The idea of a Good Shepherd

A mirage among Nigerian Christian Leaders today

Introduction: In this article, I hope to explore the Shepherd model of leadership as portrayed by the shepherd metaphor and this comes from my perspective as a catholic priest who by his calling is a Shepherd. I will use the biblical Shepherd and Sheep model to develop and argue my case here. I will focus especially on the role of the shepherd in the Nigerian Christian assembly today. I make bold to say that the timeless role of the good shepherd which include caring, encouraging and guiding are either inadequate or at worst totally missing in our Christian churches in Nigeria today. This write up calls on church leaders, ministers and pastoral agents within our ecclesial communities to pursue the shepherd-leader model which in Jesus’ words simply means “servant or service” for the advancement and effectiveness of the mission Dei (mission of God) in our land. Our Lord Jesus says “I come among you as one who serves (Luke 22:27).” 

Who is a Shepherd?  

There are numerous leadership models in the Bible. The obvious ones are; school of prophets, servant or service, teacher-learner, disciple-making, coaching, and mentoring, amongst others. The focus of this article is on the good shepherd (servant) leader seen as a mirage today among Nigerian Christians. The classic biblical text that comes to mind in considering leaders as shepherds is Psalm 23. This Davidic Psalm starts with the reassuring assertion that '(t)he Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want'. This Psalm is one of the best known and most appreciated pieces of Old Testament literature. It is David's reflection on God's task as the shepherd-leader for his people. It is a catalogue of lessons learned about the task of leadership from guiding the sheep and a reflection of his critical thinking. 'The Lord is my shepherd' is a picture of caring, courage, and guidance.

In a general sense, a shepherd refers to a keeper of sheep. This is the person who tends, feeds, or guards the flock. The Hebrew word for shepherding is often translated as 'feeding' as it is impressed by the next statement, 'I shall not want' or 'I shall lack nothing' - alluding to the fact that the Psalmist means he will lack neither in this life nor in the next. According to Anderson (1972): “This confidence of the Psalmist is further strengthened by the implicit allusion to the salvation history of the people. Even in the wilderness during the forty years, the Israelites lacked nothing, for God was with them (pp. 196-197).”

This implies the provision of the necessary food for physical nourishment (Dt 2:7). The New Testament Greek root bo (feed) found in boter (a herder) also gives the meaning of feeding or nourishing, emanating from the concept of tending or shepherding. This is expressed by the synoptic gospel writers as they relate to the people tending the pigs in the area of Decapolis.

The Old Testament refers to the shepherd to designate not only persons who herded sheep but also monarchical leaders (2 Sm 5:2) and God himself (Is 40:11; Ps 23:1). The prophetic literature refers to national leaders as shepherds (Ezk 34:1; Jr 23:1). 

The New Testament has 16 references to 'shepherds'. The shepherds were amongst the first to receive the message of Jesus' birth and visit him (Lk 2:8-20). The shepherd and the sheep relationship is used to illustrate Christ's relationship to his followers who referred to him as 'our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep' (Heb 13:20). Jesus spoke of himself as 'the good shepherd who knew his sheep and would lay down his life for them' (Jn 10:7-18). After his resurrection, Jesus commissioned Peter to feed His sheep (Jn 21:1). In his farewell address to the Ephesian elders, Paul pictured the church and its leaders as a flock with shepherds (Ac 20:28). The Latin word transliterated with 'pastor' means shepherd.

In Jesus' day shepherding was still a vital occupation. The Johannine text (ch. 10) continues the Old Testament notion of the Almighty God as a 'shepherd' (Is 40:10-11; Ps 23:1-4). In this context, Jesus is 'the fine shepherd' and often used the qualities of a good shepherd to teach important lessons.

The Role of the Shepherd

The two major prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel made an extensive reference to the shepherd model of leadership. Ezekiel chooses a shepherd metaphor for kingship that was well-known throughout the ancient Near East, from Babylon to Egypt. In Ezekiel 34, the prophets seem to be having in mind the text of Jeremiah 23:1-6 (Wright 2001:274-276).

The maxim of the New Testament is John 10, especially verses 14 and 16: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

Mirage among Nigerian religious leaders

There is a general opinion within the ecclesiastical traditions that the Christian churches, especially in Africa, is under-led. This is highlighted by some authors, such as John S. Pobee (1992); J.N.K. Mugambi (1995); P.N. Mwaura (1994); (George Omaku Ehusani, The Prophetic Church); and many others writing from the African continent. The question of ineffectiveness swings around the capability and the character of leadership. Shepherding is vanishing, and the church remains directionless and under-fed. This dire situation is echoed by Dorothy J. Weaver (2009:9) that 'the Jewish leaders of Matthew's narrative are not fulfilling the leadership role to which they have been called as "shepherds of Israel" (cf. Ezk 34:11-16), because he views them as "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Ezk 9:36).

From the foregoing, observant bystanders, perceptive religious, and concerned Christians are aware that authority, obedience, and leadership are related notions which form the act of shepherding. These are in grave conflict and crisis today. It is a crisis that is deeply entrenched in our churches. It would seem that we are not in agreement with ourselves on how one notion relates to the other and what an objectively sound shepherd should look like or how they should relate to their flock. The very purpose of leadership, shepherding authority and obedience is radically questioned today as seen in acts of flagrant rebellion by some of those who are led (the sheep or flock), and in the misuse of authority by some of those who lead (the shepherds). To reassure myself in the midst of all these rebellions I have always told my secretaries that their primary job is to protect me (the Shepherd) from the Sheep, knowing that there are moments/times when I am perhaps not a good Shepherd. 

It, therefore, behoves on each community, diocese, church, and group to direct or move towards the fulfilment of its vocational consciousness, that is, what the community has come to understand as what she is called to be. Our vocational consciousness as Christians is to do the will of God in the footsteps of his Son whose delight is in doing the will of the Father who sent him (Jn 4:34). The act of shepherding directs us towards doing this will of the father. It directs all through gentle influence towards collegial, communal and reciprocal relationship which mirrors the Trinity and thus helps us fulfil our vocations. When this happens, our community become one that loves, listens and prays.

The situation of Christian shepherding in our churches in Nigeria today is pathetic, just to say the least. Our shepherds have failed in the three major shepherd-leader's responsibilities of caring, courage, and guiding. I shall corroborate this:

Caring: The idea here is that of proistëmi, which carries the meaning of presiding over, to lead, to direct, to protect, or even to sponsor. Basically, as Wright (2001) asserts: “it would involve caring for them properly, by tending their needs and providing good pasture. The New Testament variably and interchangeably attaches the ideas 'to lead' and 'to care for' (p. 277).” In addition: “The combination of leading and caring that one may see in the New Testament usage agrees well with the principle of Luke 22:26 that the leaders are to be as one who serves (Bromiley 1985:939).” This is a far cry here in Nigeria today. Many of our shepherds are big Bosses who often bully, yell, intimidate, and harass their flocks. True stories abound of pastors and priests who prey on their flock. The crisis of our time is not just that of sexual abuse but even more sinister is that of spiritual abuse. The tragedy of the latter is that it is insufficiently known and the depth of the harm it causes is not appreciated or acknowledged. Some of these ministers flog their flocks as if they are prisoners of war. Some priests treat their parishioners with very embarrassing cruelty. Through false prophecy and teachings and lies, they abuse their flock spiritually. The poor are exploited with impunity. While their flock wallow in abject poverty, penury and want, they live in squalor and opulence. The shepherds flaunt their ill-gotten wealth and display their huge financial privileges all the time. They have private jets, big cars, expensive houses, endless projects and massive bank accounts. They indulge in unnecessary exhibitionism and showiness, all at the expense of their poor sheep/flock. Church services are, first of all, fundraising or money-spinning events. Their healing centres and institutions are metaphorically referred to oil mills or money-making machines. Many of our Christian shepherds today are embarrassingly complacent, profligate, greedy, and shamelessly callous. 

Courage: This is one of the leadership qualities that every shepherd-leader is expected to possess. It speaks of being of good cheer (tharseõ) in the face of threatening circumstances. Courage is a quality of spirit that enables one to face danger or pain without showing fear. It is correct to assume that courage entails ideals of boldness, confidence, and bravery. A discouraged leader leaves the sheep feeling vulnerable, insecure, and aimless. A courageous Shepherd should lead the vanguard for justice, equity and fair play. He/she should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Nigerian Christian shepherd-leaders are not courageous enough to confront weak and corrupt politicians. They often soil their hands with gifts from the Jack and Gills of society. Politicians bribe them with money belong to their flocks and they accept it thereby being partners in crime with those evil men and women who possess temporal powers. Shepherds need the courage to say no to monetary inducements and to speak truth to civil authority, without fear or favour.  

Guidance: One of the didactic passages in the New Testament regarding shepherd - leadership is John 21:15-17. Our religious leaders of today only guide themselves. They feed themselves their families and would not even dare to give the crumbs from their table to their flock. Shepherd-leaders are charged to 'feed my sheep'. These are the sheep of the Lord, not the religious leaders' sheep. 

Water is very symbolic in our Christian tradition (See Gn 29:3, Jn 3:5). A shepherd intentionally guides his flock to water regularly for renewal and refreshment. Today in Nigeria, our Christian shepherds need to role the stone of 'selfishness, greed and avarice' away so that the light of God can shine through their our lives and teachings. Our priests and shepherds should cease from talking the talk, and start walking the walk. 

An aspect of shepherding which is lacking today is grooming. A groom in the olden days referred to someone employed in a stable to take care of the horses. A shepherd grooms his sheep, keeps them clean and free of contamination from the world and the devil. Jesus groomed his disciples and gave them the missionary mandate in Mt 28:19-20. Nigerian shepherd-leaders should do the same. Can we relive those days when priests established homes and centres where young girls were prepared for marriages and where the skill of all kinds are taught and learned? Our houses and institutes today are no longer homes where young people are groomed for a good life in the future. On the contrary, those young people are corrupted and destroyed under the very watch of these supposed shepherds. They Shepherds today prey on their flocks. 

Finally, a very important job of the shepherd is shearing. This is a fleecing act to remove wool from the sheep either for good or for bad purpose. At times sheep must be sheared. This in our own context means disciplining, rebuking, and correcting so that Christian disciples may be fit for service to the Lord. The shepherds of Judah failed to synergise this mutual benefit as it is eluded in Ezekiel 34:3-4. The same is true of our shepherd-leaders in Nigeria today.

This shepherd-leader's task calls for the discipline of the sheep to alert them to the pitfalls of the world. They are protected from wolves and beasts (pseudo-leaders) in the world with the rod and staff. The rod and staff are for disciplining the flock and protecting the flock. The soteriological scope includes Christ's searching initiatives; finding his lost humanity, and bringing them home, where they enjoy koinonia with God and humanity.


Christian leadership demands a full understanding of the biblical model of shepherd-leadership, with the major functions of caring, courage, and guiding the church in the most effective way. Those called to be shepherd-leaders or ministers in the Christian communities must take that responsibility seriously. According to Volf (1998:230), '(t)he task of leaders is first to animate all the members of the church to engage their pluriform activities, and then to coordinate these activities'. Leaders are the shepherds called to the responsibility for the mature church that is called to test every manifestation of the Spirit. Many claim to be called as priests, pastors, ministers and others holding various offices in the church, but often fall pathetically short in their actions and exercise of those ministries or offices. After becoming shepherds through ordinations and praying over or laying on of hands, they quickly become bullies, shouting and yelling at their church members; manipulators and exploiters; and spiritual abusers. In fact, they become anything but shepherds. They are antichrists disguised as ministers, with a mission to destroy the Church of God. 

This article has tried to investigate authentic biblical shepherd and sheep relationship. I have also explained what being sheep and shepherd mean in each case. I have discussed the situation in Nigeria today where it appears that shepherd leadership has become a mirage.

– By Fr. Innocent Abonyi, MSP

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