The Bible assures us that pastors exist to shepherd God’s people in local churches until Christ returns (1 Peter 5:1-5). The calling of the pastor is inextricably tied to the biblical metaphor of a shepherd tending to his flock of sheep. Alexander Strauch says, “If we want to understand Christian elders and their work, we must understand the biblical imagery of shepherding. As keepers of sheep, New Testament elders are to protect, feed, lead, and care for the flock’s many practical needs.”
Pastors shepherd God’s people by protecting them. One of a pastor’s foremost responsibilities is to protect his sheep, for just like sheep need the protection of a shepherd, God’s people need the protection of pastors. Paul’s farewell address makes it clear that this includes protection from false teachers: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). It also includes protection from their own sinfulness, which is why a pastor is called to a ministry of exhortation—of calling people away from behavior that is dishonoring to God and toward behavior that is pleasing to him (Titus 2:15). It is why pastors eventually confront ongoing, unrepentant sin and enforce church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).
Pastors shepherd God’s people by feeding them. A shepherd not only protects his sheep from danger, but he also cares for them by feeding them. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” says David. “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters” (Psalm 23:1-2). The shepherd provides for the sustenance of his sheep. Similarly, pastors must feed God’s people with the spiritual food and drink they need—the Word of God. The pastor’s ministry is a Word-based ministry in which he uses the Word for preaching, teaching, and counseling. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
Pastors shepherd God’s people by leading them. Sheep are wandering creatures who are prone to meander out of safety and into all kinds of danger. They need a shepherd who will lead and guide them. In much the same way, Christians need pastors who will provide leadership. This is a specific form of leadership, though, that better equips them to fulfill the ministry to which God has called them. They carry out this leadership by setting an example in godly character, knowing that the pastor’s standard for character is really the standard for every Christian. “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you … being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).
Pastors shepherd God’s people by caring for them. Sheep that are ill or in distress rely upon their shepherd to tend to them. And when God’s people are distressed or uncertain, they rely on their pastors to bring comfort, instil wisdom, and offer prayer. “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). The pastor has a special function in caring for the people in his charge.