As a boy growing up on a farm in North Dakota, I remember standing next to my father as he would call to our herd of beef cattle; it was a long, low call, “Com’aaahn.” I was always impressed that the cattle on the other side of the pasture, a quarter of a mile to a half a mile away, would hear his voice and would start sauntering across the green pasture toward my dad. As a child, I would try to imitate this sound, calling in vain to the cattle, who did not know my voice and did not respond to my call.
The image of the herdsman or the shepherd is seen throughout scripture as a paradigm for godly leadership. In Psalm 23, the Lord is the good shepherd; the kings of Israel were called to shepherd the people of God; and in John 10, Jesus tells His disciples and the crowds that had gathered around Him that He is the good shepherd. His flock knows His voice, and when He calls, they listen and they follow Him. This image of the shepherd is picked up by Peter in 1 Peter 5 as the example for the local elder or pastor, a word which literally means shepherd. The pastor is called to be the under-shepherd until the return of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. This image continued to be a primary image of the local pastor throughout the history of the Church, but recently, it seems, it has fallen on hard times.
There are a variety of reasons for this. The world is becoming less and less agrarian as urbanization is becoming a global phenomenon. There are also aspects of the shepherd/flock relationship that seem problematic in our antiauthoritarian and democratized age, and to be honest this paradigm has been abused by those in power and those seeking power in a way that runs completely contrary to the way the image was meant to be applied (see Ezekiel 34:2 and 1 Peter 5:1–4). There is something about the appropriate application of this image, however, that I believe is necessary for us to recapture as the Church and as church leaders – especially local pastors who are preachers.
It seems to me that too often we think that it is great theologians who make great preachers. I want to suggest that it is actually great pastors, or great shepherds, who make great preachers. We must remember that the great reformers Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli were not first theologians; they were first pastors, and their concerns were pastoral concerns. It was their love and care for their congregations that led them to change the world.
I believe that this is not only true on a macro level, but this is also true on a very personal level, for myself and, I believe, for many others as well. The preacher who influenced me the most was not N. T. Wright, or Tim Keller, or John Calvin, or Martin Luther King, Jr. (who, by the way, are or were all pastors to congregations, but they were not my pastor). No, my pastoral hero was not one of these theological giants; for me, the preacher who influenced my life the most was the humble pastor of a small church in rural North Dakota, a man who knew me, loved me, loved my family, and loved our church. He was no theological slouch for sure, but more importantly, he was a giant of a shepherd to me. He demonstrated what it meant to speak as an under-shepherd with an authentic voice of care and knowledge of the flock placed under his care.
Now, I realize that one can be a great preacher and never pastor a local church. I also know that preachers like this have a significant role in the history and ministry of the Kingdom; examples of this abound. In addition, I want to affirm that preaching requires diligent study and adherence to the Word of God; there is no substitute for this. But I would argue that the model that we see in Scripture for the local elder, the pastor, is not one who attempts to be a great orator or even a great theologian, but to be a great shepherd – to know and to love the people in their care. For this reason, the office of the daily shepherd and the pulpit of the Sunday preacher should remain linked.
The study the preacher enters to prepare the sermon is the same room where the shepherd met with the family who lost their mother earlier in the week. The computer upon which the sermon is written is the same computer that received the email announcing the joyous arrival of a new baby, as well as the email from the heartbroken father concerning the teenage son who has wandered away from the Lord. And the desk where the sermon is written has a view of the couch where the giddy engaged couple prepared for marriage and where, only a few hours later, another couple sat weeping and yelling over the loss of their love and the ending of their marriage. The ghosts of these encounters sit in the room with the preacher as the sermon is prepared. Life-changing sermons are written as the mind of the biblical scholar interacts with the heart of the loving shepherd to shape the sermon of the preacher. These are the sermons in which the congregation hears the familiar voice of the local under-shepherd and the echoes of the Chief Shepherd, who shares the love for the congregation and knows them and is known by them. For this reason, the office of the counselor, of the shepherd, must be linked to the pulpit of the preacher.
When my parents moved off the farm, my brother collected a series of small notepads from the corner drawer in the kitchen of our farmhouse, notepads filled with our dad’s handwriting. All throughout the pages of these notepads are a type of code; to the untrained eye, it seems to be just a series of letters and lines connecting the letters. I can still make out some of the code; I know that “BWF” means “black white face” and “RWS” is “red white stripe;” or at least I think this is what they meant. To my dad, however, these letters and lines were a complete genealogy of our small herd stretching back generations. He knew each cow, who her mother was, and who her mother’s mother was. He knew them, and he knew them well. They also knew him, and so when he called it was not the voice of a stranger. It was the voice of one who knew them, and they knew him, and they responded to his familiar voice. Without that knowledge, without that understanding, he would have been just a stranger, or at best a boy trying to be something he was not.
For those who aspire to be preachers, to be pastors, to be shepherds, may you aspire to know the Chief Shepherd well, know His voice, know His Word, but may you also aspire to know and to love your congregations. May your voice be familiar to them because you know them, their history, their joy, their suffering, so that they hear in you the voice of one who knows them and loves them so that they will respond to the voice of the Chief Shepherd and follow Him.