Reprinted from the February 2014 issue of “Gospel Advocate” Magazine.
“I am dad.”
That statement has taken a lot of getting used to. My wife and I have twin daughters who are almost 2 years old, and we still ask each other occasionally if it feels right that we are actually parents. The answer is often no.
I’m going to confess something to you, trusting that you will not point it out to my daughters – especially in about 13 years. I have no idea what I am doing as a dad.
That causes a lot of frustration in my household because I make a lot of mistakes. Much of the time, I’m not even sure which actions and decisions are mistakes and which are not. That leads to an incredible feeling of guilt along with the frustration. I get frustrated; my wife gets frustrated; and I know my daughters get frustrated when I don’t know exactly how to nourish, comfort, train or discipline. Add to that the fact that my girls are just now becoming conversational with a few words (mostly “no,” “Mama,” “Dada” and “up”), and you have a recipe for uncertainty, miscommunication and frustration.
Do you want to know why I don’t know what I’m doing as a dad? It’s because deep down, I know that I’m not really a dad after all. That may sound strange, but it’s true. All my life, I’ve only been a son. That’s the role I know. I’ve never been a dad before; therefore, I have no idea what I’m doing as I try my best to raise physically, mentally, socially and spiritually the two precious souls whom God has entrusted to me.
I look to the Bible, but there just aren’t that many day-to-day specifics. I look to the memories of my childhood and how my parents raised me, but that was from a child’s perspective. I read books, but the authors have no idea what my family is like. That leaves me with one alternative: I ask for advice. The catch? Not one person whom I’ve asked so far seems to have an ounce more confidence than I do!
The Pressure of Being an Elder
As I listen to and look at congregations today, it saddens me to think that we can understand this concept when it comes to parenting, yet somehow completely forget that an elder experiences the very same things: the feelings of inadequacy, guilt and confusion.
And elders have to deal with attacks from members who know more words than just “Mama” and “Dada” and sometimes use them rather freely in the church foyer. In almost any congregation, if you stay long enough, you will hear frustration. And if you listen closely enough, you will hear frustration and weariness from the often overwhelmed elders as well.
I would like to suggest that we recognize that an elder is often no more experienced to be an elder than most of us were to be parents. There is only one reason I wanted that challenge and desired to be a father: for the love of my children. It is a seemingly impossible role to fill, yet we do have children. And some brave men do become elders because they love God’s children.
What Is His Role?
It occurred to me that one of the main reasons for all of the frustration is the number of different ideas about what an elder is actually supposed to do. If we look closely at the New Testament, we see that only a few places give elders action words describing what they are to do instead of the kind of men they are to be.
One of those is 1 Peter 5:1-3: “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, … shepherd the flock of God among you … proving to be examples to the flock” (nasb). Paul told the Ephesian elders, “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” (Acts 20:28).
Notice again what they were to do: “shepherd the church of God.” All of the actions of an elder can be summed up by the verb “shepherd.” Now, we know that an elder is to shepherd the flock; however, we still need to know what that actually entails. People have done well to draw comparisons between the job description of a literal shepherd in that day and the job description of shepherds in the church today. Psalm 23 is the passage often considered.
What Does a Shepherd Do?
What if we viewed Psalm 23 not only as a comforting passage for times of death but also as a guiding picture for the life of a shepherd? After Peter’s exhortation to shepherd, he reminded them of the one from whom they were to learn: “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). Is not the Chief Shepherd for Peter the same shepherd the psalmist put his trust in centuries before? Perhaps we do have a job description for an elder after all!
By viewing Psalm 23 this way, we see the primary role of the shepherd is to provide what is needed for his sheep. Sheep under the care of a shepherd who is modeling the behavior of the Great Shepherd can also say, “I shall not want” (v. 1). What, then, are some specifics of the providing shepherd?
He gives rest and food (Psalm 23:2). Some sheep must be made to lie down, slow down and feed. Spiritually, is it any different today? He leads to peace and water (v. 2). Sheep would have trouble drinking water from a raging river. A shepherd leads and keeps his sheep in peace because “living water” is hard to swallow in the absence of peacefulness. He restores souls (v. 3). How many souls would be restored to their Creator today if the food, water, rest and peace of the preceding verses were applied diligently and lovingly to wandering sheep?
He leads toward righteous living (Psalm 23:3). The teaching of righteous living for a congregation was never intended to be the work of the evangelist. He is to be evangelizing. It is the shepherd’s role to guide in paths of righteousness. Perhaps the incorrect roles of the church today are partly to blame for our righteousness not looking much better than that of the scribes and Pharisees or the world.
He is with the sheep through the valleys full of darkness and death (Psalm 23:4). Oh, the comfort of a word aptly spoken when life seems hopeless! How terrible for any sheep to face uncertain times without the presence of a shepherd to help fend off evil and desperation.
He comforts through protection, discipline and ruling (Psalm 23:4). Why did David mention both the rod and the staff? The staff is the iconic walking stick with the crook used for grabbing erring sheep and possibly prodding them on. The rod, on the other hand, is tucked into the belt and used for defending against threats. A rod implies discipline, the rule of a king, or both.
For a faithful sheep, that guidance, protection and discipline are comforts, not scourges. How tragic that when we think of church discipline today, we forget that it involves teaching and gentle prodding back into the way long before excommunicating someone.
At this point, the psalmist seems to change metaphors to that of a banquet, but it is still the same shepherd giving the banquet. The new picture serves to elaborate on how well the Lord provided for David and for all His sheep. He provides even when others attack (Psalm 23:5).
David was set apart by the anointing with oil. No less are we today set aside with the oil of the Holy Spirit. He sustained David, and He sustains us so that we are not just full, but overflowing! With a shepherd like that, the only thing left to say is with that amount of protection, providence, care and comfort, “surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).
Suggestions for the Shepherd and the Sheep
Psalm 23 is David’s inspired picture of how the Lord shepherds His people. Jesus offered even more insight about Himself as a shepherd in John 10. We learn there the depth of the relationship between Jesus and His sheep. He knows them by name. They know His voice. He dies for His sheep. Verse 14 says it all: “I am the good shepherd and I know My own and My own know Me.” If the same could be said of our shepherds and sheep today, we would be well on our way to minimizing the frustrations that have sucked the lives out of our congregations and our elderships!
Based on these passages, I offer a few suggestions that we all need to work toward.
To the shepherds: The men who serve as elders are called primarily to shepherd. When we fail to understand this, not much else in the church will function as it should. We need to make sure that deacons are waiting on tables (see Acts 6:1-6), evangelists are evangelizing, and shepherds are shepherding instead of falling into the all-too-common trap of elders deciding, evangelists shepherding, and deacons not really being sure what their role is in the first place!
Shepherding begins by knowing the sheep; that looks like David’s description of how the Lord had shepherded him. Shepherds must also lead the sheep as a shepherd would. My dad’s words on this were “This is not a cattle drive or round up. Not a wild horse remuda that must be broken and tamed. These folks are sheep that must be led, fed, matured, cared for.”
To the sheep: We have a responsibility to know the shepherds just as much as the shepherds are responsible for knowing the sheep. That has to include allowing them to know where we are physically and spiritually. Too often we are embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help and, therefore, remain silent about the valley we are going through. Yet we expect the shepherd to be there with us when we have kept him at a distance to the point that he can’t know us or even know where we are!
We have just as much of a responsibility to follow the shepherds as the shepherds have a responsibility to lead. Following means giving the elders permission to use their staff and rod when needed for discipline and trusting them even when they hurt our feelings. It means trusting their voices because we know them well enough that even when we disagree, we follow, recognizing that they have been put in that position for a reason and we have not.
To both: We need to recognize that the sheep-to-shepherd ratio demands that both the shepherds and the sheep be proactive about communicating with one another. It is simply impossible for one man to know 100 people fully along with every circumstance they are going though!
Training New Shepherds
When choosing new shepherds, instead of simply looking for someone who meets the requirements found in
1 Timothy and Titus, we need to look for men who are already shepherding on a smaller scale. If the way they are shepherding lines up well with the “checklist” found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, they are the men for the job. First, they are shepherding their family with love, courage and wisdom. Second, they have already shown the willingness and ability to know and care for other sheep (see Psalm 78:70-72).
We need men who are qualified now to fill the role of shepherd. As Peter said, when the Chief Shepherd appears, they will receive the unfading crown of glory. And we need men, young men and boys, to begin training now to be a shepherd so that when the time comes for them to fill that most important office, they will have been tested and experienced so that they will have the wisdom to lead.
We also desperately need women, young ladies and girls, who are training right now for their part. Although the office is filled by men, there is a reason why the Bible mentions a very similar list of requirements for older women and the wives of deacons (see 1 Timothy 3:11 and Titus 2:3-5). They are absolutely necessary to help their husbands shepherd and to lend their wisdom even though it is often behind the scenes.
Decision-making is necessary, and shepherds are ultimately responsible for the choices of direction. But decision-making is not the first duty. Shepherding is. Until we have changed our minds and our prayers to reflect that, we have no right to be upset when an elder does not visit or call as quickly as we think he should.
When we begin to learn both to shepherd as the Lord shepherds and to follow as faithful sheep, I am convinced that we will be able to sing out as joyously as David: “Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!”
Now, if I can just learn to be a dad!
Josh Schwartz is the youth minister for Fairlane Church of Christ in Shelbyville, Tenn. He may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.