Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in[ the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Matthew 28:19-20 ESV
It was a balmy morning four years ago when portions of this week’s post were delivered to the graduating class of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary – Charlotte.
But as I reviewed its words earlier this humid week as thousands of students nationwide travel excitedly through their own commencement exercises, out of the classroom and into the world, a fresh insight struck me.
It’s not just for seminary anymore.
In fact, if you count yourself a follower of Christ at any level – or even no level – of formal education, the reality is that the principles in the words you’re about to read apply to you in your society or culture.
So while His Own Heart Ministries isn’t calling you to pull out pen and paper and begin your doctoral thesis, the blog is sharing this post as a means of challenging you to think of some ways to exercise some practical applications from it into your own Christian ministry – whatever size or shape that ministry may take.
Of Shepherds, Tents and Authenticity
The topic that I’d like to share with you this morning took a series of unexpected twists and turns that left me pondering the identity of leader as shepherd. It started with a definition coined a number of years ago by Dr. Billy Graham. Dr. Graham envisioned Evangelicalism as a large tent pitched for the purpose of individuals dwelling therein for a time as they encountered the Gospel of Jesus Christ in an up-close-and-personal manner in order to then go forth equipped to carry those experiences into a world in need of its own face-to-face encounter with that same Gospel.
Over time and perhaps as a result of Dr. Graham’s affiliation as a founder of GCTS-Charlotte, this tent imagery has been applied to our campus. The idea indeed draws an inspiring word-picture that left me to consider my past experiences here and my future goals for ministry. Specifically, I wondered how I might wrap into one thematic package both the token moments I’ve encountered as a student dwelling inside the GCTS tent and the resulting experiences I will carry with me as I step tenuously into the instructional field of Christian education.
When I found this charcoal drawing of “The Good Shepherd” – unframed and hidden among a sea of other discarded art at a charity fundraiser – I came face-to-face with the perfect packaging to fit the theme.
First, the drawing captured the beauty, essence and efficiency of instruction, ministry and leadership skills that I have learned from and been nourished by over the past four years. It then sparked the idea that a ministry built upon shepherd imagery is quite possibly the most valuable and all-inclusive benefit that a follower of Christ can take on his or her journey into – or through – the world.
Admittedly, Scripture paints many pictures concerning ministerial leadership, but at the end of the day the scriptural image of shepherd is arguably its best-known metaphor, appearing more than 115 times over the course of Scripture and serving as the focus of some of its most familiar passages.
With my packaging in tow, I then developed an acrostic – the literary device in which each letter of a thematic word represents some element of the theme itself – to organize the contents that actually go into it. Using the theme of “SHEPHERD,” I divided these contents among the shepherd-related areas of sacrifice, honor, empowerment, pro-action, humility, example, restoration and discipline that I have seen in authentic action amid administration, faculty, staff and the GCTS-Charlotte experience as a whole:
Sacrifice: Authentic shepherds lead sacrificially, rising early in the morning to check on their fields, their flocks, their students. John 10:11notes that “the Good Shepherd sacrifices His life for the sheep.” GCTS shepherds manage with tireless precision to sacrifice time, energy, and – I imagine – sleep in order to fully support the people God has entrusted to their care.
Honor: Authentic shepherds take their callings personally, bustling about daily tasks with a sense of honor and dignity while providing for and guiding the flock. A living, breathing application of 1 Peter 5:2 fills our halls as GCTS shepherds “watch over [us], not because [they] must, but because [they] are willing…[and] eager to serve.”
Empowerment: Authentic shepherds motivate their flocks with constant nudging toward fresh pastures even when the flocks resist or grow tired. After Peter’s disastrous denial, Jesus engages and empowers the despondent disciple in John 21with the career-altering commission to feed and care for the Master’s sheep. Similarly, empowerment occurs as GCTS shepherds reach out to engage academically struggling students with Christ-like acceptance and belief in their potential for learning.
Pro-action: Authentic shepherds know by name each individual member of their flocks, which enhances the ability to guide and serve those entrusted to their care as illustrated in the Parable of the Lost Sheep (see Luke 15). Our shepherds likewise serve their flocks masterfully by affirming each student as a unique being created in God’s own image and for His glory.
Humility: Authentic shepherds lead their flocks with assertive humility. Numbers 13 describes Moses as a vastly humble shepherd, but Scripture also reveals that he led Israel from Egypt to Canaan with Godly assertion. I firmly believe that GCTS is blessed with its rank among the top seminaries in this country because its traditional, hybrid and online programs are organized and instructed by shepherds who serve with that same assertive humility. By watching them direct and nurture from their vast experiences and with the student body’s best interest ahead of their own, I am reminded of the wisdom in Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as [they] will…give an account.”
Example: Authentic shepherds, in keeping with 1 Peter 5:3, serve their flocks by example. This truth is lived out by our shepherds through their clear demonstration that serving as example involves the pursuit of holiness and integrity in every aspect of life: our walk, our talk, our dress, our attitudes toward Christ, toward each other and toward those He places in authority over us.
Restoration: Authentic shepherds bring restoration to flocks as needed. Many passages of Scripture that paint Christ as Shepherd, in fact, are connected to the idea of restoration. Isaiah 40:11 comes to mind when I think of shepherds in the GCTS fold: “He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart.” I’ve often arrived to campus wearied in the most literal sense, weathered from personal or cultural expectations of myself on a given day or week or month, but I’ve never left campus on those occasions without feeling rejuvenated and restored by the affirmation, encouragement and genuine fellowship that God provides through administration, faculty, staff and classmates.
Discipline: Authentic shepherds exercise self-discipline by constantly investigating land that will better serve the needs of his sheep; this discipline guarantees the sheep the greenest of grass and purest of water for nourishment as depicted in Psalm 23. GCTS shepherd likewise never stop learning. They incorporate academic and spiritually formative discipline in order to guide us steadily into the fertile soil of ministry. It is now our turn as shepherds to develop some unlikely habits.
In the words of Christian teacher Beth Moore, I pray that as we journey forward into ministry we will never gain such confidence that we neglect the need to “study, study, study!” Stay current with aspects of theology, but measure each against the lessons that church history has taught us. Search diligently to discover the threads that connect each book, chapter, verse to the beautifully overarching Story that winds its way from Genesis 1to Revelation 22. Retain familiarity with its associated geography by using maps as a study tool. And by all means, maintain the skills required for biblical interpretation. Only when we as shepherds continue to grow spiritually and academically will our flocks receive sound nourishment.
I would like to leave you today with two applications drawn from John 10:2-3by Anne Graham Lotz, Christian writer and daughter of Dr. Billy Graham. The first is this: “You and I, as God’s sheep, can determine the authenticity of our shepherds by their approach to us.” The second expands on the first: “The criterion for the authentic shepherd is that he or she always approaches us through the door of God’s Word.” We, the shepherds of the flock of Jesus Christ, have been extremely blessed by this education and guidance from shepherds who joyously approach their calling and their students with this very level of authenticity. Moving forward now, how can we afford to strive toward any lesser goal?
– Copyright 2019, Carole Anne Hallyburton. All rights reserved.