We Lead by Serving: Called to Be Shepherds, Not Cowboys


by Ronald G. Cook

In this article, Ronald G. Cook, an elder with First Christian Church, Greeneville, Illinois, discusses his ministry. Read the companion article written by Darryl Bolen, senior minister with the church.



Remember watching those old westerns when you were a kid? Now think, how did those cowboys move cattle from point A to point B? They had a cattle drive! Cowboys rode behind and to the side of the herd, hollering and shooting their guns in the air, anything to get the cattle headed in the right direction.

Granted, at night when the drive had reached a place of safety, even the most hardened cowboy would soften as he watched over the herd, singing softly while staying alert for rustlers. Then the next morning, the process would begin again until the cowboys reached their destination with the herd intact.

Now, pull your Bible concordance off of the shelf and look for the word cowboy. Can’t find it? Perhaps that’s because elders are called to be shepherds instead of cowboys.


Leaders, Not Drivers

Compare the authoritative leadership style of the cowboy to that of a shepherd’s servant leadership style. Shepherds lead rather than drive. Psalm 23 gives us a glimpse of the leadership of a shepherd when David wrote of the comfort and support given by the Lord, even through tough times. John 10 clarifies our vision when Jesus speaks of sheep hearing the shepherd’s voice and following him because they know his voice.

Characteristics of servant leadership are mirrored in the leadership principles shown in John 21. A servant-leader believes in people and serves the needs of his followers. A servant-leader shows mercy and provides opportunities for growth.

This passage in John reveals much about the leadership style of Jesus. In this passage, Jesus did not waste time critiquing the actions of his disciples. Jesus served them. He believed in them. He transformed followers through building self-motivation and self-discipline that resulted in action. He held them accountable and he gave them authority.

Verses 4-13 and 15-22 show Jesus did not waste time condemning the actions of his disciples. His disciples had witnessed his miracles while living with Jesus for three years, and they knew he had arisen from the dead. Nevertheless, they had returned to their former lives as fisherman. Rather than condemning their actions or asking for an explanation, Jesus accepted them where they were spiritually, and challenged them to move forward.

John 13:5-10 shows us Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Here in verses 12 and 13, we see him again serving his disciples by fixing breakfast and serving it to them after a long night of unproductive work. This service reminded the disciples of what true leadership means.


Affirming, Not Condemning

Jesus showed particular servant leadership principles when dealing with Peter. Jesus led by transforming Peter from within (vv. 9-12 and 15-19). As Jesus cooked over smoldering coals, Peter could not forget his threefold denial of Jesus while warming himself at a similar fire outside the home of the high priest during Jesus’ trial. He was eager to redeem himself to Jesus.

Peter had denied three times; Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. Jesus then brought Peter back into his circle of fellowship by asking Peter to continue the mission of the gospel by feeding his sheep. Jesus believed in Peter and relied on him to continue his work, despite Peter’s previous failures. Jesus gave Peter the authority to do this work.

Jesus led Peter through a transformation that allowed Peter to grow and become a leader of the church, keeping in mind his shortcomings as well as his skills.


Results, Not Regrets

True servant leadership can be seen through the resulting action of followers. Acts 2 shows us the result of Jesus’ servant leadership. The chapter begins on the 50th day after Passover, the Day of Pentecost, when the disciples spoke boldly in many languages and began to proclaim the truth of Christ.

Peter, the disciple who before the crucifixion denied even knowing Jesus, was the first to speak. Peter, called by Jesus to take a leadership role in the formation of the church in the Gospel of John, was emboldened by the Spirit. Peter began to interpret prophesies of the Old Testament being fulfilled on this day of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon all believers. Peter’s sermon led to 3,000 Jews from every known nation to be saved. Peter led the formation of the church into a world religion that would be focused on leading lost sheep back to the fold, as referenced in John 10.

We are called to be shepherds. Shepherds lead from the front. Cowboys drive from behind. As seen in the passage from John 21, true shepherds are called to show mercy, believe in their followers, serve their followers by meeting their needs, and provide opportunities for growth.

Jesus modeled servant leadership. Embracing servant leadership will empower you and your followers to become leaders and promote growth in God’s kingdom.


Ron Cook is an elder with the First Christian Church in Greenville, Illinois, and a PhD student in Regent University’s School of Global Leadership and Entrepreneurship in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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1 Comment

  1. October 27, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    We actually just made a mini-doc about a small town pastor that opens with the same metaphor–and a nearly identical title! Would be a great addendum to this post. Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaI9spMkHcs

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