I have often heard the remark that leading missionaries is like herding cats. Yet are we in the herding business? As followers of the Good Shepherd we are to shepherd, not herd those in our care. Even if we shift the imagery from herding to shepherding, we can still go astray because of our cultural perception of shepherding.
Last year, my pastor was preaching on the Good Shepherd from John 10. He told a story of watching a sheep dog demonstration at the state fair. The dogs would circle the sheep barking and nipping at their heels to get them to go in the desired direction. If we look at shepherding from this cultural perspective, we lead by threatening and scolding (barking and biting). This is not the model of shepherding from a Middle Eastern perspective in biblical times or today and not at all what Christ was suggesting. The Middle Eeastern shepherd goes before the sheep and leads them by voice. “
One of the most striking characteristics of the shepherd-flock relationship is that control over the flock is exercised simply by the sound of the shepherd’s voice or whistle (John 10:3; cf. Judg. 5:16; Zech. 10:8). Only a special bond between animal and human can explain this responsiveness.” (Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds after My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, Downers Grove: IVP, 2006, p 57)
Christ describes a close relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice.” (John 10:3, 4 ESV) There is a responsiveness to the leadership of the shepherd because there is mutual knowledge and trust. The sheep follow the shepherd’s voice based on trust that has been built on experience. Shepherding leadership flows out of relationship. Relationship is not built by barking and biting. The shepherd still leads but from a relationship of trust not of power.
Ever mindful of their contingent role in caring for his flock, shepherds will model the kind of humility and service that the ‘sheep’ will embrace. Like Jesus, good shepherd elders can say, ‘Follow me as I lay down my life for you.’ Those who lead the flock of marginalized suffering members are to be exemplars in self-sacrifice. Humility is the distinguishing mark of their service (5:5-6). (p.234)
Leading missionaries should not be compared to herding cats. Leadership in missions should follow our Lord’s example of shepherd leadership that nurtures and leads by cultivating a relationship of trust. “Shepherd leadership requires humility before God and responsiveness to God’s people. It resists pretence, posturing and privilege.” (Laniak, p 249)