Removing the Mask From the Thief: When a Leader Destroys a Flock

Uncategorized Mar 07, 2024

We’ve been looking at Jesus’ famous words in John 10:10, “The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy,” through the lens of leadership that steals, kills, and destroys. We have mainly discussed religious or church leadership from this perspective. A church leader who “steals” leads only for his profit. A church leader who “kills” leads the flock with a “slaughterhouse vision” or a limited vision that does not include the aim of producing a new generation of sheep. This is leadership from a short-term, distant, and disconnected position.

Now we focus on what Jesus meant by leaders, or “thieves,” who destroy the flock. As I’ve mentioned before, several things can take the life of a sheep, like disease, parasites, predators, and thieves. But an attentive shepherd can generally protect the flock as a whole from these things.

One thing is essential to the longevity and health of a flock of sheep: it occupies most of the shepherd’s daily activities and schedule. Whereas the occasional attack from predators or thieves might call for a momentary rush to defend the sheep, this activity is a daily part of sheep herding, and the flock does not fare well without it. I am referring to leading the sheep on grazing tours.

Some modern-day sheep herders have made the mistake of letting a flock loose in a field and wandering around inside the fence, grazing wherever they will. But the problem is that sheep walk the same trails and patterns daily until they eat the grass down to the bare earth. They often paw the ground until they uncover the very root of vegetation and eat the grass into total extinction.

To prevent the sheep from wasting away or dying off and to keep the land from becoming barren and burdened from constant grazing, a shepherd has to move the flock from one grazing field to another consistently. This means shepherds must walk the pasture daily, where they observe not only the sheep but also the condition of the land. When it becomes apparent that the sustenance provided by a pasture and the pressure placed upon it by grazing have bumped into one another, the shepherd must lead the flock to new grazing pastures.

For those itinerant shepherds who lived in the day of Christ, this would mean long tours leading the flock from pasture to pasture. As I’ve mentioned, these tours would last for weeks and required the shepherds to sleep in the field with the sheep and be their constant companions on the journey. I refer again to W. Phillip Keller’s classic book for the note that shepherds might travel across the countryside, moving from one place to the next. Sometimes, they would set up a central campsite and fan out, grazing in patterns like the leaves of a clover and returning to the campsite each night.

These grazing tours required that the shepherd meticulously plan the journey and scope out the terrain. It required the shepherd to walk the trip time after time before leading the sheep out on the tour. He had to know the best grazing pastures and the easiest way to move the sheep to that location. 

On top of this, shepherds also had to know the weather patterns exceptionally well so that they did not lead sheep out when storms were likely, or temperatures were in extreme flux. In the event of a sudden weather issue, shepherds needed to know where temporary shelters could be found for their flock.

Finally, moving the flock required that the sheep be kept from being scattered. Sheep do not do well when they are driven. They need to be gently led. Stragglers need to be corralled. Curious sheep that try to head off and investigate some dense side path must be warned with the rod laid gently against their side. And any lamb that slipped down the side of a steep hill would need to be lifted to safety with the crook of the shepherd’s staff.

To not move the flock is to destroy it and the land eventually. To move the flock without planning is to endanger the flock. And to move the flock without care is to scatter the flock. This shepherding principle is closest to what Jesus had in mind when he warned about religious leaders who destroy the flock.

I want to suggest three fundamental principles of church leadership based on these simple observations. If a leader does not want to destroy the flock but wants to see it thrive and grow and produce, then it is crucial that the shepherd:

Keep the Flock Moving

One of the great tragedies in church ministry is to watch a church family grow old and dry up. It is easy to tell when a church has stopped moving. Like a flock of sheep grazing in a well-worn pasture, the habits of stale churches tend to operate using ministry models that no longer relate to the generation they claim to be reaching. Church services and programs become barren paths that reduce the flock to being sickly and weak. The people stop growing spiritually. The leadership becomes stuck. The “message of life” is strangely lifeless. And the individual church group stops growing, too.

Do not misinterpret what I’m talking about. There are elements of the faith that should not change. The Gospel message and the truth of the Word are central to Christianity. Jesus is still Lord. And the church is still the chosen vehicle by which Christ is to be preached and displayed to a lost world. But our culture does not stay put. Its music, fads, and terminology are constantly on the move. So, our methods of communicating the unchangeable truth must be continually updated. The culture must not infect Christian churches. But we cannot affect the culture by attempting to operate in a time capsule from half a century back.

It is not only our communication methods that must keep moving. The diet of the Body of Christ must continue to be rich and fertile, like thick grazing grass. Ministers must keep their own devotional time active and full of life. Their message must be Biblical, uncompromising, and passionately delivered to the sheep. Leaders should minister out of the overflow of Christ’s work in their hearts. When the leadership is depleted, it is reflected in their message. And it starves the sheep. 

Lead the Flock To the Next Destination Through A Clear Plan.

Shepherds must be able to see clearly where the next grazing location is. There is much they must consider. The spiritual condition of the flock is essential. So, the leader needs to know the next set of Biblical precepts that must be lovingly taught.

Shepherds must also consider the physical aspects of leading the flock. Everything from real estate, building expansions, and fundraising must stay within his watch's care.

And the health of the marriages and families under his care requires consistently providing proper guidance, mentorship, and wise counsel.

And all of this has to move simultaneously and at the right pace. Amazingly, God has placed such tremendous responsibility on leaders. Like shepherds scoping out the path to the next location, constant training and strategic planning, all covered in heavy prayer, are critical to moving the flock.

Lead the Flock Without Scattering the Flock

Finally, shepherds can’t lose the flock while they lead them. Much like sheep, people do not like being driven by leaders. They want to be led gently. Christian leaders must see ahead. They must find a way to walk the path before the people do. 

It is important to mention at this point that if a shepherd is going to corral the stragglers, direct the distracted sheep, and rescue the fallen lambs, they must keep themselves healthy. Leaders must also have mentors who shepherd them. I do not know where I would be without the mentors God has placed in my life.

Keeping the flock from scattering also means that shepherds must seek out mentors who have journeyed where they have not. Leading an organization to a new phase requires that I listen and lean on other shepherds who have navigated the path to new grazing pastures with their own flocks. Like a shepherd scoping out the path ahead, mentors help me to see where the traps are, where the predators lurk, and where the best trails are for moving the flock ahead.

The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy. Godly leaders must be shepherds rather than thieves. As a church leader, I ask that you pray for your leaders. This message of Jesus to shepherds is sobering and convicting. The enemy is indeed a thief who steals, kills, and destroys. But often, he accomplishes this through thieves who pose as religious leaders. Jesus took the mask off the thieves and showed Himself to be the Good Shepherd. Those leaders who are under-shepherds must first follow Jesus and then lead like Jesus.


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