Opposing the ‘Shepherd Motif’

26 May

Andy Stanley, Pastor at North Point Community Church, articulates why he feels the shepherd metaphor is redundant in response to an interviewer’s suggestion that it could be abandoned by the church:

“Absolutely. That word needs to go away. Jesus talked about shepherds because there was one over there in a pasture he could point to. …It was culturally relevant in the time of Jesus but it’s not culturally relevant any more. Nothing works in our culture with that model except this sense of the gentle, pastoral care. Obviously that is a facet of church ministry, but that’s not leadership.” 

The suggestion is that other metaphors can take the place of the shepherd for describing and dictating the pastoral ministry, metaphors that are more familiar to congregations in an urban 21st century church.

The need for appropriate teaching on the subject of pastoral work is urgent. Prime and Begg warn that people have come to understand, “pastoral work [as] little more than a round of afternoon visits to female members of the congregation, drinking tea, and indulging in hours of small talk.” The implication that a more robust understanding of pastoral work is needed is obvious! Stanley argues that rather than providing that robust understanding, the shepherd motif merely reinforces the quaint picture painted by Prime and Begg.

However there are several obvious problems with importing different metaphors. Firstly, Stanley places too much emphasis on the shepherd metaphor being ‘relevant’ when used by Jesus (and other biblical authors). Rather than simply being handy, we see in the lives of Moses and David that it shared a genuine likeness to the task of leadership and as such acted as a training ground for both men. “The shepherd is more than just a familiar metaphor for Israel, but one which corresponds to the care provided.”

Secondly, it is unlikely that another metaphor chosen from popular culture will convey the same breadth of meaning as the shepherd, combining as it does both aspects of leadership and sacrificial service necessary for the role.

Finally, any new metaphor will necessarily bring with it its own cultural baggage. A British example might be comparing a pastor to a football manager who coaches a team and determines tactics. The metaphor would convey the authority associated with the office of pastor as well as the required expertise. However it would also bring the unfortunate association of being fired soon after appointment due to poor performances. The metaphor although culturally relevant and fitting in some respects would be unhelpful.

***This post is taken from a fuller paper written on the topic of the Shepherd Motif and Church Leadership. To view the whole paper, in which references appear and a complete bibliography, is given please click here.***
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