Book Review: The Shepherd Leader, by Timothy Z. Witmer
For any preacher or elder, one of the most sobering truths in all the bible must be that which is taught in Hebrews 13:17 â€“ that one day he will have to give an account for all the souls he is watching over, to the Lord who made them and redeemed them. If this is really true (and of course it is), then how urgent is the need for every elder, whether a full time pastor or an unpaid â€œruling elder,â€ to come to a firm, biblical understanding of just what this office is all about, and what it means to carry out its responsibilities effectively! Are a church's elders predominantly a board of directors, responsible for vision-casting and steering the congregation through all the major decisions that face it? Timothy Witmer, with very good biblical warrant, would give a resounding â€œNo!â€. â€œThe simple thesis of this book,â€ he states, â€œis, 'The fundamental responsibility of church leaders is to shepherd God's flock'â€ (emphasis added).
Of course, this verdict makes the sobering weight of the task all the more poignant. Christ himself is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10); and in the Old Testament prophecies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, God had promised to send, not just this Chief Shepherd, but other shepherds as well, after his own heart, to feed his sheep with knowledge and understanding. If, then, the shepherds who neglect their task receive the fierce condemnation expressed, for instance, in Ezekiel 34; and if the standard for fulfilling the task is to be after God's own heart; then how earnestly ought all elders to seek the heart of God in the scriptures for the shepherding of his flock, and labor intensely, ardently, and practically to follow his example!
Witmer's book, more than any other I am aware of, is designed to help elders do just that. It begins with the biblical foundations of the office of elder as being primarily a shepherding role â€“ from the time of Moses to the time of Peter, a fellow-elder hoping for the crown of glory from the Chief Shepherd himself. But this excellent biblical theology is not where Witmer ends â€“ he fleshes out these truths in intensely practical and proactive suggestions, which it would do all elders everywhere well to consider.
Take, for example, just one aspect of the shepherding ministry of Christ that Witmer develops and applies to elders in the church today: that of knowing the sheep by name. On a macro level, Witmer insists, this responsibility involves knowing every sheep for whom an elder is personally responsible â€“ but how many churches have membership roles full of members who have drifted away and disappeared inexplicably? How many members are lost through the â€œback doorâ€ of churches, without a trace? If an elder is to give an account for these sheep, what will he say when he doesn't know who or where they are, and has never gone out seeking them? An up-to-date, accurate listing of every sheep in a local congregation and the elder who is personally responsible for watching over them is an absolute must, if elders would know the sheep after the heart of the Great Shepherd who knows by name all who are his.
But beyond this macro level, elders should be very intentional about knowing closely and personally all those who have been entrusted to them. At the least, this involves frequent times of interaction, taking prayer requests, asking after welfare, making themselves available. Will this involve planning an annual or semi-annual house meeting with every single sheep under one's care, after the example of the great Puritan shepherd, Richard Baxter? Will it require a monthly shepherding phone call, to check up on prayer requests and discern the state of welfare? Will it require a close attention to attendance patterns? Likely, all of these things would be involved â€“ but at the least, it is necessary to have some systematic, comprehensive, biblical plan in place to ensure that no sheep will ever drift away without notice. As those who must give account, elders must take every precaution necessary to see that they know every one of their sheep and are always attentive to the state of their welfare at any given time.
With great practical wisdom, founded upon solid biblical principles, Witmer works through other such shepherding responsibilities â€“ what feeding, leading, and protecting the sheep looks like in day-to-day life, after the example and pattern of Christ. In the manner of the Puritans, there is much light and heat to be found here â€“ truth and application, insight and exhortation.
Really, I can't recommend this book too highly. I would be glad to see every elder in America own a well-worn copy. They would certainly benefit by it, as those who will one day give an account for the souls under their care â€“ and so also (immensely so!) would the sheep that the Chief Shepherd has committed to their watch.