Be a Shepherd Not a Sheepdog

By pastor: 
Trip Kimball

If Jesus—the Good Shepherd—is our prime example as a pastor or leader and the Bible is our primary guide, why is it so difficult to pastor God's people well? Be wary of those who say it's easy—it's not!

When pastors or leaders of God's people speak highly of their own pastoral prowess it makes me wonder…Are they following the example of Jesus or some ideal of their own? Do they reflect the nature and commitment of the Good Shepherd or some image they are convinced is best?

When the expectations of pastors are driven by business leadership guidelines and principles and a result-oriented culture, it won't line up with what we see in Jesus as the Good Shepherd nor what the Bible says.

Are you a shepherd or a sheepdog?

Let's start with why I’m making a distinction between a shepherd and a sheepdog. Both are invested in tending sheep but in different ways because they have different roles. I’ve seen myself function in both roles while pastoring and seen it in other pastors too.

Whether you’ve had formal education and training to be a pastor or more experienced-based training—a learning as you go approach—you’ve probably fulfilled the role of a sheepdog at times. I think we all tend to do so, especially when planting a church and trying to raise up new leaders.

In church planting, it seems the pastor needs to do most everything most of the time. Although some church plants or launches utilize a team approach with significant planning, a lot falls on the shoulders of the founding pastor.

Shouldering much of the responsibility as a pastor is to be expected but how this is handled individually depends on the person. We all handle things differently but when the responsibilities and work seem overwhelming it’s bound to affect our attitude and mood, which directly impacts the people we lead.        

What’s the difference between a shepherd and a sheepdog?

As mentioned in a previous post, Jesus speaks of two important things about Himself as the Good Shepherd—He lays His life down for the sheep and He knows them personally and is known by them.

There is a personal commitment and connection between the Good Shepherd and His sheep, which includes all of us who are followers of Jesus. This is a basic characteristic for any of us to emulate who would be shepherds of God’s people.

The sheepdog, on the other hand, is faithful to the shepherd but doesn’t have the same level of relationship and responsibility as he does. The sheepdog isn’t a hireling (John 10:12-13) but is also not a shepherd. His or her relationship and role with the sheep is different than the shepherds.

The primary role of a sheepdog is to assist the shepherd. The sheepdog assists the shepherd with gathering and handling the sheep. This includes—gathering and guiding sheep while in the pasture and guiding them into a pen or enclosure as the shepherd directs and commands them.

The Good Shepherd has a personal commitment and connection with His sheep

The different relationships and roles of the shepherd and sheepdog

Consider a simple comparison of how a shepherd leads under the direction of Jesus the Chief Shepherd and how a sheepdog works under a shepherd.

   Shepherd

  • Love and grace-based relationship to sheep
  • Leads by going ahead of the sheep
  • Guides sheep with his staff
  • The sheep know the shepherd’s voice and tone
  • Shepherd is committed as fellow-shepherd with the Chief Shepherd

   Sheepdog

  • Sheep have a fear-based relationship to the sheepdog
  • Drives or pushes the sheep from behind
  • Nips at the heels of the sheep and runs from side to side to handle them
  • Barks and growls at the sheep
  • Committed to assisting the shepherd but has a lower position and role

If a leader takes on the characteristics of a sheepdog it’s not a personality change nor is it an all-or-nothing role change. However, it can become a habitual style of leadership.

It often starts in subtle ways as a reaction to unmet expectations of people or the pastor/leader’s own sense of urgency. It can also be an indirect reaction to pressures and expectations at home or some other source.

Don’t be a sheepdog!

When there’s a time crunch and much to be done, it’s easy to drift into the role and attitude of acting like a sheepdog rather than a shepherd towards people. That’s when we start barking out orders and nipping at people’s heels to get them moving.

Although this may be effective at first it’s not sustainable. People get weary of being barked and nipped at and driven to serve or commit to something. Churches and ministries are notorious for recruiting people to serve and expecting commitments from them that too often become one-way.

People will only put up with the sheepdog approach for a short time before they either ignore the sheepdog or snap back. Pastors and leaders are often surprised at this reaction because they're unaware of their contribution to it.

This approach results in resentment sooner or later and the ripple effect is discouragement in people’s hearts, which leads to disenchantment with serving the Lord, and often results in departures—people either back out of commitments or dropout and leave the church.

People only put up with the sheepdog approach for a short time before they react to it in some way

Some simple reminders

Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd and the Door to the sheepfold (John 10:7, 11, 14) and Peter calls Jesus the Chief Shepherd whom we are under as under-shepherds (1 Peter 5:4). Paul exhorted the elders to be shepherds of God’s flock—those whom Jesus purchased with His own blood—as overseers under the direction of the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28).

The church is the Lord’s not ours as shepherds. The people are His people—His sheep—under our care as shepherds and leaders. Again, God’s people are not our people nor is the church ours.

Even though we may speak of “our church” or “our people,” it’s understood we mean the church we’re called to pastor or the people we oversee.

A delicate balance exists between emulating Jesus’ relationship and commitment to His people and our relationship with Jesus as one of His followers. As pastors, we need to lead, love, and care for God’s people remembering we are fellow followers with them under the same Chief Shepherd.

Jesus was a model of this for us that fits any capacity of leadership. He spoke of submission to His Father and saying and doing what the Father gave Him to say and do. He also demonstrated what kind of leaders He expected as He washed the disciples' feet (John 13:4-5, 13-17)—servant-leaders.

How to keep from being a sheepdog

We need to keep a few basics in perspective to avoid the sheepdog approach to pastoring and leading God’s people. The simple reminders above are always a priority.

Also, as pastors, we need to remember why the Lord calls and gifts us to be pastors. As Paul pointed out, we are to be leaders who equip God’s people for service (Eph 4:11-12) to build up the Body of Christ. This is what Paul spoke of in the pastoral epistles (2 Tim 2:2)—basic discipleship as Jesus demonstrated.

We need to disciple people to whom we can delegate the various responsibilities of service involved with being a church body. Then we need to be an example to them to help them avoid becoming sheepdogs as they assist us in loving, caring, and leading God’s people.

Next post, I’ll share some more thoughts on following the example of our Good Shepherd Jesus.

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