Sheep-Care 101

By James Riley Estep Jr.

The imagery of shepherding is, without question, Scripture’s dominant metaphor for leadership formation.

12_Estep_Elders2_JNThe patriarchs, Moses, David, and Amos the prophet had experience as shepherds, and that experience prepared them, in part, to assume their places as leaders of God’s people. The Old Testament and New Testament both use the shepherd metaphor frequently, yet few people today are familiar with the profession. In Ezekiel 34 and elsewhere, the qualities of bad shepherds vs. good shepherds are described. The shepherd image is so pronounced in the ancient world that the rulers and kings of Israel were assigned the task of shepherding God’s people (1 Chronicles 11:2). In fact, God is even described as his people’s shepherd (Genesis 48:15ff.).

The New Testament, likewise, has many references to God’s people as sheep in need of a shepherd, and identifies Jesus as a shepherd (John 10:14; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:4; Revelation 7:17).

Elders are commissioned as shepherds. Paul admonished the Ephesian elders, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Paul warned that “savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. . . . So be on your guard” (Acts 20:29, 31). Likewise, Peter charges elders, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be . . . being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2, 3). We are shepherds of God’s flock.

Problem: When was the last time you worked with sheep? I mean, literally worked with sheep? How has your work as a sheepherder prepared you to shepherd God’s flock?

For the majority of us, the shepherd motif is elusive. What was a familiar image and experience in the ancient world is, for most of us, a vague impression based on Psalm 23 and captured in a painting hanging in the church depicting Jesus carrying a lamb in his arms. We need to recapture the image, meaning, and most importantly, the function of an elder as shepherd in the contemporary congregation.


What Does an Elder Do?

• First, an elder is responsible for providing spiritual care. Elders who directly assume a leadership role in sponsoring special spiritual events such as congregational prayers, fasts, or devotionals would also fulfill this dimension of shepherding. Praying for the individual and corporate needs of the congregation, and leading others to practice the spiritual disciplines, would be a great starting point.

• Second, physical care is likewise a concern for a shepherd (James 5:14, 15). Regardless of one’s theological questions about this passage, the notion of elders actively calling on the sick is scriptural. Elders can pray for those they visit, perhaps bring materials from church (such as books, videos, or literature), or even magazines, newspapers, or something of interest to the individual.

Remember, you are not only ministering to the individual who is ill, but also his or her family. Asking them whether you can do anything or volunteering to assist them are helpful demonstrations of a pastoral disposition.

• Third, shepherding the congregation requires an elder to build relationships within the congregation. If the sheep are to recognize the shepherd, even by just his voice, and if a good shepherd is one who realizes when even just one “sheep” is missing, the elder is obviously expected to have strong ties to those within the congregation. Mingling with members, spending time before and after service just touching base with one another, is a great start.

• Fourth, an elder provides shepherding through his presence and direction within the congregation. An elder’s shepherding of his congregation requires he not only be responsive to its needs, but also provide direction. When elders are actively involved in the presentation of the congregation’s future plans or make announcements of decisions to the congregation, they are shepherding through having an active presence and direction.

• Fifth, feeding the flock is an essential aspect of shepherding God’s people. Elders feed the flock by teaching the Word to them. In fact, teaching is the one skill required of elders (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9). Elders possess wisdom that is to be shared with those they shepherd; elders provide godly counsel, orthodox instruction, and insights into Christian living.

• Finally, elders are charged with protecting the flock. Elders protect the congregation from outside threats, such as unspiritual influences from the community or those who would persecute the church. But, more often, protection is needed from internal threats, such as false teaching, disruptive members, and immature dispositions.


James Riley Estep Jr. serves as dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University. Check the PRODUCTS link at for a catalog of new resources to help elders in every aspect of their ministry.

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