Book Review: The Shepherd Leader by Timothy Z. Witmer

by Dale Partridge

In 1st Peter 5:1-4, Peter gives straightforward instruction to pastors on how to care for their congregation. In doing so, he appeals to a common image—shepherds and sheep. Pastors have the responsibility to care for their flock with willingness, servanthood, grace, and integrity, imitating the way in which God cares for his people. Doing so sets the tone for how the church will carry out its mission on a daily basis.

In many churches, however, pastors and elders do not prioritize shepherding the flock and function more like a Board of Directors, making decisions, but failing to lead as God intended. As a result, Christians grow frustrated and lose their love of gathering as a family, and churches become ineffective in their joint mission to reach the lost and disciple the saved.

In The Shepherd Leader, Timothy Z. Witmer provides a thorough exploration of the topic and makes the case that pastors and church leaders must embrace their God-given responsibility to watch over the people entrusted to their care if churches are to fulfill their mission.

The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church.

Leaders in the church are called to be shepherds, not a Board of Directors. This requires involvement in a personal shepherding ministry among the people. The Shepherd Leader unpacks the four primary ministries of shepherds.

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Beginning with an overview of the biblical and historical foundations for the offices of pastor and elder, Witmer contends that church leaders must use their authority carefully and for the spiritual maturity of the people. Having covered pastoral motivations, he then moves on to pastoral responsibilities, emphasizing the pastoral roles of knowing, feeding, leading, and protecting the sheep.

Key Points of the Book

  1. The failure to shepherd biblically results in one of the primary problems today’s churches face: Frustrated and discouraged church members who hop from church to church without committing to active membership and, consequently, impacting church health and growth on a widespread scale. When Christians do not receive the care they need from their church, they know that the church has failed in one of its primary responsibilities, and they look for a church that will meet their needs. Yes, Christians primarily should be concerned with how they can serve the local congregation instead of how it can support them, but we cannot dismiss their desire to be the recipient of care, as well. Unhappy Christians swapping places of attendance with other unhappy Christians is the result, and that dynamic ultimately undermines the effectiveness of all churches involved.
  1. Church history reveals a pattern of closely following and utterly losing the mandate for pastors to shepherd the flock, so we should be mindful of the bent towards inconsistent practice today: Whether the charge to shepherd was eclipsed by the primacy of church traditions in the period prior to the Reformation or undermined by the shirking or misuse of pastoral authority in more recent times, church leaders regularly struggle with keeping the main thing the main thing and aligning all of the tasks of ministry under the umbrella of shepherding.
  1. A church’s shepherding plan must be comprehensive and include ministry to all of the church’s members: While many churches utilize a “small group” ministry of some kind to provide care, many church members are not active in small groups and therefore fall through the cracks. To truly be a comprehensive effort, the shepherding plan must address care for the active, inactive, missing, and future sheep. This is the strength of the house church model as it forces a small and intimate environment where every sheep receives shepherding from the pastor.

Powerful Quotes From the Book

  • “The shepherding metaphor s not only comprehensive with respect to the nature of the care received but also with respect to the extent. Sheep . . . are always completely dependent on their shepherd. They never outgrow their need for the shepherd to care for them, feed them, lead them, and protect them. The shepherd cares for the newborn lambs and is still there when the sheep grow old and weak.” (13)
  • “It is our restored, loving relationship with the Lord that flows over into transforming our relationships with other people, particularly those who are also part of his flock. For the elder, as an undershepherd of the flock, this relational dynamic is crucial to effective care of the sheep. The general description of the responsibilities of shepherds must be, therefore, with the dynamic of knowing the sheep.” (109)
  • “The wise pastor will depend on sola scriptura as the food that is fed to the flock. It is only through the Scriptures that the sheep will be adequately nourished. It is only through God’s Word that the flock will be able to withstand the attacks of the enemy of their souls. (142)
  • “In leading the flock shepherds must be motivated by love for the Lord and for the well-being of the sheep. It must be evident to the congregation that the leadership of the elders is exercised for the good of the people and not for the benefit of the leaders.” (156)
  • “Christ’s undershepherds are called upon to protect his sheep. The challenge in protecting real sheep is that they are such a helpless lot . . . This is why they need a strong protector. Shepherds need to be aware not only of the vulnerability and weakness of the individual sheep but also of the wolves that threaten their well-being.” (170)

Application in the Local Church

Leaders of small churches and house churches have a distinct advantage when it comes to shepherding the sheep: the congregations are small enough for each member to be known well by the pastor. All the same, the temptation to overlook the importance of shepherding is just as strong as it is at any megachurch. As leaders, we must be careful to fulfill the one main mission give to us—care for the sheep. If we are motivated by any desire besides faithfully carrying out the work entrusted to us by God for the good of his sheep, we have failed.

Citation: Witmer, Timothy Z. The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2010. 264 Pages

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Dale Partridge is the President of and holds a Graduate Certificate from Western Seminary. He is the author of several Christian books, including “The Manliness of Christ” and the bestselling children’s book “Jesus and My Gender.” He is also the host of the Real Christianity podcast and the lead pastor at King's Way Bible Church in Prescott, Arizona.

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