Sheep, Shepherds, and Sheepherders

“Sheep, Shepherds, and Sheepherders,” New Era, June 1977, 20

Special Issue:

Sheep, Shepherds, and Sheepherders

Surprise! This article is not about our woolly friends that provide us with warm clothing and delicious lamb chops. Nor is it about those rugged individualists who brave the winter elements and steep mountain trails to care for them. It is, however, about another kind of sheep, and it is about you. That’s right—you! For whether you know it or not, you are either a shepherd or a sheepherder. Want to know why, and what the difference is?

A few years ago, Elder Thomas S. Monson contrasted two experiences:

“One thing I remember best about Provo Canyon is the experience encountered when driving around a bend near Vivian Park—to meet on the road a large herd of sheep. Have you ever seen a sheepherder in one of our western mountain canyons directing the sheep? He is usually at the rear of the flock, slouched down on his horse, sound asleep. And doing the work are half a dozen small dogs yapping and barking at the heels of the sheep. He is a sheepherder.

“A few months ago in Munich, Germany, I saw a true shepherd. There he was with staff in hand, singing, walking in front of his flock; and the flock followed behind him. When he turned to the left, the sheep turned to the left; when he went to the right, they went to the right. There were no dogs barking at the heels of his sheep. They indeed knew their shepherd and were following the pathway he took.” (Pathways to Perfection, p. 93.)

Now, what was the difference between the shepherd and the sheepherder? It was leadership! And how does that difference apply, and why is it so important to you? Because you, my friend, are a leader!

It is virtually impossible to belong to the Church and not be a leader. You may be a good leader, an average leader, or a poor leader, but you cannot easily escape that choice responsibility. Whether in priesthood quorums or programs, auxiliary organizations, family units, or social groups, you are given the opportunity to directly or indirectly lead others. The same thing often happens in school, at work, and among your friends. In fact, every human activity involving two or more people is in part a leadership activity. Every time you consciously or unconsciously influence another person or group of people to make a decision or take an action, you are being a leader. Your constant challenge, therefore, is to continually strive to become a more effective leader by learning the lessons of successful leadership. These are found in their most complete form in the scriptures and writings of the living prophets. The parables of the shepherd and the sheep are among the very best of them.

The Savior often referred to himself as a shepherd (see John 10:1–15) and taught leadership lessons using that example as in the parable of the lost sheep (see Matt. 18:12–14; Luke 15:4–7). Ancient prophets such as Isaiah (see Isa. 40:11), the apostle Peter (see 1 Pet. 2:25), and Nephi (see 1 Ne. 22:25) also likened the Master to a shepherd in teaching us about his leadership characteristics. Now, before you read any farther, go and get your scriptures and read these six references. They are very brief and will only take you five minutes to read. When you have done this, continue reading the article.

All right, are you finished? You probably noticed that the qualities of successful leadership are clearly identified in these references. Understanding and properly applying the lessons they teach can change you from being a stumbling sheepherder into a super shepherd, from being a poor or average leader into a great one. Remember that in each case the shepherd is the leader, and the sheep are the followers. Now, what are the lessons?

1. Love all of the sheep. Remember in the parable of the lost sheep that when it was found, the shepherd “rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.” (Matt. 18:13.) Successful leaders love all of their followers, not just those who follow the best. Someone once said, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” Successful leaders lead with a love so strong that their followers can actually feel it, and they spend extra time and effort sharing that love with followers who at first reject it. This is the very essence of charity, that Christlike attitude of acceptance that encircles all with a sweet security regardless of response. It is the prime prerequisite for successful leadership.

2. Number the sheep and measure their performance to determine who is lost. Nephi wrote that the Good Shepherd “gathereth his children from the four quarters of the earth; and he numbereth his sheep, and they know him.” (1 Ne. 22:25.) In leading the sheep, the shepherd must know how many sheep he has, what their needs are, and who especially needs help. In the October 1970 general conference, Elder Monson counseled, “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.” Counting the sheep is a prerequisite to feeding the sheep.

The story is told of a rancher who one Sunday found himself the only person in church. The minister came down from the pulpit and asked him whether or not he should go ahead with the service, and the man replied, “If I go out to feed my sheep, and only one comes, I still feed him!” The minister returned to his pulpit and preached a powerful sermon for over an hour, then came back down to the rancher and asked how he liked it. The man replied, “If I go out to feed my sheep, and only one comes, I sure don’t feed him the whole load!” A wise leader can profit from this counsel and provide the feed where it is needed.

3. Go out after the lost sheep and stay out until it is found. A successful shepherd or leader is willing to leave the comfort and security of the usual physical, social, or procedural patterns of life to actually “go after that which is lost, until he find it” (Luke 15:4), to bring a lost sheep back to the fold. It is not enough to simply hope and pray and plan and worry. These are necessary, but if a sheep is lost it will not find its way back to the fold unless someone actually goes out to help it. The thickets and canyons in which sheep and people are lost may be spiritual, physical, intellectual, or social. The successful shepherd finds out, goes out, stays out, and brings back the lost sheep.

4. Help bear the burdens of the sheep that is found. When a sheepherder finds a lost sheep, he sends it back to the flock with a swift kick and angry words, unmindful of why it was lost, what injuries it may have suffered as a result, and the difficulties it might have in rejoining the flock after being separated for a period of time. The shepherd treats the sheep very differently.

“And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders rejoicing.” (Luke 15:5.)

Remember Isaiah’s vision of the Shepherd Savior? “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” (Isa. 40:11.)

Successful leaders find out why followers have been lost, what problems they presently face, and then help the person make the difficult journey back from the shadows of separation to the brightness of belonging. They exemplify Dina Craik’s beautiful understanding of true friendship in leadership: “Oh the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor to measure words, but pouring them all right out just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.” (Quoted by Neal A. Maxwell in A More Excellent Way, Deseret Book Co., 1967, p. 51.)

5. Involve others in fellowshipping the sheep that is found. When a sheep or a person rejoins the flock after a period of separation, it is usually as difficult for it as it is for newcomers to establish relationships and gain friendships. Many things may have changed while it was lost—others may have joined the flock, new social patterns and activities may have been introduced, and the flock may have even moved to a new pasture. Instead of coming back to a familiar home, the returning sheep finds himself bewildered and insecure. Wise shepherds recognize this and always involve as many others as possible in the reentry process.

When the shepherd in the Savior’s parable returned home with the lost sheep, “he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.” (Luke 15:6.) And remember the parable of the prodigal son? When the son finally came to his senses and returned home, his leader-father immediately organized a welcome home party, complete with a feast, to which he probably invited his son’s former friends. (See Luke 15:22–25.) A successful leader even involves others when they may not be as effective as he is, knowing that “participation is more important than perfection.”

6. Get to know the sheep. The Savior said, “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep.” (John 10:14.) Sheepherders never learn to know their sheep on an individual basis, treating them all alike as if one were no different from another. Shepherds establish individual relationships with each of their sheep and lead the flock as a whole. Further, they strive to understand not only the outward person, with all of the signals of dress and grooming habits, speech patterns, and other ways in which people either try to tell or hide something about themselves, but also the inner person. This requires a spiritual friendship as well as an emotional and intellectual relationship. It goes beyond knowing to feeling, beyond mere surface knowledge to the kind of divine discernment the Lord urged Samuel to develop when the prophet went to the house of Jesse to choose a new king for Israel:

“But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; … for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7.)

7. Let the sheep get to know you. It is not enough to merely know the sheep. They must also know you. When the shepherd “putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him; for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him; for they know not the voice of strangers.” (John 10:4–5.) Remember that when the Savior said he knew the sheep, he also said they knew him (see John 10:14), a reciprocal relationship which Nephi also confirmed (see 1 Ne. 22:25). People and sheep both follow others out of love, and love is developed by becoming part of another’s life. The Savior constantly made himself a part of his followers’ daily activities, eating with them, discussing their problems, and teaching them in the setting of their own concerns. As he became a part of them, they in turn became a part of him and were willing to follow because they knew and trusted him.

8. Lead the sheep by personal example. Shepherds say, “Come, follow me.” The Savior set for us a personal example of what he asks us to become. (See 2 Ne. 31:6–10.) Successful shepherds and leaders are consistent in their correlation of personal and institutional leadership. They practice what they preach and ask nothing more of their followers than that which they require of themselves.

9. Feed the sheep. In the final analysis, what is really important in leading sheep and people is whether or not their lives are actually changed for the better by the one who leads them. An entire flock of sheep can starve to death if the shepherd doesn’t provide them with food and water, either through leading them to the pasture or through bringing the feed out of the barn. The sheepherder who fails to feed is a leader who fails to lead, and neither is of any benefit to sheep or people. When Jesus challenged Peter about his new leadership responsibilities as president of the Church, the Savior’s directions were clear—“Feed my sheep.” (See John 21:15–17.) Successful leaders are like the farmers who make sure that the water gets to the end of the row, that every individual plant receives the life-giving nourishment it needs to survive and grow.

10. Sacrifice yourself for the good of the sheep. Successful leadership requires sacrifice on the part of the leader. The example of the good Samaritan in the Savior’s parable identifies some types of such sacrifice—time, effort, personal feelings, financial means, inconvenience, and possible physical and social injury. (See Luke 10:25–37.) Jesus meant it when he said, “As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:15.) Good shepherds and good leaders are both willing to sacrifice all that is required of them for the life of the sheep, whether that means dying for them or the more difficult task of living for them in quiet dedication on a daily basis.

These, then, are the lessons of leadership we can learn from the Good Shepherd. They are easy to learn but more difficult to apply. Whether you are a stumbling sheepherder or a super shepherd depends upon how willing you are to improve, what effort you make to do so, and how closely you conform to the perfect model our Savior-leader has provided for us. That it is of great personal importance for you to do so is clear from the stewardship accounting required by the Lord of an earlier generation of shepherds. As the prophet Ezekiel recorded the repeated failures of the shepherds of Israel in his day (see Ezek. 34:1–31), so will heavenly scribes of necessity report the leadership failures of this day. Remember well the basis of judgment for that prior dispensation, and avoid a disastrous duplication for yourself in this one.

Now, remember that you are a leader. Remember that you can be a great leader. Remember that the Good Shepherd watches over you and will constantly help you as you strive to become like him. Remember that you can be like him if you will be like him. Learn these lessons. Prepare yourself. Then go forth and lead your generation right on to the celestial kingdom. The time is now, and the leader is you!

Illustrated by Richard Hull