Pastors, shepherds, and other kinds of leaders

Updated: Jul 4, 2018


I recently read a book entitled ‘The Vatican Pimpernel’ by Brian Fleming (The Collins Press, 2008) — the story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who served in the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office in the Vatican from 1938 to 1960. During World War II and the German occupation of Rome, O’Flaherty ran an escape organization that sheltered Allied POWs, Italian anti-fascists, and Jews.


At the time of the liberation of Rome the organization was supporting 3,925 escapees. In addition to this number were the many hundreds of Allied POWs whom the organization had helped to escape back to Allied lines or to neutral countries. Moreover, during the course of the German occupation there were approximately 5000 Jewish people hidden on papal property, either in the Vatican or in extraterritorial convents and religious houses.

The Monsignor’s wartime exploits were immortalized in the 1983 film, ‘The Scarlet and the Black’, starring Gregory Peck as O’Flaherty. When the Gestapo chief, Herbert Kappler, warned the Monsignor not to venture beyond the boundaries of the Vatican lest he be arrested, O’Flaherty continued his clandestine activities disguised as a street cleaner, a labourer, and a postman, and on certain occasions as a nun, thus earning him the nickname, ‘The pimpernel of the Vatican’.


In the ensuing years the Monsignor assisted in the task of rebuilding lives that had been ravaged by the horrors of war – one of which, ironically, was Herbert Kappler. The ex-Gestapo chief had been arrested and tried for war crimes, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was being held at Gaeta, halfway between Rome and Naples. During his years of incarceration, Kappler only had one visitor – the Irish Monsignor, who visited him once a month and corresponded with him regularly. Some years later the Monsignor baptized Kappler into the Catholic faith.


After the Monsignor’s death in October, 1963, an obituary notice appeared in the Mungret College Journal written by his friend, the Jesuit Father Francis Joy:


“Hugh O’Flaherty was above all a generous honest-to-God Irishman without guile. His big heart was open to any and every distress and he was lavish in his efforts to assuage suffering in any form, a facet of his character which made him an easy target for any hard luck story. His expenditure on charity must have been immense and his motto always was ‘cast your bread upon the waters’ …”


Sam Derry, the British Major who worked alongside the Monsignor in Rome and managed the administrative structure of the operation, paid this tribute to his clerical colleague:


“Various things I shall always remember him for, his courage, his faith in God and people, his kindness, his devotion and his indifference to personal comfort as far as he himself was concerned. Once he had made up his mind what was right, the determination to do all in his power despite all obstacles to see the matter through to the end, driving himself both physically and mentally beyond the normal limits...”


When I read about people like Hugh O’Flaherty, it reminds me of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. Moreover, it illustrates the nature of a true pastor who nurtures and protects his flock. I could well imagine Jesus engaging in the same kind of activities as O’Flaherty, if he was in a similar position.


On the other hand, I have met a number of pastors over the years who reminded me of used car salesmen; I have also had dealings with some who reminded me of politicians; and still others who bore a distinct resemblance to network marketers.


The problem seems to be that the word pastor has become a professional title denoting a formal career replete with training, education and qualifications; in other words, a job. In the Scriptures, the work of a pastor is not depicted as a career, but as a life-long calling. Hence, the very phrase, ‘retired pastor’ is an oxymoron; how can one ever retire from something that is a life-long calling, the very reason for one’s existence, part of one’s DNA? One might just as well be called a retired mother or a retired father. No matter how old one gets, one never stops being a mother or a father, because it’s not just what you do; it’s who you are.


In the Scriptures the term ‘pastor’ is indicative of a person’s nature, and consequently, their behaviour. A person is called a ‘pastor’ because, by nature and behaviour, they are pastoral. Like Christ, they care deeply, love freely, and serve selflessly. By definition, it has nothing to do with being a great preacher, a clever administrator, or an exuberant motivator. Rather, it has everything to do with being a passionate lover – of God, of life, and of people.

Let us briefly consider four functions of a pastor or shepherd – functions that are natural, spontaneous and unrehearsed on the part of one who truly loves God’s people:


1. A pastor leads

Jesus said that a true shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out (John 10:3-4). In other words, he establishes a relationship of love and trust with the people in his care, and in the strength of that relationship he leads them into the purposes of God. Furthermore, when the shepherd brings the sheep out he goes before them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice – they follow him voluntarily because they know what kind of person he is.


The secret of effective leadership is dynamic personal example. “Watch me and do as I do” (Judges 7:17). For this reason, Paul exhorted Timothy to be an example to the believers in every aspect of life (1 Tim. 4:12). Likewise, a pastor can only lead people in paths that he has personally trodden, both in principle and in practice (Matt. 28:20; 1 Cor. 11:23).


2. A pastor feeds

A true shepherd feeds his flock with spiritual knowledge and understanding (Jer. 3:15). The Hebrew word sachal, translated ‘understanding’, denotes wise behaviour, and refers to the skills that enable one to lead a successful and prosperous life. Similarly, the Hebrew word ra’ah, translated ‘feed’, denotes wholesome nourishment that stimulates spiritual growth and general wellbeing.


A true shepherd also gathers the lambs with his arm, carries them in his bosom, and gently leads those who are with young (Isa. 40:11). In other words, he devotes particular attention to those who are young in the faith, and those who have special needs and responsibilities. He bears with the scruples of the weak, and so fulfils the law of Christ which is love (Rom. 15:1; Gal. 6:1-2).


3. A pastor builds

Through his all-round ministry of feeding, leading and guarding, a pastor builds the house of the Lord (a functioning community of believers) and thereby performs God’s pleasure (Isa. 44:28). What does it take to build a house? Basically, three ingredients, as demonstrated by one of the great leaders of the Old Testament, Nehemiah: An overall plan or blueprint that can be divided into incremental steps and achievable goals; the right materials and the proper tools; and a team of labourers that are working in harmony to fulfil a common purpose.


4. A pastor guards

A true shepherd not only gathers the sheep, but also diligently guards them (Jer. 23:3-4; 31:10). Guarding the sheep begins with personal accountability on the part of the shepherd. Paul charged the elders at Ephesus: “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28). Moreover, he admonished Timothy to save both himself and those who were listening to his preaching (1 Tim. 4:6).


Zechariah lamented, “The people wend their way like sheep, they are in trouble because there is no shepherd” (Zech. 10:2). People are vulnerable when there is no shepherd to lead them, or when those who are ostensibly shepherding them abdicate their God-given responsibilities. Isolation and independence lead to deception. This is the trap that Eve fell into in the Garden of Eden. God spoke to ‘them’, God blessed ‘them’, and God gave ‘them’ dominion over the earth, but Satan was somehow able to separate the woman from the man and seduce her (Gen. 1:26-28; 3:1). The Scripture is right when it declares, “Two are better than one … woe to him who is alone when he falls” (Eccles. 4:9-12). For this reason, God sets the solitary in families (Psalm 68:6) and appoints spiritual leaders in local churches (Titus 1:5).


“Like liquid love”

In the early 1980’s I attended a ministers’ conference in the historic gold-rush town of Ballarat. The guest speaker, a well-known leader in our movement, said that he wanted to pray for the young ministers in the audience. As he laid his hands on me, he said some words that I remember as clearly today as when they were first spoken thirty years ago.


“The Lord is going to use you …. You will see the wonder of God’s creative ability as you minister to the needs of the people … The Lord is going to give you such compassion… At times it will feel like liquid love inside you.”


To this day the words keep reverberating in my consciousness: “As you minister to the needs of the people … it will feel like liquid love inside you.” It seems to me that the older I get, the more pastoral I become. I find myself wanting to help people at their point of need. For me, addressing the deepest issues of life has become a matter of urgency. Or, as Paul put it, to speak the truth in love and thereby help people attain maturity in each and every aspect of life (Eph. 4:15).


I find myself more concerned with why people do things, than with what they do. I want to help them heal the source, regardless of what that may be: self-rejection, fear, guilt or negative conditioning. I want to be like Elisha, who looked beyond the brackishness of the water and the barrenness of the ground and went to the root of the problem, releasing God’s healing power and effecting lasting change (2 Kings 2:19-22).


In conclusion, I could do no better than to quote Monsignor O’Flaherty himself:

“Why am I helping you now? … When this war started I used to listen to broadcasts from both sides. All propaganda, of course, and both making the same terrible charges against the other. I frankly didn’t know which side to believe – until they started rounding up the Jews in Rome. They treated them like beasts, making old men and respectable women get down on their knees and scrub the roads. You know the sort of thing that happened after that; it got worse and worse, and I knew then which side to believe.”


May God raise up pastors and shepherds like this, men and women after His own heart, who live and love with passion!

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