There are elders (individuals) and then there are elderships (collective). Shepherd is a singular noun (who people are called to be personally) … Shepherds is the plural form (who groups are called to be together).

Most elders I know are stuck in the tension between.

It is a source of constant fascination to me that so much of the most important work of a shepherd is done on his own: comforting, counseling, mentoring, teaching, investing in the lives of others, praying, seeking God’s will. And yet there is a necessary plural component to the work of a shepherd. Shepherds run in packs! And some of their work must be done together, as a group: overseeing, visioning, decisions affecting the church as a whole, disciplinary actions, etc.

There are two distinct skill sets that make up the singular and plural work of shepherds. They are related to each other. And, in some sense, they are dependent on each other. But they are not the same.

Notice that the traits that qualify someone as a shepherd are primarily personal qualities: character, compassion, conviction … The things that qualify someone to shepherd, however, don’t necessarily ensure they have the skills to shepherd. Many shepherds lack the kind of interpersonal, relational skills that contribute to effective shepherding: knowing how to mentor others, for example; having the skills to grow people into Christ’s image; being competent to recognize and encourage spiritual gifts. These kinds of personal, spiritual competencies are necessary to be an effective shepherd (singular).

Consider the fact, however, that functioning as a group requires a different skill set: focus, efficiency, big-picture-perspectives, decision-making, follow-up, accountability, conflict-management, group-discernment, and deference to the greater wisdom of the group (to name but a few). These kinds of group competencies are necessary to being effective together.

When shepherds do not function well in concert (I don’t mean conflict or pathology, but the kind of system dysfunction—lack of system discipline, inability to reach consensus, etc.—that often plague elderships), the functioning of individual shepherds is almost always impacted. We stop doing the work of a shepherd when we get frustrated about the way we as shepherds don’t work.

The converse is also true. When shepherds do not function well singly (getting on with their personal pastoral work), that impacts the manner in which they function together. They start focusing on peripheral matters … lose a sense of urgency about their flock … are inordinately influenced by a minority of vocal members … fail to manage conflict … start thinking the meetings are the work, etc. We can’t do the work of shepherds when frustrated about the way we (personally) are failing to shepherd.

Fortunately, both sets of skills can be developed. Shepherds can learn to function more effectively. But there are a few requirements:

  1. A recognition of the need for development and learning
  2. A commitment to develop both individual and group shepherding skills
  3. A willingness to distinguish between the two
  4. A conviction that God has called you to be a shepherd and that you must get on with that work however dysfunctional the group as a whole may be (you can and must learn to shepherd even if you don’t have all the answers about how to function effectively as a shepherding group)
  5. A conviction that God has brought you together as a group and that you must develop the skills to function collectively even if you are frustrated about your lack of skills for effective shepherding personally
  6. An openness to asking for help—someone from outside the system who can step in to address shepherding competencies (think of Einstein’s great quote: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”)
  7. A deep awareness that all of this is an act of God’s grace … that spiritual equipping  comes from God’s Spirit and is the result of his wisdom and power … and that our highest priority in this matter is being on our knees and opening our hearts.