The Church Needs Shepherds, Not Coaches

It took me a moment to realize that he was a pastor and not a coach for a sports team or some sort of motivational speaker/CEO type. I met Bill at a conference for pastors. He explained that he was a coach for his clients, seeking to guide them through their story. I probably had the confused dog look on my face, like when you ask your dog a question and he just cocks his head and advances a blank stare. I thought we were at a pastor’s conference and now this guy with a client base is waxing on about directing people in some vague story. I finally figured out that “coach” was his way of saying pastor and that the “story” he was directing was somehow a metaphor for life. Confusing? What about his “clients”? Those, he explained, are the members of the congregation.

Some pastors unwittingly eschew solid and timeless biblical terminology in favor of denuded jargon that can essentially mean anything or worse, nothing at all. I think even Fletch was on to something when he was asked, “What do you do for a living?” and he replied, “I’m a shepherd.” The Bible says that church leaders are shepherds (Acts 20:281 Peter 5:1-2; cf. John 21:16).[1] This not only describes what leaders are, it encapsulates their primary function amidst the church. More than merely being called pastors, church leaders are told to pastor/shepherd. In other words, pastor is not so much a designation as much as it is a job description that entails shepherding. The church needs shepherds not coaches.

Shepherds are still sheep

The dominant image-metaphor for leadership in Scripture is that of a shepherd. God often reveals Himself as a shepherd to His people (Genesis 48:15Numbers 27:15-20Psalms 23Psalms 77:20;Mark 6:34). In many ways this reflects the character of God. He guides, leads, nourishes, protects, and cares for His fold as a shepherd does his sheep. Therefore, shepherds in the church must remember that they are under-shepherds to the flock under the supreme headship of the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). The implications for this are significant. There is no room for brash leadership, harsh instruction, or manipulation. Leaders must also subject themselves to their own instructions and teaching. In so doing, shepherds must constantly point the flock to Christ, the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). Additionally, congregations must care for their shepherd-pastors as one of their own. A church that has a mutual affection for her leaders is a blessed union.

It must also be remembered that shepherds are part of the fold and not above it. In Acts 20:28, Paul tells the Ephesian elders that they are among the sheep. In 1 Peter 5:2, he reminds the elders of the church that they live in the midst of the flock (i.e., “among you”). Shepherd-elders and the sheep are to have a mutual accountability with one another (1 Thessalonians 5:121 Timothy 5:20Hebrews 13:17). So leaders are shepherds yet they are also sheep. The greatest example of this tension is exemplified in Christ who was at the same time the Chief Shepherd yet also the spotless Lamb who laid down his life for the sheep (Revelation 7:13-17Revelation 14:1-5). While a coach sits on the sideline and offers direction, a shepherd stands in the midst of the action and is part of the action himself. Shepherds should always smell like sheep

Shepherds know the sheep

A true shepherd knows the sheep that have been allotted to his charge. The Bible does not make room for leaders that are aloof, unengaged, and arrogantly unsympathetic to the lives of the sheep. Paul says that his ministry to the Ephesian church was “with all humility and with tears and with trials” (Acts 20:19). This humility, for Paul, was a pastoral strength that had been sheathed in the scabbard of meekness. His ministry of tears was one that experienced anguish and suffering but also rich joys in the life of the people. It takes time, patience, and faithful service for a shepherd to grow in his knowledge of the sheep. This happens more effectively in ministries where the pastors settle in for the long haul rather than looking to climb some mythical ministerial ladder.

This also bodes well for the sheep. Church members need to know their leaders. Serve the flock, encourage your pastors, follow their godly wisdom, and seek to build-up the church rather than work against it. Christians who isolate themselves are endangering their own spiritual growth by avoiding biblical accountability or counsel. The spiritual nomad or the isolated maverick is one that runs against the grain of God’s design for His church. Shepherds and sheep alike need a vital connection to the local church. This is the context for ministry in the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). 

Shepherds feed, lead, and protect the sheep

Feeding with the balanced diet of the Word of God is a central function of the church’s shepherds (1 Timothy 3:2Titus 1:91 Thessalonians 2:13). In Paul’s final words to the Ephesian elders he commended them “to the word of His grace” (Acts 20:32) which would build-up the church in his absence. A church that does not feed on the Word of God cannot expect to grow in maturity and faith. The regular feeding of the sheep protects from imbalances and passing fads. Those who teach must also come under the weight of their own messages (Acts 20:281 Timothy 4:6).

The ministry of the Word is what sets the direction for the leadership, and at the same time it protects the flock from dangers facing the church (e.g.,Acts 20:29-30). The sheep are protected through the constant refining of their spiritual growth as they are nourished on truth. So when the congregation faces difficulties and trials, their faith is made more resilient through scriptural refinement. The theologian of Americana, Johnny Cash, once sang, “steel is strong because it knows the hammer and heat.” In much the same way, the sheep are strong who know the Word through the hammer and heat. 

A Final Word to Sheep

Don’t expect your shepherds to be wise in the world. Don’t expect them to be supermen, popular, or hip to the latest trends. However, do expect them to know, lead, feed, and protect the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Encourage them to demonstrate spiritual fortitude. Rejoice when they unfold the Scriptures without shrinking back. Be thankful when they love the body of Christ through selfless sacrifice. Let your heart rejoice when they eschew worldly affirmation for the pleasure of God. Take comfort that when you walk through the valley of death’s shadow, they will be there with you. Finally remember that such a ministry is a snapshot of Jesus who is not a coach or a CEO but is at this very moment our Chief Shepherd.

Dr. Paul Lamey is Pastor of Preaching at Grace Community Church, Huntsville, Alabama. He and his wife, Julie, have four children. You can read more from Paul at his blog, Expository Thoughts and follow him on Twitter@PaulSLamey.

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[1]Two excellent resources for further study: Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2010); Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).