Pastor as Sheepdog: Working Hard but Wagging His Tail

By Harold L. Senkbeil

Some years ago while traveling in Great Britain I watched a televised sheepdog competition, a contest testing the ability of shepherds and their dogs to guide a small flock of sheep through a maze. It astonished me to see how closely the dogs worked in synch with their shepherd/masters, deftly guiding those unruly sheep toward the intended goal no matter how intent they were to run off in all directions at once.

With that scene in mind, consider this picture of the relationship between a sheepdog and shepherd as a vivid illustration of the bond between a pastor and the Good Shepherd who has enlisted him in service to his sheep. The sheepdog is iconic of a faithful pastor’s work: one ear tuned to the voice of the Great Shepherd, the other tuned attentively to the sheep.

What enthralls me about this picture of a dog in the service of his master are three things.

First, the dog can’t possibly know or even begin to grasp the whole of the shepherd’s intent.

Second, he’s not self-assertive, but only and entirely serves as an extension of the shepherd’s heart and directive will. He is an agent of another mind, at the willing and eager disposal of the shepherd, doing his bidding and finding great delight in the process. He can afford to take his time, confident and assertive but never aggressive.

Finally, despite the frustration caused by the sheep, the dog’s tail is always wagging, because he is completely captivated by his love for the shepherd.

Do you see it? Can you grasp what a wonder it is that the same Lord who poured out his life’s blood as a ransom for souls would entrust them into your care? Can you comprehend what a miracle it is that he should put his words in your mouth to warn and rebuke, to be sure, but even more to comfort, console, forgive, and restore hearts and lives that are broken and bruised under the effects of sin?

What a privilege it is to be engaged in such precious, healing work in Jesus’ name and stead! Indeed, like Paul before us, such a miracle of love in action should give us pause: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach . . . the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8).

This amazing, ceaseless, reckless love of the Great Shepherd is the secret to vitality in ministry. The work we do in his service to his people is a ministry of love—both his love for us and our love for him. This love of Christ and for Christ impels us day after day, taking up our tasks one after another, in full knowledge that our work no matter how tiring and repetitive is really his own. We have nothing to give to others that we ourselves have not first received. His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation are inexhaustible.

But, like the sheepdog, we cannot possibly carry on steadily in such exhausting and depleting work without spending a great deal of time sitting perfectly still, looking at the Shepherd. This is how we find rest for our own souls. . . . you’ll never develop a pastoral habitus just by practice. This genuinely pastoral character and grace is something you grow into not merely by long habituation, but through your own connection with the Lord Jesus by his word through meditation and prayer. Your time sitting perfectly still, looking at the Shepherd is not time wasted but time well invested—not just for your own sake, but for the sake of his sheep and lambs.

By word and by prayer, God habituates and forms you into a true servant of Christ and steward of God’s mysteries to bring his gifts to humanity.


This post is adapted from The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart by Harold L. Senkbeil.

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Logos Staff

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Written by Logos Staff