The Ministry of a Shepherd: Replacement Shepherds

As sports fans, we’ve just come through one of the most intriguing experiences in recent years … Replacement Referees. As the drama of these “scab” referees began to unfold, we began to hear stories about the background of the men assuming those roles. Some came to the NFL from six-man football; some were fired from previous referee positions for incompetence; and at least one was fired from his previous referee gig with the Lingerie Football League.

The outcome of this experiment led to more than just blown calls and the slowing down of the games. What resulted was a lack of respect for the role of the official, situations where the refs appeared to have been intimidated by coaches and players with strong personalities, outrage in the media, and general disgust and distrust from the fans.

Despite all the apologizing, over-analyzing, and fining of players and coaches, I don’t know anyone who actually believes that these men intended to do a poor job. However, what became clear is that they were over their heads. They were unprepared for the job. They were wearing someone else’s jersey.

We live in a time when every decision a pastor makes is analyzed, scrutinized, and criticized.

With all the questions related to inconsistencies, the missed calls, delays in the game, and the breakdowns in communication, I began to see a parallel to the role of a pastor today. We live in a time when every decision a pastor makes is analyzed, scrutinized, and criticized. Some churches have even initiated a sort of “review process” for the decisions of the pastor that do much more than simply slow down the pace of the game. The result has been that pastors no longer enjoy the level of respect formerly common to that position. Further, we’ve witnessed pastors intimidated by strong personalities in the church and others all-too-often fired from their positions.

To be fair, some of the problems seen by the replacement referees have at times been reflected in pastors. Failures in communication, missed calls, and under-qualified leaders have yielded the self-inflicted wounds that sting so many churches today. Then, as the media continues to pile on insult by accentuating the evident failures, church members—like disenchanted fans—eventually lose confidence in the position and sometimes even in the game itself. And, like the NFL stadiums, the effects are felt in declines in attendance and giving.

But, there is one key difference between a back-up back judge and a pastor. Unlike the replacement officials, who were on the field against the wishes of the “real refs,” under-shepherds serve in the authority, power and calling of the true Shepherd.

Unlike the replacement officials, who were on the field against the wishes of the “real refs,” under-shepherds serve in the authority, power and calling of the true Shepherd.

The clearest picture in Scripture of the role of a shepherd is found in Ezekiel 34. Here, God outlines the responsibilities of a shepherd, the accountability of the shepherds, the consequences of a lack of shepherds, and the anticipation of the Good Shepherd. In this passage, we encounter the Shepherd God, the Shepherd Savior, and the Shepherd Judge who loves the sheep and holds those who work for Him accountable.

I find it curious that God doesn’t speak TO the shepherds. But, perhaps these were no shepherds, at all. Instead, the picture reveals someone more akin to those Jesus described as “hirelings” (John 10:12-13), who are more concerned about their own needs than those of the sheep. But God revealed His great love for the sheep. In so doing, we learn a critical reminder that every pastor must remember: the sheep do not belong to you. In this passage, the Lord refers to the people 19 times as “My flock,” “My sheep,” or “My people.” We hear echoes of this in our Lord’s challenge to Peter in John 21, where the restored disciple is three times challenged to feed “My lambs” and “My sheep.” We have no claim of possession, and our authority over the sheep is only imputed.

Sheep need to follow the shepherd; shepherds need to love the sheep; because the True Shepherd will hold them both accountable.

The text reveals God’s intentions that are not always reflected in the church. But, the answer isn’t in criticizing the process; it is in understanding the solution. Only when a God-called man serves the God-loved sheep following God-ordained principles will there be God-honoring success. Sheep need to follow the shepherd; shepherds need to love the sheep; because the True Shepherd will hold them both accountable.

There’s probably not going to be a league official telling the members to stop picking on the pastor. Moreover, there will likely continue to be occasional missed calls and plays under review. But we rest assured that the ultimate care of the sheep, while beyond our ability, is ultimately outside of our control. We are simply under-shepherds caring for the sheep who have been entrusted to us confident in the knowledge that one day the Chief Shepherd will appear, call His sheep by name who will know His voice and graze in His pasture. And when He returns, there’ll be no more challenge flags.