrible, each in a different way. At certain seasons of the year there were floods. Streams became quickly swollen and overflowed their banks. Swift action was necessary in order to escape destruction. There were enemies of a more subtle kind—animals, rapacious and treacherous: lions, bears, hyenas, jackals, wolves. There were enemies in the air; huge birds of prey were always soaring aloft ready to swoop down upon a lamb or kid. And then, most dangerous of all, were the human birds and beasts of prey—robbers, bandits, men who made a business of robbing sheepfolds and murdering shepherds. That Eastern world was full of perils. It teemed with forces hostile to the shepherd and his flock. When Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Habakkuk talk about shepherds, they call them watchmen set to warn and save.
Many a minister fails as a pastor because he is not vigilant. He allows his church to be torn to pieces because he is half asleep. He took it for granted that there were no wolves, no birds of prey, no robbers, and while he was drowsing the enemy arrived. False ideas, destructive interpretations, demoralizing teachings came into his group, and he never knew it. He was interested, perhaps, in literary research; he was absorbed in the discussion contained in the last theological quarterly, and did not know what his young people were reading, or what strange ideas had been lodged in the heads of a group of his leading members. There are errors which are as fierce as wolves and pitiless as hyenas; they tear faith and hope and love to pieces and leave churches, once prosperous, mangled and half dead. Charles Jefferson, The Minister as Shepherd [Hong Kong: Living Books for All, 1980], 41–44.
The life of a godly shepherd is one of vigilance, compassionate care, and tenacious defense for his sheep. His life is bound up in serving and protecting his flock, as he happily expends himself for their benefit.
You can apply all sorts of illustrations to the individual tasks of a pastor, but none of them are as consistent and comprehensive as Scripture’s chosen metaphor. It’s no accident that God’s Word calls them shepherds—that’s what they are.