The Heart of a Shepherd Lessons from the Ranch Life

Of all the things God could have pointed to and said, “This is what I want the leader of my church to be like,” it is utterly profound that He chose the shepherd.

In a world full of broad shouldered and big headed Sauls, God looked out into the forgotten pastureland of Israel and called David, a nobody shepherd tending to the flock beyond anyone’s notice. Like the servant-hearted Whataburger register worker that most people never see. Not the affluent, wealthy, or powerful, but the pastoral. The lowly caretaker of animals, just as low then as it would be today.

It could have been a CEO or one of the similar power-tie-types that typically fill out the program at a TED talk, with the kind of charismatic personality and in-your-face swagger that shareholders love and from whose hands consumers eat. Expert schedulers, bullet-point-list makers, gurus of the fix-anything-in-five-minutes philosophy. The kind of people you’d see on magazine covers.

It could have been the politician with his suffocatingly fake charm and intoxicating ability to spin a yarn of gold from three strands of straw. The professional talker and snake charmer. It could have been the VP of sales with his mastery of small talk, the pitch and the close.

Tragically, the church today is infested with men who don the power suit rather than the shepherd’s rags, who confidently assert themselves in meetings and continually run the sheep over with the slickness of their PowerPoint prowess. They view the church as just another tribe of followers to influence—a sellable, pliable network of consumers in which to display their own self-importance.

I’ve met them. They are seminary professors and ministers in the local church. They’re as greedy for applause and wealth as the Wall Street brokers who buy, flip and gut companies—yes, made up of real people, with real families that can’t be reduced to a bottom line—for easy money. Sure, there’s a veneer of spirituality and glossy religious words, but their willingness to employ the exploitive practices of the industrial economy betray them.

They love to preach and expound on the finest points of theological debate but hate to have their busy, important schedules bogged down by the problematic lives of those in their care. I think we sometimes forget that Jesus’ harshest opponents weren’t religious outsiders—they were the religious upper crust, the leaders in the church. Why should we expect it to be different today?


God interrupts

God interrupts. He opens our eyes in unexpected, ordinary and yet profound ways. When he could have written a theological treatise, he points to something in our lives that we’ve been walking by and not noticing for years.

In the midst of my own wrestlings with the heart of the pastorate, it was as if God put his arm around my shoulder on a recent trip to Wyoming and, gently, pointed to Pierre. A rancher, a caretaker, with enough strength to heave bails and build fence, yet soft enough to care for lambs and tend the newborn calves. Tough and tender, fierce, loyal, patient and warm of heart.

As we rode in Pierre’s truck, taking the tour of the massive property and the many sheep and cattle that reside there, one thing more than any other emanated from the man: Love. For the animals, for his work, for God who gave him the task of caretaker.

Money’s tight, he’d be the first to admit it. And yet as he clears a calf’s mouth and stands it upright, fresh from its mother’s womb, you can see his tender affection. Not annoyed, but exuberant.

Hauling hay to another pasture, he reflects on his work.

“You know, some days I think I could be doing something else and make a lot more money. But ultimately it comes down to being passionate about what you do. It’s true, you’d never do this for the money—you would only live this life because you truly loved it.”

Pierre drove his grandpa’s red truck, the one with the block of wood duct-taped to the clutch pedal to aid an aging vehicle, while I tossed hay from a trailer he’d reengineered for feeding.

“Leave one piece on the trailer,” he said, cows crowding around for their eagerly anticipated meal.

Curious, I did as instructed. Pierre drove us to the other side of the pasture, where a cow with an obvious limp hobbled along.

“I could make ‘er walk over with the others, but it only takes a minute for me to drive over here. Probably get ‘er in the barn if this keeps up, tend to that leg.”

In my mind I thought about how time consuming it would be to care for one lame cow. My time in corporate America screams about the inefficiency, the cost, the inconvenience. It’s a world in which everyone is a social security number, an employee number, a face in the crowd. And the shepherd’s heart knows none of it. He takes his time, leaving the 99 for the one, and is eager to do so. He knows them each by name. 

Back at the barn, a mother and her newborn calf reside in a stall. Pierre explains that he’s trying to help them get to know each other. Again I wonder about the time this must be taking from the rest of his already full plate. Finally, I pose a question.

“Isn’t this time consuming to care for them like this, individually?”

A pause, and then a warm smile creeps across his face.

“Well yeah, I guess it is. But that’s my job. They’re in my care, so I’ll spend as much time with them as it takes.”

I realize, at that moment, that I’m the one being taught by Pierre. And by God. The profound generosity of our Savior, displayed powerfully in that moment, has not been lost on me.

As we drive through the herd, Pierre looks at each calf and tells me its unique story. This one barely made it last year, but has nicely recovered. You see that one’s back, how it’s not as filled out? Like our Lord, they are not to him just numbers on a ledger, mere dollar bills on foot. He knows them each by name.

He cares for them individually, with devotion and affection. His schedule is based not on industrial principles of time management but on the need of the creatures in his care and the pace of creation. His days and nights are marked by breeding cycles and daylight, and care is given as care is needed, however long that takes.

And, like the Good Shepherd, Pierre’s main task is to feed the flock. Daily, heartily, he feeds them. They know the sound and look of his truck, and they run to him; they know the shepherd’s voice. They know where their life comes from, and so does he.

“It’s a powerful thing, being a rancher,” he tells me. “It’s not a job. It’s a way of life, a calling. When you hold life and death in your hands everyday, that’s something you take seriously.”

Grateful, convicted, I wish every pastor could be schooled in the artful, magnificent work of animal husbandry. I learned more about the heart of a pastor in one day with Pierre than I did in three years at seminary—a place, by the way, full of pretentiousness and a culture in love with the bow ties and poshness of any other Ivy League establishment. A place where so many duel to out-rank one another in academic accomplishments and obscure degrees.

While theology is immensely important, we live in a sad time when theological accuracy passes for spiritual maturity and efficiency outranks genuine care. Our churches are full of men who know how to parse Greek verbs but don’t know how to tenderly shepherd the hearts of their people. The problem, in this case, is not theological but is a sickness of the heart.

“It is quite easy for [seminary] students to buy into the belief that biblical maturity is about the precision of theological knowledge and the completeness of their biblical literacy. So seminary graduates, who are Bible and theology experts, tend to think of themselves as being mature. But it must be said that maturity is not merely something you do with your mind…No, maturity is about how you live your life. It is possible to be biblically literate and in need of significant spiritual growth.” —Paul Tripp, “Dangerous Calling” 

They love theology and despise the people, messy as their lives are. The sufferings of the flock are inconveniences, interruptions to their ministry of self congratulation among their peers. And in the midst of all this pompous filth, Jesus comes with His servant’s apron and a cross.

You want to shepherd God’s flock? You want to know what the real ordination exam is? It isn’t an oral or written exam that certifies you in the eyes of your peers, the ones you care so deeply to impress. It’s the way you bleed for your people.

It’s in the way you lay down your life for the sheep. Feed them, care for them, die for them. Seek and save the lost and wandering, know them each by name, pray for them always, and, when all is said and done, lay down your life for them. Walk with them when their hearts are broken and lame, and spend whatever time it takes to make them well.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:11-13).

We talk often about how Jesus came to rescue us from our sin. We seldom talk about how Jesus came to rescue us from corrupt, selfish leadership in the church. Yet this is prominent in the Father’s mind when he sent Jesus (Ezekiel 34).

Finally, Paul Harvey captures it best:

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