In The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (2010), Witmer provides biblical and practical teaching for prioritizing and accomplishing genuine spiritual care within our churches. The simple thesis of the book is “The fundamental responsibility of church leaders is to shepherd God’s flock” (p. 2). With that in mind, he questions what our current leaders, especially so-called elders, are doing, and how they should be caring for the members of their church. The truth is often that elders are mere board members, and are not sharing the pastor’s burden of caring for and teaching “God’s flock.”

One of the strengths of the book is establishing the biblical definitions of the few roles in the flattened hierarchy of Christianity, including identifying synonymous terms for elder such as bishop or presbyter. While many denominations, starting with the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) have created an extended hierarchy starting with the Bishop on up to the Pope, Witmer argues that none of that is scriptural. He argues between three positions of near equal authority in the church, but perhaps in a slight hierarchical functional relationship – the pastor (ruling elder or bishop), the overseers (teaching and mentoring elders), and the deacons. All of these have their main responsibility of caring for their members in different ways. Summarizing Calvin in the French Confession of Faith (c. 1559), Witmer writes:

Pastors were responsible to see that “true doctrine may have its course,” overseers were to assure that “errors may be corrected and suppressed,” and the deacons were to help the poor and needy.

Witmer does a good job reviewing the doctrines and practice around shepherding and defining the role of elders and other church offices, and argues well both biblically and practically that sacramentalism and the tendency to hierarchy diminishes the ability and responsibility of church leaders to focus on shepherding the flock. His identification and explanation of the major functions of shepherding, i.e. knowing, feeding, leading, and protecting the flock are helpful as we distill these ideas into praxis. But before the author moves to suggest methods and even administrative worksheets for performing and managing care by the elders, he makes a necessary detour into the necessary character of an elder – primarily, one of actual care and concern for others as reflected in, among other things, ongoing private prayer. While we often choose apparently successful and stable businessmen from our faithful membership, this superficial proxy may not reveal a heart for prayer and God’s flock.

At the point where Witmer moves into recommended practices, the book begins to feel very dated, for a few reasons. First, it provides sample forms for the tracking and administration of your member’s list and their care. Paper forms seem quaint and from the previous millennium in light of the modern easy access to spreadsheets and software designed to be used by even small churches. While the data points we need to track are worth discussing, a paper system seems primitive.

Second, there is very little mention of discipling. Shepherding seems based on a more paternal system rather than one that raises others into maturity through increasing interaction with and devotion to God. Perhaps there is a reality that not everyone will rise to the level of becoming a discipler / elder, and we ought to determine what the terminal state of many of our members might be if not in a position of caring for others. Certainly, we must consider the various stages of life that people are in, especially the elderly, but moving beyond care to creating disciples who create disciples seems underexplored.

Third, the emphasis on using the membership roll as your central tool at first seemed like something left over from old-school denominationalism. Upon reflection, however, I believe that this may be the only practical approach. However, I would have liked Witmer to preface his lengthy discussion of the membership rolls with an understanding of how, in the old-school denominational structures, these often degenerated to inflated lists used for maintaining denominational funding or as a measure of success (along with monetary giving). His point is well taken that good shepherding is systematic. I appreciated his recommendations for classifying members to determine how to help them (healthy, weak, stray, lost, and inactive sheep), and the suggested funnel (another modern concept conspicuous in its absence) for getting members from where they are to the next step closer to God.

Lastly, his discussion of church discipline and the 1970’s shepherding movement, which I was abused by and suffer the impact of to this day, brings up the real need for carefully but genuinely discussing members’ recognition of the authority they are agreeing to submit to as they enter into care by the shepherds of the church. This is where training really matters – teaching potential elders the limits to their authority, the goal of its use (e.g. restoration not censure, or serving members in their call rather than calling them to serve our organization), and the mutuality and friendship of discipleship are critical, but hard to do well and so often not implemented at all.

The Shepherd Leader reinforced many viewpoints that had been percolating in my mind for decades. Elders ought to be visible leaders whose primary responsibility is teaching and caring for others seems more obvious. It reinforced my conviction that too much hierarchy and concentrated power in a single leader is less effective than a more Presbyterian, flattened approach to eldership working with a ruling elder or pastor. The author argued against term eldership and for a more perpetual role, which made sense to me, as long as we understand that those who care for God’s people may need periods without responsibilities for personal growth or family matters.

The practical steps I plan to take in response to Witmer’s prodding include:

  1. Becoming a person of prayer, spending time praying for specific people by name, and entering into friendship/mentorship with them
  2. Finding some training for effective shepherding/discipling
  3. Securing a personal mentor in the current church leadership
  4. Designing a consciously applied funnel for getting people to become strong believers
  5. Prioritizing a discipleship culture including principles of healthy shepherding and especially the use of authority

Witmer’s book provides a good survey of the history of church leadership, the biblical purposes and functions of New Testament leadership and its primary role to shepherd the flock, and some strong practical steps to take as a church leader. It would stand with some modernization, not least of which is in a need to compare and contrast shepherding and discipling.