When I lived in New Zealand, I learned a little bit about the sheep business. It’s handled differently there than in the rest of the world, particularly on the South Island, where sheep farmers run exceptionally large flocks. The typical practice is to send the sheep out to forage for themselves, up into the hills and mountains, and there isn’t much messing around with fences and paddocks. At shearing time, the sheep are mustered together back at the station, usually by part-time hands using dogs and ATVs. After the sheep are sheared and dipped, they get sent back into the wilderness to continue fending for themselves.
New Zealand’s average flock size is 3000 ewes, with an estimated 7000 sheep per shepherd ratio. This farming method really only works because this unique island nation has a very mild climate, a great abundance of forage, and a complete lack of predators. The rest of the world is generally less forgiving to wandering sheep.
In the Bible, we see Jacob and Moses leading their flocks far, far afield in search of food and water. David has to defend his sheep from lions and bears. Psalm 23 describes a shepherd as being constantly close to his flock, providing all of their sustenance, protection, and comfort. He goes into the wilderness with his flock. He experiences all of the same discomforts and dangers that they do, no matter if it is rough terrain, bad weather, or deadly beasts.
While there are many American megachurches that to follow the Kiwi model – sending thousands of sheep wandering into the wilderness to look after themselves, only sporadically rounding them up for fleecing and dipping – the New Testament makes it clear that elders and deacons are meant to imitate the shepherds of the Old Testament. 1 Peter 5, after four chapters of exhorting us to put off unrighteousness and put on more holy behavior, even in trials, says this:
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.
– 1 Peter 5:1-3
Peter, who was instructed three times to tend Christ’s sheep by Christ Himself, is describing a close relationship between sheep and shepherd, or congregation and elder. The elder is among the flock, eagerly overseeing, and being an example. This means bearing the burdens of the flock, taking responsibility for the flock, and working with them through all of their unique difficulties and trials, even when the sheep don’t want to work through things or follow an example.
It’s much easier to be, say, a vegetable farmer, than a shepherd. You never need to herd your crops far across the plains in search of water, and you never need to chase them around when they try to run off. You can plant your garden right next to your house, and when it rains, you can just go inside. Your vegetables will never try to bite you, and if they are threatened by wild animals, it won’t be by anything that’s dangerous to you. Who, given the choice, would ever choose to be a shepherd?
And yet, Peter says that elders shepherd the flock voluntarily. When elders take on this job, they are picking up a heavy burden. If they do the job well, they are essentially picking up at least a part of all the burdens in their congregation. I believe that this is why Paul writes that elders that rule well are worthy of double honor in 1 Timothy 5:17. So this Sunday, let’s go out of our way to give honor to our elders as they honor the Chief Shepherd.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
– Hebrews 13:17