Shepherds: Pastors and Elders
1 Peter 5:1-5
Earnest Shackleton led a daring expedition in 1914 to reach Antarctica. A year earlier, a lesser-known Canadian-led expedition headed in the other direction to explore the North Pole. Both ships, the Karluk in the north and the Endurance in the south, found themselves trapped by solid ice packs. Each crew was faced with a fight for survival. But the outcomes of the two expeditions couldn’t have been more different.
In the north, the crew members from the Karluk, led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, degenerated into a band of selfish, mean-spirited, cut-throat individualists, ending in the death of all 11 crew members. In the south, Shackleton’s crew faced the same problems – cold, food shortages, stress, and anxiety – but his crew responded with teamwork, self-sacrifice, and astonishing good cheer.
In the end, each leader stayed true to his core leadership values. Stefansson valued success above caring for people. He consistently communicated his ultimate objective: getting to the North Pole. In Stefansson’s words this meant “that even the lives of the [crew] are secondary to the accomplishment of the work!” To the very end, Stefansson denied that his drive for success led to a tragedy – for himself and his crew.
In sharp contrast, Shackleton’s leadership focused on the value and dignity of his teammates. At one of the lowest points of his trip, Shackleton wrote, “The task was now to secure the safety of the party.” The well-being of his team drove him to put others first. Shackleton even gave away his mittens and boots and volunteered for the longest night watches. By valuing each person, Shackleton forged a team that was willing to share their rations with each other, even on the brink of starvation. Through his example of sacrificial leadership, Shackleton was able to accomplish his ultimate objective: saving the lives of his crew members.[i] Healthy leadership led to a good outcome in a bad situation. Unhealthy leadership made a bad situation worse, and led to a tragic end for all involved.
As St. Peter begins to close his letter to the struggling, persecuted, poor Christians in the backwater areas of the Roman Empire, he turns his attention to their leaders, the ones responsible for watching over, guiding, correcting, and protecting the followers of Christ in their care. He talks to all of us about how to respond to those who lead, and gives us a trait that is to impact all of our interactions in the body of Christ. Turn with me to 1 Peter 5:1-5.
Peter isn’t drawing a line here between younger generations and older people in the body of Christ. He isn’t talking about every older person in the church. He’s talking about a specific leadership position in the body of Christ. But it’s no mistake that the word “elder” was chosen to describe this position. You see, the word “elder” gets at two key characteristics of leadership in the body of Christ: experience and wisdom. Elders are those who have been walking with Christ longer than many others in the congregation, and who have the wisdom and experience that comes with those years of following Jesus through the mountains and valleys of life. To be sure, that wisdom and experience tends to come with age. But this isn’t to say that younger people cannot serve in leadership positions in the church. It is simply to say that there needs to be a level of spiritual maturity that comes from walking with Jesus over the long haul.
Now, notice that Peter doesn’t distinguish between pastors and elders here. He is talking about the total leadership body in the local church, and he calls them all “elders.” Even back then, there were those who served in pastoral roles, like Timothy and Titus, in special positions of leadership in the local church, and they were assisted in that work by elders who had been walking with Jesus for some time. And Timothy was on the younger side and Paul makes sure to tell Timothy not to allow people to look down in him because he is young, but even in his youth to set an example for the rest of the church to follow. But he was also certainly surrounded by elders, including his mentor, Paul, who he could go to for advice and encouragement.
So elders aren’t necessarily just the oldest members of a congregation. Being an elder in the church is an honored position that is recognized by the church, but it does assume a level of maturity and experience and wisdom that often come with age, and Peter is talking both to the pastors of the churches he writes to and to the other elders who surround them and assist them.
So what are the characteristics of an elder, an experienced, mature, wise leader of the congregation? Look at V. 2. Shepherd the flock. In other words, look after the flock. Shepherds were well known in the ancient world, but are much less familiar to us today. Shepherds were people who tended flocks of sheep and goats, guiding the sheep to water and good pasture, protecting the sheep from predators, tenderly caring for sheep that were injured or sick, and making sure that the sheep, who had a tendency to wander into trouble, stayed where they were supposed to stay. Shepherds cared for, guided, protected, and corrected the sheep under their care. That’s the image Peter drew on to describe the position and task of leadership in the body of Christ. Shepherd the flock. Look after the flock.
But there’s something else here we have to notice. Peter doesn’t say, “Shepherd your flock.” He says, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” The flock does not belong to the pastor. Ultimately, it belongs to God, who is the Good Shepherd, under which pastors and lay elders serve as under-shepherds, looking after HIS flock. Christ Church is not my church, my flock. It is Christ’s church. HE is the ultimate, good shepherd of this church. The other elders and I are caretakers of this flock, but this flock belongs to another. It belongs to God.
I have a great little book written over 50 years ago by a former shepherd, Philip Keller. He titled the book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm Twenty-Three, He tells about his experience as a shepherd in east Africa. The land adjacent to his was rented out to a tenant shepherd who didn’t take very good care of his sheep: his land was overgrazed, eaten down to the ground; the sheep were thin, diseased by parasites, and attacked by wild animals. Keller especially remembered how the neighbor’s sheep would line up at the fence and blankly stare in the direction of his green grass and his healthy sheep, almost as if they yearned to be delivered from their abusive shepherd. They longed to come to the other side of the fence and belong to him.
Those of us who follow Christ understand that the identity of the shepherd is everything. It is wonderful to be able to say, “The Lord is my shepherd.”[ii] We are all a part of his flock. Some of us are shepherds, but always under-shepherds to the one Good Shepherd – Christ.
And boy, do we miss that truth in the church today. We’ve completely lost the concept of pastor as shepherd and the flock as belonging to God, not to the pastor. Many churches look for gregarious, well-known business leaders to serve on their board. The position of pastor is viewed by many as no different than a business CEO, and worship leaders are often wannabe rock stars looking for recording contracts. And although they’re tongue in cheek and humorous, I think these view of different roles in church leadership is more common that most of us would like to admit. Listen to these “job descriptions.”
PASTOR: Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. More powerful than a locomotive. Faster than a speeding bullet. Walks on water. Makes policy with God.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: Able to leap short buildings in a single bound. As powerful as a switch engine. Just as fast as a speeding bullet. Walks on water if the sea is calm. Talks with God.
MINISTER OF MUSIC: Leaps short buildings with a running start. Almost as powerful as a switch engine. Faster than a speeding BB. Walks on water if he knows where the stumps are. Is occasionally addressed by God.
MINISTER OF YOUTH: Runs into small buildings. Recognizes locomotives 2 out of 3 times. Uses a squirt gun. Knows how to use the water fountain. Mumbles to himself.
CHURCH SECRETARY: Lifts buildings to walk under them. Kicks locomotives off the track. Catches speeding bullets in her teeth. Freezes water with a single glance. When God speaks she says, “May I ask who is calling?”[iii]
Because of course we all know that it is the secretary who really runs the church. But we do expect a lot of our shepherds, because we expect them to be superstars. It has been said that the modern pastor has to make as many visits as a country doctor, shake as many hands as a politician, prepare as many briefs as a lawyer, and see as many people as a specialist. He has to be as good an executive as the president of a university, as good a financier as a bank president; and in the midst of it all, he has to be so good a diplomat that he could umpire a baseball game between the Knights of Columbus and the Ku Klux Klan.[iv] By the way, there isn’t a person alive who can do all of that. So what, according to Peter, are the characteristics that ARE to be present in pastors and elders, in those who look after God’s flock?
Look again at V. 2. Pastors and elders need willing hearts. They are to tend God’s flock willingly. Their efforts and energy are not coerced. It is an added burden, beyond the burden of being a part of a church, to be an elder. It requires extra time, extra effort, extra energy, and extra thought. But healthy elders willingly place themselves at God’s disposal, a tool in God’s hands to tend his flock. And when elders serve willingly, they model the grace of God, for God did not HAVE to save us. But he chose to, willingly, at great cost.
Secondly, elders serve eagerly. Look again at V. 2. I find it interesting that Peter contrasts eager service as an elder with serving only for gain. For what you’ll get out of it if you serve. As an elder, maybe it’s the extra business that is tossed your way by the church you serve, or the boost to your reputation or resume, or the strokes for your pride and ego. As a pastor, it could be the attention you receive, or the adulation, or the money, especially for those who have been at it for a while and are serving in larger, wealthier churches. It isn’t about the audience you’ll build or the opportunities for recording contracts that may come your way.
On the contrary, pastors and elders are called to ministry, and “ministry is giving when you feel like keeping, praying for others when you need to be prayed for, feeding others when your own soul is hungry, living truth before people even when you can’t see results, hurting with other people even when your own hurt can’t be spoken, keeping your word even when it is not convenient, it is being faithful when your flesh wants to run away.”[v] And this is something that is done willingly and eagerly by pastors and elders.
But while some definitely benefit financially, and in their reputation and ego, from serving in the church, many others are taken advantage of by their church. Scripture is clear that those who serve in the church full time are to be appropriately paid for the job they do. The church has to recognize the level of education and the development of talent and skill that go into serving in the church, a pay those who work for them accordingly.
Third, pastors and elders serve humbly, without a domineering spirit. Look at V. 3. Now, this isn’t to say that pastors and elders do not lead and guide and direct and confront. They do. And they should. But they do not do so with a domineering, my way or the highway attitude. Pastors and elders are servants, not bosses, and ministers, not executives. In the ancient world, shepherds didn’t drive the flock from behind. They walked in front and called to the sheep to follow them. Yes, sometimes they had to confront and correct those sheep who didn’t follow well. But they weren’t taskmasters driving from behind. They were leaders walking out in front.
Willingly, eagerly, and humbly. Serving as a pastor or an elder does come at great cost. But there is also a great benefit. Look at V. 4. The great reformer Martin Luther once said, “Our office is a ministry of grace and salvation. It subjects us to great burdens and labors, dangers and temptations, with little reward or gratitude from the world. But Christ himself will be our reward if we labor faithfully.” The trouble with being a leader today is that you can’t be sure whether people are following you or chasing you.[vi]
And what is to be the attitude of the rest of the flock toward their leadership? It’s the same attitude that Peter calls us to in the home, at work, and in life in our communities: mutual submission. Look down at V. 5.
Leaders aren’t always right, and humble leaders will recognize that and listen to the thoughts and ideas and opinions of others. But neither is the congregation always right, and as a general rule of thumb, they submit to the authority of the pastors and elders, who work together to shepherd the flock.
You know, when we first merged Christ Church with Peninsula Bible Church, there were those who wanted us to undertake an aggressive building campaign right away – to pave the parking lot and redo everything all at once, before we even merged. And there’s a model out there for church mergers that does things that way, especially when a larger, established church is taking on a smaller church. But in this case, we viewed it as a coming together of equals, and as such, the elders and I thought it best to wait until we had really come together as a single congregation before taking on an aggressive building campaign.
Now, we’ve done most of the things on the list, and a few other things to boot. But there were those who really believed we needed to do these things right away, and they left over it pretty early on. And that’s fine. They have a right to do that. And I’m glad they chose to do that rather than become a divisive force in a body we were working to bring together. But the general attitude of the flock is to submit ultimately to the good shepherd, who is Christ, and thus to his under-shepherds, who represent his authority.
And that requires humility on the part of all. Look again at V. 5. We are to clothe ourselves, wrap ourselves completely, in humility, whether we are giving or receiving instruction; whether we are confronting or being confronted. Whether we agree or disagree with something, we are to be fully clothed in humility, not ego and pride, storming out or storming around throwing a tantrum when we don’t get our way, both as leaders and as a congregation.
Latin American theologian Rene Padilla remembers vividly one of his early encounters with John Stott.
On the previous night we had arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, in the middle of heavy rain. The street was muddy and, as a result, by the time we got to the room that had been assigned to us our shoes were covered with mud. In the morning, as I woke up, I heard the sound of a brush – John was busy, brushing my shoes. “John!,” I exclaimed full of surprise, “What are you doing?”
“My dear René,” he responded, “Jesus taught us to wash each other’s feet. You do not need me to wash your feet, but I can brush your shoes.”[vii] That is the call of the pastor and elder. Let us pray.
[i] Dennis N. T. Perkins, Leading at the Edge (AMACOM, 2000), pp. xiii-xiv
[ii] Leith Anderson, “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” Preaching Today, Tape 136.
[iii] Leadership, Vol. 7, no. 1.
[iv] Pierce Harris, Leadership, Vol. 6, no. 3.
[v] John A. Holt, Leadership, Vol. 10, no. 1.
[vi] Bits & Pieces. Leadership, Vol. 2, no. 1.
[vii] Tim Stafford, “John Stott Has Died,” Christianity Today (7-27-11)