In a recent Saturday retreat with an elder group, some familiar questions were raised: “What does it mean to shepherd the church?” “How is it supposed to look?” These are good questions that congregational leaders often raise. Elders want to be good shepherds, but they often acknowledge a lack clear definitive practices that would actually shape their understanding.
So let me offer five dimensions of shepherding work. The five factors are adapted and expanded from the work of Charles Jaeckle and William Clebsch who published a historical review of the practice of pastoral care in the church some years ago. 
- Healing. To shepherd means to partner with God in making whole what is broken. The human condition is full of brokenness—bodies that fail to work properly, accidents that occur, sin’s devastating consequences, and more, are always present. So the shepherd connects, listens, and prays with and for others. Shepherds are persons of prayer; indeed, James says to “call for the elders of the church” to pray and to anoint with oil (James 5:14-16).
- Sustaining. To shepherd means to walk alongside persons and communities in their brokenness. Shepherds provide both presence and resources to attend to a believer’s true relationship to God along the way. Sometimes, in moments of crisis, sustaining may simply be preservation—“How do we get through this night in an emergency room?” At other times, it may be consolation—sharing in the grief of loss. Shepherds also find moments of consolidation—helping persons or groups find a path forward in the wake of some past experience. The challenge for many of us is that sustaining work requires the discipline of first listening well and resisting the temptation to think that we can quickly fix things for others. Rather, the effective shepherd understands that the most important gift that the shepherd offers is simply to be present.
- Guiding. To be a shepherd is also to be a guide. Good shepherds are sources of wisdom and counsel to others. Through patient active listening, good character, and spiritual sensitivity, shepherds aid others in making good choices. One important reality to remember is that the best shepherds do not set out to be guides; rather, the best shepherds are first and foremost persons who set out to be good disciples of Jesus. Church members and seekers alike will intrinsically be drawn to persons who have listening ears and wisdom to offer.
- Forming. Shepherds make sure that the flock is well fed. The shepherd will attend to the diet and nutrition of the community. That means that effective teaching and models of effective Christian life are marks of a good shepherd.
- Reconciling. Shepherds seek redemption and life in community. When a person is disconnected from God or when groups of people are disconnected from each other, shepherds partner with God to bring mediation, new life, and forgiveness.
So much more could be said about these five practices. No person can do all of these things fully or well. Perhaps this is why the witness of Scripture always points to a team of shepherds. Even so, those who are called to be shepherds have good and meaningful work to be done. That work requires us to attend to our own life and walk before God even as we continue to develop the skills necessary to provide care for our congregations.
Of course, congregations need other aspects of leadership as well. But if shepherding is not being embodied by church leaders, the oversight and leadership that is also needed is often made void without the faithful presence of persons who love and care for God’s people.
Blessings to you as you grow in the practices of shepherd work!