The work of pastoral ministry is biblically described as the assignment of under-shepherding. Implicit in the biblical metaphor is that shepherds care for the sheep, protect the sheep, and lead the sheep to nutritious pasturelands.
All of this seemingly necessitates physical presence as we lead under the authority of the Great Shepherd. The very language associated with shepherding connotes a proximity that keeps us smelling like sheep—we are intimately aware of their needs and constantly seeking out their best interest.
The incarnational presence of the shepherd lies at the heart of Jesus’ famous illustration in John 10.
“Truly I tell you, anyone who doesn’t enter the sheep pen by the gate but climbs in some other way is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. -John 10:1-3 (CSB)
Jesus is the Good Shepherd for His sheep because He was among them—calling them by name and even sacrificing His life so that the sheep could be safe.
So, it’s difficult to imagine shepherding apart from proximity. Paul’s apostolic example of dictating instructions of what was best for the sheep, and then continuing to travel on his way, included the assumption of resident shepherds directing the tactical process. Shepherds had to live among the sheep, so that they could, at the moment, offer situational guidance.
But in the wake of our pandemic, many godly shepherds are now faced with the daunting challenge of shepherding from a distance. We can’t be with the sheep, at least not in the ways that were once understood. Zoom calls feel like an awkward substitute …
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