Shepherding and heavy shepherding

Occasionally you hear rumours about a certain type of church. Perhaps you hear that they sit down with the church members and go through their accounts and payslips before telling the members how to tithe, or you hear about the two old ladies who go on a holiday together only to be met with a visit from the elders and a rebuke when they get back.  I’ve listened to the recording of a talk where the minister told the congregation that he knew how much each of them gave because he had seen the report from the treasurer. I also had a teacher when I was at school who had been a missionary but then his church told him that he could no longer serve with that particular mission organisation.

We tend to refer to such situations as heavy shepherding.  The leaders of the church become involved in the minute details of peoples lives at a highly controlling level often around the areas of money, serving and relationships.  There has been an aspect of this in some of the recent abuse scandals with pastors accused of bullying their churches and in some cases it seems that church members have lost capacity to make decisions for themselves consistently needing help, permission and even direction from their leaders about everyday decisions. It all sounds a bit cult like.

At the same time, I’m also hearing concern expressed in some circles that good elders and pastors have been falsely accused simply for trying to lead.  They’ve sought to give clear pastoral direction from God’s Word to the church, or they’ve sadly had to call the church together about discipline concerning a situation where there’s been public, persistent, and scandalous sin.  Sometimes, the complainants have objected to proposals and when the decision hasn’t gone their way they’ve accused a pastor of railroading things through, always getting their own way and not listening to them.

The issue is this. Whilst there can be such a thing as “heavy shepherding” which is clearly dangerous, abusive and wrong, there is still a need for shepherding. Pastors/Elders are set apart as under-shepherds of the church and given authority. Meanwhile, church members are told in Scripture to submit to their leaders and to make their work a joyful thing (1 Peter 5:5).

So, how do we keep a balance between heavy shepherding and anarchy? Well, first of all it helps to make sure we understand the nature and purpose of the elders’ authority. Elders are told not to lord it over their congregations (1 Peter 5:3). There’s no place for power games and indeed if you are seeking your own pleasure and satisfaction out of your relationship with the flock then chances are that you aren’t just heavy shepherding but starting to devour in a manner that suggests wolf like qualities.

The authority you have as an elder lies in your ability to teach and only in that.  In 1 Timothy 3 when talking about the qualifications of an elder, this is the only gift identified, the rest of the passage focuses on character and home life.  An elder leads by teaching the church and by setting an example in their own life. An elder leads and exercises authority in order to love the church. 

So just as I’ve mentioned before how the implications of Ephesians 5:21 following is that a wife submits to her husband by letting him love her, I would suggest that church members submit to their elders by letting them love and teach them. Indeed, we might say that the leaders love the church by teaching them.

We will avoid heavy shepherding by using the specific gift God has given us to lead and exercise Biblical authority. This means that we cannot use our charisma and force of personality to get people to do things.  Rather we are required to patiently and faithfully teach God’s Word, in the congregation, in small groups and one to one. We are to set an example by how we live of submission to God’s Word and we are to encourage people to join us in that.  The aim then is that people will be able to make decisions for themselves that align with God’s Word.

This also means that in many respects the Christian life becomes a little bit more challenging and discipleship a bit harder. Heavy shepherding is easy. If you come to me and say “how much should I tithe” then it’s easy for me to say “How much do you earn?  Okay you need to give 10% of that.”   It’s also easier to say “It doesn’t matter, it’s completely up to you whether you give anything at all.” 

Yet, if I truly love the church family then I won’t do either of those things. Instead I’ll sit down with the person and we’ll look together at what God’s Word says about stewardship and giving. We’ll discover the principles there. We may talk a bit about their own circumstances and how that affects decisions, but my concern will be to see them reach a place where God’s Holy Spirit through God’s Word has convicted their heart about what they should do.

So, Heavy Shepherding tends to:

  • Rely on the leader’s force of personality/charisma
  • Be legalistic with prescriptive instructions
  • Look at the externals
  • Seek primarily the benefit of the church leaders


  • Relies on the work of God’s Holy Spirit through God’s word
  • Is about grace
  • Looks at the heart response
  • Seeks the joy and well being of the church family and God’s glory
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