How Psalm 23 Shows Pastors Ways to Shepherd Their People
The Flourishing Pastor
By Tom Nelson
Am I Being Well Led?
While pastors can and do experience dramatic moral meltdowns, over the years I have come to the conclusion that a more common peril and ever-present threat are the slow burnouts and insidious corrosion that occur slowly at soul level. When the initial vocational honeymoon period recedes, pastors soon encounter the hard realities of pastoral life and leadership. Ministry idealism is shattered, and lurking in the dark shadows of the soul is a quiet desperation, a dulling disillusionment, and a corrosive cynicism.
The pastoral calling is exhilarating and agonizing, truly glorious and very difficult. Our callings are anything but a hundred-yard dash. Pastors need to embrace a long view, knowing they sign up for an often thankless and arduous marathon. It is not how we start, but how we run the race and finish that really matters. Wherever we find ourselves in the pastoral journey, we need to come to grips with the truth that faithfulness, fruitfulness, and resiliency is not ultimately determined by how well we lead, but about how well we are led. Not how well we shepherd others, but first, how well we are shepherded.
Rediscovering Psalm 23. Job reviews are part of a healthy and well-organized local church culture and institution. In the local church I serve, every year employees go through a rigorous review. Job reviews primarily focus on job performance and much less on personal wholeness. A primary question of assessment is usually “Am I leading well?” Of course this question is of high importance, but I believe an even more crucial question ought to be considered, namely, “Am I being well led?”
If as pastors we see ourselves as primarily leading rather than first following, it is all too easy to gain a prideful exaggerated sense of self-importance and nurture an untouchable spirit of unteachability. Instead, we are wise to view our calling through the dual lenses of both leading and following, of being both a sheep and a shepherd. The greatest lessons of leadership arise in the process of followership— both when we follow others well and ultimately when we follow our shepherd well. The first call of pastoral leadership is to draw near to and follow our Good Shepherd in tender intimacy, daily obedience, and a lifestyle of joyful worship. The affirmation of David’s shepherding leadership in Psalm 78:72 is embedded in his experience of being shepherded by the Lord. Let’s expand our view of shepherding leadership from Psalm 78 by rediscovering the timeless words of David, the shepherd king of Israel in Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
Since my earliest memories, the words of Psalm 23 have been regular companions of my soul. It was not until much later in my life that I began to realize that Psalm 23 was also a foundational biblical text for pastoral leadership. Psalm 23 continues to open my mind and nourish my heart to the transforming reality of the triune God whose intimate fellowship energizes, inspires, comforts, and guides my daily pastoral calling. It is time we see Psalm 23 as a formative and transformative pastoral leadership lifeline. Eugene Peterson rightly connects the Psalms to the calling of spiritual leadership. “For men and women called to leadership in the community of faith, apprenticeship in the Psalms is not an option, it is a mandate.”
The primary theme of Psalm 23 is revealed in the opening verse. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Here we find one of the truest truths of the universe. The bedrock reality of the self-sustaining eternal triune God who has no lack is the source of and provision for a human life where there is no lack. Dallas Willard rightly asserts, “The experience of a life without lack depends first and foremost upon the presence of God in our lives, because the source of this life is God himself.”5 The spiritual formation and empowerment necessary for pastoral leadership is firmly anchored in and dependent on the reality of the eternal triune God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Most important for pastoral leadership is our own life with God, our Great and Good Shepherd, our most important life coach.
King David draws from his own experience as a shepherd boy and frames his entire psalm around the shepherding metaphor. David describes the with-God life, where there is no lack, through this metaphorical lens. David experiences God as a shepherd in a very personal, intimate way. Throughout, the psalm overwhelmingly and repeatedly emphasizes the first person singular. David repeatedly speaks of “my” shepherd, of God leading “me,” of God being with “me,” of God comforting “me.” David’s intimate and very personal relationship with God, his very own shepherd, is a distinctive mark over the entirety of Psalm 23.
For David, the eternal triune God is his Good Shepherd who is in charge of everything, who is always with him and constantly there for him. As a leader David is experiencing the with-God life where there is no lack. David looks to God to lead him as he leads others. David knows on an experiential level that his shepherd gets him, knows what he is going through, and is there with him when he is going through it. David has a transparent, safe, and secure relational attachment with God. In the context of his own sinful heart and fallen world, David is being well led. The Good Shepherd’s sufficiency and infinite resources are accessible and available to him. David knows he is never alone.
Memorizing and meditating on Psalm 23 has become one of the most important and life-giving spiritual disciplines in my life and leadership journey. Over the years Psalm 23 has become the last words that come to my mind as I lay my head on the pillow at night and the first words that come to my mind when I awake in the morning. When I roll out of bed, each new day greets me with an undeniable truth. I was never designed to live within the suffocating confines of the puny resources of my own finitude. As my feet touch the carpeted floor, I recall Psalm 23, remembering who I am, whose I am, and who is with me. I was designed in original creation to live the with-God life, enjoying his intimate presence, drawing on his infinite wisdom, and tapping into his divine empowerment. I look to my shepherd to lead me well. I know him, and he knows me. I am deeply loved by him. He is my shepherd. I am well led.
Excerpted from The Flourising Pastor by Tom Nelson. Copyright (c) 2021 by Tom Nelson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com