It has become the custom of modern ministries to employ buzz words and catchy descriptions in order to make their ministry appealing to a wide audience. So we hear about ministries that are relevant, others that are accepting, and some that are authentic (whatever that means). But with all of these buzz words emanating from the evangelical marketing machine, some very important priorities for the church have been neglected. For instance, when was the last time you heard a church advertise itself as a “shepherded” church?
Shepherding is a significant biblical theme, and a vital means of grace in the life of God’s people. Christians need shepherding more than they need authenticity (again, whatever that means). This is why God designed the church to be shepherded, which is another way of saying He demands that every true church be a shepherded church.
In a shepherded church, qualified and mature leaders supply the biblical guidance, provision, and protection that allows the body life of the church to thrive. If you are wondering what a shepherded church would look like in practice, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 provides a concrete example of the kind of effective shepherding the church desperately needs. In this passage, the apostle Paul reminds the church of the effectiveness of his own approach to leadership in the church as a paradigm for faithful ministry (v. 1). Paul is not boastful in recounting the details that made his ministry effective, nor is he simply being nostalgic. The apostle is recounting his ministry in order to pass long a biblical philosophy of effective shepherding. Specifically, Paul points his readers to four characteristics of effective shepherding for the church to follow.
Bold Preaching (v. 2)
The first characteristic of effective shepherding Paul passes along to the church is found in verse 2, where the apostle highlights the importance of bold preaching: “But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict” (1 Thess 2:2).
The public proclamation of the word of God is an absolute necessity in a shepherded church. The shepherding that occurs in preaching sets the pace for the rest of the shepherding that occurs in the church. Here, Paul reminds the Thessalonians that his shepherding was effective, in part, because his preaching was “bold.” In other words, the authoritative proclamation of the truth is an indispensable ingredient in shepherding.
From the inception of the church, Paul knew they needed authoritative preaching even if they didn’t always want to hear it. The purpose of this kind of boldness is not bravado, not to impress, and not to show how tough shepherds can be. The purpose is Gospel proclamation. Shepherds aren’t brash with their own wisdom, they are bold with the truth of God. In Paul’s case, he was bold with the Word despite having to face extreme personal suffering and shame for preaching. This is what is necessary to shepherd God’s people. In a shepherded church, effective shepherds preach truth whatever the consequences—you don’t want shepherds who hesitate to speak the truth.
Pure Motives (vv. 3-4)
The second characteristic of effective shepherding Paul passes along to the church is found in verses 3-4, where the apostle stresses the importance of pure motives: “For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thess 2:3-4).
Scripture often distinguishes between effective shepherds and impostors by the internal motives of their ministry. Effective shepherds are driven to serve the church by godly convictions, not their own selfish ambitions (3 John 9). Specifically, the desire to lead God’s people must be rooted in a commitment to the glory of God and the good of the church. True shepherds are driven by fidelity to God’s truth and commitment to God’s glory, not to a desire to manipulate or please man. In Paul’s case, his shepherding was truthful, pure, and open. In other words, he wasn’t a heretic, a charlatan, or a swindler. Paul lived and ministered with the constant realization that nothing he did would escape the sight of God. Paul knew that shepherds lead the church in the same way that every man lives, coram deo—in the presence of God. If God doesn’t approve of your ministry then it doesn’t matter who else does (cf. 2 Tim 3:4; Gal 1:6-9). The point is obviously not to intentionally seek to displease people, but that the approval of man can never eclipse the approval of God. A shepherded church requires shepherds with pure motives for ministry.
Affectionate Care (vv. 5-8)
The third characteristic of effective shepherding Paul passes along to the church is found in verses 5-8, where the apostle includes the need for affectionate care: “For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess 3:5-8).
The relationship between a shepherd and his sheep must be marked by personal, intimate, and mutual love. You cannot effectively shepherd someone you have no connection to or concern for—shepherding is inherently personal. For a church to be effectively led, shepherds must know their sheep and affectionately care for them. Ministry leaves no room for pretension or self-promotion; a true shepherd lives with his sheep and for his sheep. This is the pattern established by Christ, continued by the apostle Paul, and required in a shepherded church. This is the kind of affectionate care that Paul modeled with the Thessalonians.
Paul’s affectionate care for the church included a deference to the needs of the sheep. Paul and his team did not shepherd to get something for themselves—they had no greed. They did not come to Thessalonica looking for a patron, a paycheck, or to make a profit. In fact, they deferred the opportunity for monetary gain in order to come and serve the church (1 Cor 9:12-18). Additionally, Paul and his team did not shepherd to impose their will on others—there was no lording over anyone. They could have made greater demands on the church since Paul was an apostle, but they sacrificed that right because they didn’t want anything in the way of ministry. In all of this, it is clear that shepherds must be unwavering with the truth but flexible with their own rights, preferences, and privileges.
Christ-like shepherds aren’t interested in human prestige (John 5:41, 44, 7:18, 12:43). This is a warning to all would-be shepherds: don’t shepherd God’s people because you want something out of it for yourself, or because you want your own way. Effective shepherds must serve God’s people because they care for God’s people, which means they are always willing to defer to the needs of the sheep. Paul’s affectionate care for the church included sacrifices for the sheep without resentment for the sheep. Paul likened his ministry to the Thessalonians to a nursing mother’s sacrificial care for her child, which reminds us that true shepherds give their lives for their sheep (John 10:11-15). An effective shepherd must affectionately care for his sheep, which means he will defer to their needs and sacrifice for their provision.
Strenuous Effort (vv. 9-12)
The fourth characteristic of effective shepherding Paul passes along to the church is found in verses 9-12, where the apostle call for strenuous effort: “For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:9-12).
Bold preaching, pure motives, and affectionate care require a lot of hard work on the part of shepherds. Here, Paul describes the work of shepherding that he undertook in Thessalonica as “labor and toil.” In other words, shepherding is menial and hard not glamorous and relaxing. Paul even identifies several specific areas of back-breaking labor required of a shepherd. For instance, effective shepherds must be willing to put forth strenuous effort in practical matters. Paul’s team pulled “double-shifts” working to provide for their own needs and working in the church. Some commentators even think that Paul’s short stay in Thessalonica did not give him enough time to set up a profitable leather shop (his normal trade), so his apostolic team probably did whatever odd job they could in order to get by. We know from Paul’s other writings that he would often go without sleep so that he could serve his sheep (2 Cor 11:27). Shepherding requires strenuous effort to free yourself from the practical demands of life in order to have opportunity to serve others.
To this, Paul adds that effective shepherds must be willing to put forth strenuous effort in spiritual matters. In other words, shepherding requires a great deal of effort in order to maintain your personal walk with God. Paul’s team was careful to make sure their conduct was holy, righteous and blameless—they had to stay qualified (1 Tim 3:2). Shepherding requires strenuous effort to make sure you are qualified and mature enough to lead others.
In addition to their work to be freed up to shepherd and be qualified to shepherd, they have to do the actual work of shepherding. Effective shepherds must be willing to put forth strenuous effort in shepherding matters. Paul compares the strenuous effort of shepherding to the work of a godly father training his kids. This “fatherly” shepherding included:
- The exhortation of a shepherd, which requires the careful work of speaking the truth into the lives of the sheep
- The encouragement of a shepherd, which requires helping sheep trust the truth by coming alongside them with spiritual comfort and consolation
- The charge of a shepherd, which requires holding sheep accountable to obey the truth, imploring them to obey what they already know
The goal behind the all this strenuous effort is to see Christians “walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” In other words, the shepherd’s job is to allow his life to be used by God as an instrument of sanctification in the lives of the sheep. This is the essence of biblical shepherding, and the kind of ministry every local church desperately needs.
A shepherded church has shepherds who preach boldly, possess pure motives, affectionately care for sheep, and put forth strenuous effort for the sanctification of their people. This is what effective shepherding always looks like, which is why it is no surprise that Jesus perfectly embodies each of these characteristics:
- Jesus shepherded his sheep by BOLDLY PROCLAIMING the truth (Mark 1:21-22, 39).
- Jesus shepherded his sheep with PURE MOTIVES (John 6:38-39).
- Jesus shepherded his sheep with AFFECTIONATE CARE (Luke 13:34-35).
- Jesus shepherded his sheep through STRENUOUS EFFORT (Mark 4:38).
Effective shepherding is always Christ-like shepherding, because he is the Chief Shepherd.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.