What makes a good shepherd? This is a question for every believer to consider. The Bible uses the imagery of shepherding to illustrate the spiritual guidance, provision, and protection that every child of God needs in order to maintain a healthy spiritual life. Since every believer needs shepherding, it behoves every believer to consider what makes a good shepherd. Additionally, church leaders are frequently required to wrestle with this issue when identifying and affirming elders to shepherd the church. So what are the elements that make a good shepherd for God’s people?
The New Testament (NT) provides the gold standard for what makes a good shepherd in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. A detailed exposition of these qualifications teaches that the only qualified shepherds for the church (at least in terms of the ministry of an elder) are men who evidence the gifting of the Spirit (i.e., desire and apt to teach) and the fruit of the Spirit (i.e., character qualifications). In other words, it must be evident to the church that these men have been made elders by the work of the Spirit (Acts 20:28).
The summary qualifications provided by the NT provide an objective standard by which it is possible for the church to identify the men called to serve as elders over the congregation. But what does this look like subjectively in the life of an individual elder? How can the gifts and characteristics of a good shepherd be cultivated in the heart of an elder?
It would be impossible to address these questions with a single article, but we can identify one indispensable ingredient that is always present in the life of a qualified shepherd: faithful shepherds have been shepherded. To put it another way, they have submitted themselves to shepherding through the means of grace and the godly men God has placed in their lives. This should seem like a pretty simple point, but for some reason I rarely hear it articulated. It is obvious to most that the best teachers were taught by someone, which is why we send our sharpest men off to seminary to learn the languages and study theology. However, it should be equally obvious that unless those men are subjected to the shepherding ministry of faithful pastors they will not be fully equipped for their own calling. This, by the way, is why The Expositors Seminary has designed a curriculum that seeks to challenge students in academics while also shepherding students in the context of the local church ministry. You must be taught before you can teach God’s people (2 Tim 2:2) and must be shepherded before you can shepherd God’s people.
The shepherding that makes the best shepherds takes place at three different levels. The best shepherds are, first of all, submissive to the shepherding of the Lord. Christ is the Chief Shepherd and all under-shepherds must demonstrate a proven submissiveness to His ministry. To be a good shepherd one must humbly bear up under the shepherding Christ does through His truth (2 Tim 3:16), the trials He sends (James 1:2), and the tests He allows us to endure (James 1:3). Through the shepherding of the Lord, a shepherd must be a man of the word, a man of endurance, and a man of proven faith.
Additionally, the best shepherds are active in shepherding their own heart. Before they attempt to hone their shepherding skills on others, they must labor to shepherd their own hearts toward submission to Christ. They must make it a practice to mediate on God’s Word, carefully considering the manifold implications of biblical truth (Phil 4:8-9); they must make it a practice to examine their own hearts, carefully considering their thoughts and actions before the Lord (2 Cor 11:28); and they must make it a practice to discipline themselves, carefully considering how to obey their master (Titus 2:8). Through the shepherding of his own heart, a shepherd must be a man of conviction, conscience, and self-control.
Finally, the best shepherds are receptive to the shepherding of other Spirit-filled shepherds. Shepherds must possess the humility to receive correction (Prov 9:9) and the teachability to profit from instruction (Prov 21:11). Before they are allowed to exercise any shepherding influence over the church, they must demonstrate a willingness to submit to the biblical authorities and spiritual influences God has placed in their lives. This, of course, can only take place through sustained involvement in the ministry of a local church. If the church is where a man wants to serve, then the church is where he must prove his fitness to serve. If anyone is unwilling to be shepherded in a local church they are unfit to be shepherds—no matter how articulate and energetic they might be.
It is really a simple principle—the best shepherds have been shepherded. They have submitted their lives to the shepherding of the Lord, they have labored to personally shepherd their own hearts, and they have served under the ministry of other faithful shepherds. To this I would only add one more thought: the best shepherds continue to submit to shepherding. One of the most dangerous lies an elder can believe is that once he becomes an elder he no longer has to submit to anyone. Even when it is not explicitly articulated, this is a lie that will ruin the ministry of an elder. Maybe we could put it this way: the best shepherds have been shepherded and continue to be shepherded. This is a must for every faithful elder because shepherding is how God guides, protects, and provides for His sheep—even those sheep who are also shepherds.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.