By Martha Clipp
When I was asked if I would write a blog about biblical leadership, my first thought was, “Is it different from non-biblical leadership?”
We all know there are many different approaches to leadership! Everything from the micro-manager to the “just use your own judgment” approach. Most of us have experienced a wide variety of approaches and we already know which ones “work” for us and which ones don’t.
Leave it to God to give us a simple example for what works best for everyone. David, the “Shepherd King” of Israel, writes in Psalm 23, about how God is his shepherd. And then in the new testament, Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd.” (John 10:11, 14) That sounds very poetic. When we take a closer look at what exactly a shepherd does for his sheep, it makes us not only trust Jesus that much more as the perfect leader, but it can also inspire us to be the same kind of shepherd-leader that our Lord is for us.
King David’s poem of Psalm 23 is an outline for great biblical leadership. He maps it out with:
1. “The Lord is my shepherd.”
David describes his connection with the awesome creator as a profound working relationship - similar to that of a shepherd with his sheep. This shepherd is powerful and trustworthy. He is responsible for the creation of the 250,000,000 x 250,000,000 stars. And he is responsible for our well-being. So, yes, he is up for the task. We can trust him. And because we have such an awesome being in charge of us, we can offer great leadership to others - those we have hired, those who have been assigned to our care, those we have given birth to, etc. We have a powerful example to follow - simple, but not simplistic.
2. “I shall not want.”
Meaning: we will not lack anything we truly need. Yes, we will all go through stressful, trying times. Just as David, the Shepherd King, did and just as the prophets and Jesus himself did. But no, “I shall not lack the expert care and management of my Master.” Whatever trials we go through, whatever hardships we face, we can know that our Master is in control and will bring good from all of these struggles (Romans 8:38).
Just as the “The Good Shepherd” continually checks on the flock, making sure they are cared for, a good human leader will also be attentive to those whom they are responsible for. No, we can’t save them from suffering or struggling, but we can provide expert care and attention as they face their challenges.
3. “He makes me lie down in green pastures.”
It turns out, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from: fear, conflict, irritation, and hunger. And they are completely dependent on their shepherd to provide this freedom. They are vulnerable prey animals; their only defense is to run, which is not going to help them much, since they aren’t very fast! The flock will panic at the slightest surprise, but they are comforted by the sight of their owner, who is their only protection from predators.
We are not much different from sheep. We have so many irritations, conflicts, and concerns. But instead of running in panic, we can know we have the perfect protector watching over us. And in turn, we can prayerfully watch over those in our care. We can look for ways to relieve their fears, and to reassure them that we have their best interests at heart.
4. “He leads me beside still waters.”
A crucial and basic need for any animal is water. And again, the sheep are completely at the mercy of their owner for access to it. It doesn’t come easily in areas like Israel, where this Psalm was written - the shepherd may be clearing rocks and digging trenches just so his sheep can have access to clean water, and not turn to mud puddles out of desperation.
In a similar way, the human leader wants to provide “still waters” for their flock. Spiritual water, free of drama and emotional toxicities, where their people can get the help they need, in their vulnerabilities, without guilt, shame and manipulation.
5. “He restores my soul.”
Another problem sheep run into is getting “cast” - where they fall over and can’t back up without help. In this compromised position, they will die unless their shepherd arrives to help them back on their feet.
People can also become “cast” and stuck in their emotions and mental state. No amount of shouting, “snap out of it” is going to help them. Instead, it takes a wise and patient leader to help them get the resources they need in order to find their emotional and mental balance again.
Sometimes, in order for the sheep to avoid being top heavy, the shepherd must shave them and/or help them lose fat, so they can stand properly. In the same way, a great leader may need to help their flock avoid the cozy comforts that cause them to become “unbalanced.”
6. “He leads me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake”.
Sheep are not known for their intelligence, but instead they are stubborn creatures of habit. They will over-graze their pastures into desolation. Therefore, the wise shepherd keeps his flock rotating from pasture to pasture. This movement is not only good for the sheep, but also for the health of the pasture.
The human shepherd must also aim to keep his people “moving” - not stuck in the same patterns of comfortable familiarity. This human shepherd motivates his people to free themselves from other people’s approval, from self-focus, from pride, from complaining, and from willfulness. He teaches his people to be teachable and to be led.
7. “Though I walk through the valley.”
The shepherd takes his sheep through the valley, in order to get them to higher ground. It can be a treacherous path, and may look frightening, but it is the only way to fresh pastures. The shepherd is familiar with the path and knows exactly what is on the other side. The sheep trust him and follow him.
Similarly, the biblical leader has been through the valley before. They know where it leads, and they know the good that is waiting for the flock on the other side. They have earned the trust of the sheep, and the sheep keep their eyes on their leader.
8. “Your rod and your staff comfort me.”
The shepherd travels lightly, but carries a rod (a long, thin stick used to protect or even discipline the sheep). It is a symbol of authority and control. It may also be used to count the sheep, as well as examine the sheep’s health, beneath their thick wool.
The biblical leader also carries a rod - the written Word of God, used to protect and even discipline the flock. But he doesn’t randomly “hit the sheep over the head” with this rod. He uses it with great skill and precision.
The shepherd’s other tool, a staff (a specific tool for shepherds) is a symbol of concern, with the sheep’s comfort in mind. It is a long, slender stick with a hook on the end. It may be used as a support and comfort for the shepherd himself, and it is symbolic of the Spirit of God.
He may use it to draw the sheep together into a closer group. He may use it to move a newborn closer to its mother, if they get separated in the crowd. He may also use it to draw a shy sheep closer to himself. Or he may use it to gently guide a wayward sheep back to the right path.
The biblical leader uses both the rod (the Word of God) and the staff (the Spirit of God) in the right balance, to provide the protection, discipline and comfort the flock needs to keep moving forward and in the right direction.
9. “You prepare a table before me.”
The Spanish word for table is “mesa” and it is also the word used to describe the high summer grazing ranges, which are remote and hard to reach. The good shepherd will travel there, before he brings the sheep, to map out his grazing plan. He will make note of the good bedding spots. He will bring the salt and minerals needed for the season, and he will eradicate the poisonous weeds. He will also look for signs of predators that may become a problem.
The good human shepherd, likewise, will plan and think ahead. They will anticipate the needs of the flock, remove possible stumbling blocks, keep an eye out for the attacks of Satan, and scan the horizon for signs of trouble. He is calm but alert. Relaxed but ready.
10. “You anoint my head with oil.”
Anyone who has been around livestock knows what a problem flies can be in the summer. So. Many. Flies. And they cause a multitude of problems for the animals. (That is one reason I don’t mind winter that much - at least there aren’t any flies!) One of the fly treatments for sheep is an oil mixture, rubbed over their head and nose. This brings immediate relief and peace to the helpless animals. But one application doesn’t keep the flies away for the whole season - it must be reapplied on a regular basis.
The same is true for people - we can be driven to the brink of insanity by those annoying little issues that get under our skin. We need relief. The good leader will pray for anointing over the flock; that they will have divine protection from the constant irritants of life. The good leader will also pray that the minds of his flock are protected from the infectious, contagious thought patterns of those who don’t surrender to Jesus.
11. “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me.”
This is what the sheep feel when they KNOW their shepherd is watching over them. No matter what happens, they KNOW their shepherd has done everything possible to make sure the sheep are cared for.
Good human leadership, biblical leadership, will instill this same sort of comfort. Their people know for a fact that their leader has the flock’s best interest in mind. Their leader is not concerned about making a name for themselves. They are not doing this job for self-service. They truly care about the flock and their well-being. And the flock can breathe easily, knowing that no matter what happens, good will come from it. The good biblical leader does not leave a path of chaos and confusion in their wake. They leave behind peace, forgiveness, contentment, joy and love.
12. “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”
The sheep, in the good shepherd’s care, never want to leave! The “house” referred to here is the family of the good shepherd - the flock - the household. The sheep are honored to be part of the family, and they treasure their place in it.
What is really encouraging about this module of leadership is that we can ALL apply it. If we aren’t currently qualified to lead in this way, we can learn to be! We have the perfect example in Jesus, and he reaches out to help us, as we reach out to help others.
It is simple. Not simplistic. Uncomplicated. Easy to understand. And do-able, with God’s help.
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Note: Check out Philip Keller's book that Martha uses as a reference throughout this blog: A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.