Actually, we do. All of us. From the very time that Isaiah 53:6 says that “we have all, like sheep, gone astray” through to Jesus’ echoing of that truth in John 10 in which he, as the good shepherd promises to lay down his life for his sheep, we are clearly marked out as ovine. And there is a whole bunch of sheep language in between those two passages, including Ezekiel 34, in which the leaders of Israel are described both as shepherds and as sheep.
We’re looking at 1 Peter 5 on Sunday at Providence Church in Midland, and here’s the rub. Leadership stands or falls on whether those who are called to be shepherds also understand that they are sheep. It’s not so much Leadership as Leadersheep. Peter may be talking in 1 Peter 5 to shepherds who will one day appear before the Chief Shepherd, but in 2:25 he says “you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Pretty obvious he’s talking about them all, even the leaders.
I’ve got a great book called “Toxic Churches”, and when I say “great” I mean “awful” in the sense that it could just as easily be titled “Toxic Leaders”. How do churches turn toxic? Via their leadership. The book paints a picture of leadership so toxic that it poisons the whole church, making it an extremely unsafe place to be. We have all seen it, haven’t we? Some of us may have even been in that church. Some of us still may be. Worse, some of us may have been that leader. Still worse yet, some still may be.
What is at the guts of this toxicity? Apart from the general problem of people with narcissistic personality disorders getting too far up the church food chain (generally by consuming others on the way up), the problem occurs when leaders fail to realise they too are sheep. They fail to realise that the primary comparison in their church is not between themselves and their sheep, but between the Chief Shepherd and His sheep. Such a failure allows them to compare themselves favourably to the sheep, to begin to despise the sheep, and to assume that the standards of propriety they set for the sheep are not binding on themselves.
Peter keeps the two realities in tension in his letter. Yes, elders/leaders are to “shepherd the flock”, but, no, they are not the Grand Poo-Bah. The Chief Shepherd will one day appear, and even now stands “”ready to judge” the world (1Peter4:5). Shepherds are to keep one eye on the sheep and one eye on the sky.
These days church leaders are told to work hard on leadership. To be a smart shepherd. To be a decisive shepherd. To be the type of shepherd who has a vision and can gather people to it. Hey, I’ve even heard it said that the role of a shepherd is to lead sheep to a place where they are to be sheared and slaughtered! Ezekiel 34 anyone? In this crazy po-mo world in which it is harder and harder to do church shepherds have to be smart!
And maybe that is all true. But here’s the difference between the smart shepherd and the Good Shepherd The smart shepherd will throw a lamb or a sick ewe to the wolf in order that the rest may escape. After all, that’s what the leadership manual tells them to do. But the Good Shepherd? What will he do? Well, what did he do? The Good Shepherd threw himself into the jaws of the wolf so that ALL of the sheep might be saved. And until every shepherd realises how helpless, hopeless and in danger of the wolf he/she was before the Good Shepherd rescued them, they will always be in danger of being shepherds who fatten themselves on the choice food, leaving the sheep to starve. They will always be in danger of being fat bullying sheep who muddy the clear drinking water with their feet, leaving the smaller, weaker sheep parched with thirst.
So, leaders, go out and lead, but never forget that the primary difference is not between you and the sheep, but between the Chief Shepherd and the sheep, of whom you are but one.