Tom Nelson: The Shepherding Leader

tom nelson

“One of the biggest things you can look for in a shepherd leader is that they are led well by the Good Shepherd.”

Tom Nelson is president of Made to Flourish and has served as senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Kansas City for more than 30 years. He is a council member of The Gospel Coalition and the author of several books, including his most recent, The Flourishing Pastor: Recovering the Lost Art of Shepherding Leadership (IVP).

Sheep are not the only ones that can get lost. Shepherds can too.

Many of us enter pastoral ministry with an impoverished paradigm of how we see our work. I’m one such pastor. I have struggled and haven’t been perfect. We need a more robust understanding of how we think about what we do. We need to reimagine faithfulness and fruitfulness intersecting with honesty and brokenness in our ministry.

I believe Psalm 78:72 is the primary foundational verse of biblical leadership for all of Scripture. I realize that is a big statement. This verse says, “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.” 

The biblical understanding of leadership starts with a paradigm around shepherding. But the current problematic models do not. The first one is that of the celebrity pastor, a very poor understanding of a pastor’s role. The second is the lone ranger, who is in danger of isolation from leading alone rather than in community. Leadership may be lonely sometimes, but it should never be solitary. And No. 3 is the visionary leader. There is merit to vision-casting, but not when vision-casting ignores shepherding. There is real danger to our understanding of our work as pastors when we cast a grand cultural vision while neglecting the role of a shepherd. If Psalm 78:72 is our primary guide for how we think about our work, these three paradigms are real perils. 

The shepherding leader has not only the skills of a leader but also a heart of integrity. This shows a healthy understanding of spiritual formation. “Integrity of heart” is the Hebrew idea of tom lev, of integral life within and without. It is having a virtue-led, integral heart. This is the Hebrew idea of tom lev, of integral life within and without. It is having a virtue-led, integral heart. 

We all struggle with being broken. We are all jacked up. That’s Genesis 3. That’s the story of every person we see in Scripture except for Jesus. We have pride, distractions, disordered loves. We have insecurities and identity issues that need attention. We all feel external pressures: comparison, boards, economics, the people in our congregations, an increasingly secular culture. A lot of factors can make the pastoral journey hard.

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But when you’re an apprentice to Jesus, he is the foundation. You become like him, despite your brokenness. One of the biggest things you can look for in a shepherd leader is that they are led well by the Good Shepherd. They are a follower first, so they become like Jesus in formation. That’s deeply biblical. The more you walk with Jesus, the more you’re shepherded by him. That’s the foundation of all leadership, and it’s the paradox of leadership as well: We can’t lead well unless we’re led well first.

When you are led by Jesus, you become more like him over time. That affects how you deal with power, how you deal with other people. You are gentle and humble of heart, like Jesus. Biblically, it flows from within. You never lead more, further or better than what you are inside.

Sheep are not the only ones that can get lost. Shepherds can too.

Many of us enter pastoral ministry with an impoverished paradigm of how we see our work. I’m one such pastor. I have struggled and haven’t been perfect. We need a more robust understanding of how we think about what we do. We need to reimagine faithfulness and fruitfulness intersecting with honesty and brokenness in our ministry.

I believe Psalm 78:72 is the primary foundational verse of biblical leadership for all of Scripture. I realize that is a big statement. This verse says, “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.” 

The biblical understanding of leadership starts with a paradigm around shepherding. But the current problematic models do not. The first one is that of the celebrity pastor, a very poor understanding of a pastor’s role. The second is the lone ranger, who is in danger of isolation from leading alone rather than in community. Leadership may be lonely sometimes, but it should never be solitary. And No. 3 is the visionary leader. There is merit to vision-casting, but not when vision-casting ignores shepherding. There is real danger to our understanding of our work as pastors when we cast a grand cultural vision while neglecting the role of a shepherd. If Psalm 78:72 is our primary guide for how we think about our work, these three paradigms are real perils. 

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The shepherding leader has not only the skills of a leader but also a heart of integrity. This shows a healthy understanding of spiritual formation. “Integrity of heart” is the Hebrew idea of tom lev, of integral life within and without. It is having a virtue-led, integral heart. This is the Hebrew idea of tom lev, of integral life within and without. It is having a virtue-led, integral heart. 

We all struggle with being broken. We are all jacked up. That’s Genesis 3. That’s the story of every person we see in Scripture except for Jesus. We have pride, distractions, disordered loves. We have insecurities and identity issues that need attention. We all feel external pressures: comparison, boards, economics, the people in our congregations, an increasingly secular culture. A lot of factors can make the pastoral journey hard.

But when you’re an apprentice to Jesus, he is the foundation. You become like him, despite your brokenness. One of the biggest things you can look for in a shepherd leader is that they are led well by the Good Shepherd. They are a follower first, so they become like Jesus in formation. That’s deeply biblical. The more you walk with Jesus, the more you’re shepherded by him. That’s the foundation of all leadership, and it’s the paradox of leadership as well: We can’t lead well unless we’re led well first.

When you are led by Jesus, you become more like him over time. That affects how you deal with power, how you deal with other people. You are gentle and humble of heart, like Jesus. Biblically, it flows from within. You never lead more, further or better than what you are inside.