Do you remember what it was like as a child picking teams on the playground? The tallest and biggest kids always went first, based on the assumption of physical prowess. But they weren’t always the best choice—sometimes the game required the speed, flexibility, and coordination the bigger kids lacked. And sometimes they simply weren’t athletic.
Humans are prone to over-value externals. We’re too easily fooled by façades, eager to appraise every book by its cover. Rather than waiting to see the quality of a person’s character and integrity borne out over time, we make snap decisions based on the physical qualities we see—or don’t see.
God rebuked Samuel for making that very mistake:
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
Too many churches today put too much stock in externals when searching for a pastor. They give too much credibility to a man’s outward appearance, putting style far ahead of substance. They want someone young, attractive, polished, virile, exciting, funny, and cool. But those qualities have nothing to do with being a godly shepherd—in fact some of them might inhibit his ability to faithfully care for the flock.
Instead, the church needs to evaluate potential shepherds biblically—we need to see them as God sees them. We recently asked John MacArthur what a church ought to look for in a shepherd. Here’s what he said:
God’s Word is clear about the biblical qualifications for a shepherd. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul lays out the precise measure of the man fit to care for God’s flock.
An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:2-7)
Just over a year ago, we published a series of articles digging deep into each of those biblical qualifications for pastors—suffice it to say, there’s more than I can cover in this space today.
But the point Paul makes to Timothy is the same one John MacArthur made in the video above—that the godly shepherd’s character is borne out through his faithfulness over time. A pastor is qualified, not by his impressive externals, but by established patterns of integrity, purity, and righteousness. Churches searching for a new shepherd need to be less enamored by suave and sophisticated speakers, and more interested in a man’s spiritual maturity.
In addition to the qualifications Paul spells out above, it’s helpful to consider the actual work a pastor is called to, and how prospective shepherds might fit that role.
As we saw earlier in this series, the shepherd’s primary role is to feed the sheep. In an article titled “More Than Just a Preacher,” John MacArthur explains what it looks like to faithfully feed God’s flock.
The pastor’s goal is not to please the sheep, but to feed them—not to tickle their ears, but to nourish their souls. He is not to offer merely light snacks of spiritual milk, but the substantial meat of biblical truth. Those who fail to feed the flock are unfit to be shepherds (cf. Jeremiah 23:1-4; Ezekiel 34:2-10).
When looking for a new pastor, churches need to consider more than just a candidate’s preaching style—they need to evaluate the substance he delivers. You wouldn’t hire a chef who couldn’t cook, or a pilot who couldn’t fly. If a man is unable or unwilling to feed his sheep the rich nourishment of God’s Word, he’s not fit to be their pastor.
Another vital element goes hand-in-hand with feeding—godly shepherds must also protect the sheep. Paul exhorted the leaders in the church at Ephesus to be on the alert and protect the church from spiritual threats.
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. (Acts 20:28-30)
Here’s how John MacArthur describes this vital function of God’s shepherds:
Sheep are almost entirely defenseless—they can't kick, scratch, bite, jump, or run. When attacked by a predator, they huddle together rather than running away. That makes them easy prey. Sheep need a protective shepherd in order to survive.
Christians need similar protection from error and those who spread it. Pastors guard their spiritual sheep from going astray and defend them against the savage wolves that would ravage them.
The faithful pastor isn’t naïve or oblivious when it comes to his sheep. He’s keenly aware of the threats to their safety and health. He doesn’t venture as close as he can to the danger, or lead them into the unknown. He guards them carefully, and sacrifices himself for their protection.
And when they do fall into danger, the godly shepherd must rescue the sheep. As John MacArthur explains, it’s in a sheep’s nature to wander and get into trouble.
A sheep can be totally lost within a few miles of its home. With no sense of direction and no instinct for finding the fold, a lost sheep usually will walk around in a state of confusion, unrest, and even panic. It needs a shepherd to bring it home. . . .
Like lost sheep, lost people need a rescuer—a shepherd—to lead them to the safety of the fold. A pastor does that by pointing the lost toward Jesus, the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:11).
A godly shepherd knows how precious the sheep are to the Good Shepherd, and the blessed joys of belonging to His heavenly flock. Churches looking for a pastor need to look for a man passionate about the transforming work of the gospel—not merely accumulating professed converts, but growing faithful disciples and equipping them for use in the work of God’s kingdom.
That means the faithful shepherd cannot bounce from flock to flock. He can’t have divided loyalties, or always be looking for a larger, more desirable flock. He’s got to be grounded and committed to effectively lead the sheep the Lord gives him. And as John MacArthur explains, leading God’s sheep involves more than just preaching.
Besides teaching, the pastor exercises oversight of the flock by the example of his life. Being a pastor requires getting in among the sheep. It is not leadership from above so much as leadership from within. An effective pastor does not herd his sheep from the rear but leads them from the front. They see him and imitate his actions.
The most important asset of spiritual leadership is the power of an exemplary life. First Timothy 4:16 instructs a church leader to, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.”
Churches searching for a new pastor need to ask two important questions about every potential candidate: Is this a man who will faithfully lead us? and Is this a man we should follow?
Finally, godly shepherds exhibit tender care for their flock as they gently comfort the sheep. Brash, heavy-handed leaders don’t make good pastors; pushovers are just as bad. As John MacArthur explains, shepherds need to measure the needs of their individual sheep, and address them appropriately.
Sheep lack a self-preservation instinct. They are so humble and meek that if you mistreat them, they are easily crushed in spirit and can simply give up and die. The shepherd must know his sheep’s individual temperaments and take care not to inflict excessive stress. Accordingly, a faithful pastor adjusts his counsel to fit the need of the person to whom he ministers. He must “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and be patient with all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
Anyone can give advice, comfort, or rebuke—a godly shepherd gives it with authority, precision, wisdom, and gentleness out of genuine concern for the needs of his sheep.
If you are currently looking, or have occasion in the future to look for a new pastor, lean heavily on Scripture when evaluating his credentials and qualifications. The wrong man can do unspeakable harm to the flock of God—he can scar and wound the sheep, or drive them from the flock altogether. Conversely, the right man—a faithful, godly shepherd—is one of heaven’s greatest blessings.
And if your church enjoys the leadership of one such faithful shepherd, make a point this week to thank him for his faithful service. Your encouragement will be a blessing to him.