I have friends from New Zealand. They don’t understand our Westerns: the movies that are built around the Old West mean nothing to them. New Zealand doesn’t have cowboys; they have shepherds. And shepherds have as much in common with cowboys as sheep have with cattle: not much.
Nowadays, neither sheep nor cattle have much say in the matter: they’re both mechanically guided through the process of feeding, caring, milking or shearing: it’s all automated.
Back in the day when human beings were the shepherds or the cowboys, not robotic fences, and milking machines, in that day, you learned a lot from watching how the two related to their animals.
A shepherd, in the pre-automation world, knows his sheep, and his sheep know him. I’ve heard stories about how in early agrarian societies, when the shepherds would come to town, they’d put all the sheep in the same pen. When it came time to leave, the shepherd would come to the pen and call his sheep; they’d recognize his voice and distinguish it from the other shepherds’ voices, and follow the shepherd out of the mass of other shepherds’ sheep to follow him.
More than that, when the shepherd had called his sheep to himself, the shepherd directed his sheep by leading them, not driving them. He would go before them, and they would follow. It might be too much anthropomorphism to say that they followed out of love, but certainly they had enough experience with him to trust that when they’re with the shepherd, they’re safer and better fed than when they’re not with him.
When it comes time to bed down for the night, the sheep all lay down together, and the shepherd lays down among the sheep, in the midst of them. They keep him warm; if he has wounds, the lanolin in the sheep’s wool worked to protect and heal him. And there’s no question of knowing about what happens during the night, or about discerning when an enemy shows up to stalk the sheep: the shepherd is already there among the flock, and his presence there comforts his sheep and deters the enemies. It’s almost like he’s one of the sheep himself.
The cowboy accomplishes similar function – moving a group of animals from one place to another – but by an entirely different method. Think of the what we see in the cattle drive. There are a thousand misconceptions, but ultimately, the cowboy gets behind the cattle and drives them. He may crack the whip, or shout at them, or whatever, but the cowboy is behind the cattle, driving them away from himself, toward the goal. It’s helpful for the cowboy to know something of the ways that cows work, and he should have some understanding of the trail ahead, but ultimately it’s still a process of “Get behind and push.”
When they settle down for the night, the cowboys gather together by the chuck wagon, tell stories by the fire, and generally make their own community, apart from the animals they are caring for. They’re over here by the fire; the cattle are over there. If something happens during the night, they find out about it in the morning. If there’s enough trouble, they’ll get up, go to the herd, deal with the problem or the interloper, then return to their place by the fire.
American corporate business leadership is very often built on the metaphor of the cowboy. The corporate leader sits in his corner office and directs his managers who cause the people to do the work at hand. He studies his spreadsheet and trend reports, and issues orders to the cattle that do the actual work. When night comes, the managers gather in one place, and the blue-collar workers return home to another neighborhood. When was the last time that you saw the company owner having lunch with the junior mechanic? If it ever does happen, it’s either time for the mechanic’s review, or it’s such an uncommon occurrence that everyone talks about it.
There are a thousand allegorical issues we could look at, but ultimately a cowboy drives his herd and a shepherd leads his flock. A cowboy gets behind and pushes the animals; a shepherd is in front calling for his animals to follow him.
God likes shepherds. The agrarian society had both cattle and sheep; God could have drawn His analogy from either. But He didn’t. He portrays Himself as shepherd. (I can hear it now: “The Lord is my cowboy, I shall not be bored.”) He portrays the leaders of His people as shepherds, and calls His apostles to the shepherd model. It was to shepherds that He announced the birth of His Son. In fact, in the scriptures, the concept of shepherds is used more as a metaphor than it is literally. There isn’t even a word for cowboy in the Bible.
As leaders in the church, we are called to be shepherds. Using that metaphor, we are called to go ahead of the sheep, to know the sheep by name and to call them to ourselves, to devote live in their midst – not separated from them over by the campfire and cook trailer. We are called to draw our warmth from the sheep in the night, and discomfit ourselves for their wellbeing.
OK. That’s the theory. Now how are we doing as leaders of the Lord’s flock? Are we shepherds, or are we cowboys?
When I look at the church in America, I see an awful lot of corporate managers. I see senior cowboys who direct the associate cowboys who do the work of organizing the cattle into their stalls. They declare their vision, and drive the cattle to reach that goal. Then they gather in their staff meetings and cluster around the chuck wagon until the next service. When was the last time that you actually saw the senior pastor being warmed and comforted by the young sheep?
I’m becoming aware of a movement among the church in my nation that is resisting the cowboy mentality, and I see several expressions of it. I see a blossoming house-church movement. I am learning of a revolution growing, as if it were sheep rebelling against cowboys.
I am hearing of believers by the hundreds beginning to question “the way we’ve always done it” and looking for new and more meaningful ways to connect themselves to God. It almost looks as if the sheep were beginning to reject the cowboy leadership of God’s church and, if they can’t find a shepherd who knows their name, then they’ll shepherd themselves, thank you very much.
I hear cowboys bemoaning the sheep that leave them to seek a shepherd. Having been a pastor, and being a cowboy by nature, I feel for them, the frustration, the confusion. But I wonder if it’s really a problem?
Maybe the problem is that we have shepherds living as cowboys, that we have lost track of the gospel of the Kingdom. We have men and women who should be shepherds picking up their spurs and saddles and whips, becoming cowboys, and the church is dying. How then shall we speak life into this revolution? How shall we change the model within our sphere of influence?
I propose that we start by living as shepherds ourselves. We lead by example. We give ourselves for the sheep that know our voice. We live among the sheep, in relationship with them, comforting them, protecting them, and training them that good shepherds lead by example.