By Jonathan Turtle

What makes for a good pastor? Is there a metric by which we could discern good pastors from bad? Could we even know? These questions were on my mind as Good Shepherd Sunday, as we fondly call the fourth Sunday in Easter, came and went once again. And I think there’s much to learn from them still, even after we’ve left Eastertide behind for another year. Good Shepherd Sunday is, of course, about Jesus, the Good Shepherd, but it also provides an opportunity to reflect on what makes for a good shepherd.

As a parent of young children, I spend ample time at playgrounds. Our current favorite is one we recently discovered up the road and around the corner from our home. Shortly after we arrived, a neighboring school let out and very quickly it got loud and lively. Children running about laughing and playing and screaming. Parents chasing them, huddled about having conversations, or sitting on a bench having a quiet moment with their phone.

When it was finally time to leave, I stood at the edge of the playground and yelled, “Turtles! It’s time to go!” Out they popped from behind slides and swings and climbing structures, and off we went. Not without petitions to stay longer, of course. My point is that when their father, who they know and love, calls them, they are able to recognize his voice even among the cacophony of racket and competing voices that you find at a busy playground on a sunny day after school has let out.


This is a bit like what Jesus is describing in the parable of the Good Shepherd (John 10). It’s a parable about competing voices, about the ability to distinguish between these voices, to discern the voice of the shepherd and to flee from the voice of the imposter, the thief and the bandit: “The sheep follow [the shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers” (4-5).

So, we have a sheepfold, presumably surrounded by a fence, with a gate and a gatekeeper, and we have sheep. We also have people who enter the sheepfold, though not all by the same way. The shepherds who love the sheep and who know them all by name have come in by the gate. Then there are the thieves and bandits, who have come in another way.

Here, perhaps, is a metric by which we can measure church leaders. A good leader, a true pastor, is one who has entered the sheepfold by the gate, by Christ. Well, what does that mean? I think it means a few things.

For one, it means the shepherd knows these sheep ultimately belong to the Good Shepherd. Immediately after referring to himself as “the gate,” Jesus changes the metaphor ever so slightly so that he is no longer “the gate” but “the good shepherd.” And this Good Shepherd entrusts his sheep to the care of other shepherds that he has sent. In fact, this is how John’s gospel ends. The risen Jesus restores Simon Peter and gives him a command: “Feed my sheep.” Peter is now a shepherd who has been given a share in the work of the Good Shepherd. True shepherds are sent with the authority of the Good Shepherd, and they know that their job is to care for the sheep entrusted to them, to nurture them in the faith, not to use them for an agenda.

That brings me to my second point. Good shepherds have only one agenda: to proclaim Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23). That’s it. That’s the agenda: Jesus Christ, who lived, died, rose, ascended, and is coming again as judge. It is he whom we proclaim, says Saint Paul, teaching everyone to trust in his supreme goodness and mercy and warning everyone that apart from him nothing can stand (Col. 1:28). Every word that you hear from every bishop, priest, and teacher, if it is not a word that ultimately proclaims the  cross, it is not a word worth listening to. It is a worthless word and it will fall to the ground. Christ is the agenda. Nothing else.

Third, shepherds who know that the sheep entrusted to their care are not their own and whose only agenda is to preach Christ crucified therefore care deeply about the unity of the flock. They know that there is one shepherd in whose name they are sent and one flock for whom they are to care. As Jesus himself says, one of the characteristics of the Good Shepherd is that he gathers and unites (John 10:16), whereas the bandits and thieves scatter and sow dissension (John 10:12).

Bandits and thieves want followers even if it means scattering the flock; shepherds want followers of Jesus and are willing to suffer for it. When we hear competing voices within the Church, one question we must ask ourselves is this: Are these voices sowing dissension and scattering, or are they gathering people around the cross?

Fourth, and finally, good shepherds are willing to suffer the violence of others for the gospel because Jesus the Good Shepherd did just that, and it is he whom they follow. In the words of Saint Peter: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24).

The love of God in Christ is a suffering love that bears fruit. And Christ’s suffering for righteousness is our example (2:21). Therefore, those who cling to the gospel of Jesus Christ do not need to defend themselves when attacked, do not need to return the abuse, do not need to participate in posturing and threats, but need simply entrust themselves to God, who judges justly.

So if you’re taking notes, good shepherds who enter by the gate (1) know who the sheep belong to, (2) have one agenda, (3) care about the unity of the flock, and (4) are willing to suffer for the sake of love.

“And the sheep will follow him because they know his voice,” Jesus says. Sheep are not dumb. They know the voice of the shepherd, and they can discern an imposter just like my children know my voice down at the playground. And when a preacher or teacher is proclaiming Jesus Christ, or not, you know.

Jesus continues: “They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Except that sometimes we do follow strangers. Sometimes their voice can be very appealing. Jesus warns that many will come in his name to lead astray (Matt. 24:4-5). Paul too warns the elders in Ephesus, “Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them” (Acts 20:28-30).

These bandits come with agendas and enthusiasms — some even seemingly biblical — other than the one great apostolic enthusiasm and agenda: to know Christ and to make him known. So it is important to “beware” and to “keep watch” for voices that are incongruent with the suffering love of Jesus Christ. They exist, and they exist in the Church today.

Nevertheless, while there is a certain attraction to the voice of strangers, Jesus says that ultimately people will run from them because they do not find the abundant life that Jesus gives there. Which raises an interesting question about church decline here in the West: Is it in part because sheep run from the voice of strangers? Is it in part because we have not clearly and simply proclaimed Jesus Christ, crucified and risen? What if we were to come back to the gate and recommit ourselves to the beautiful simplicity of the gospel?

Let me finish with this: the Church needs shepherds, no less the Episcopal Church. So pray, especially for all bishops, priests, and deacons. Pray that they would be people of the gate, pray that their chief enthusiasm and message would be Christ crucified. Pray that they would commit themselves to Scripture. Pray that they would be willing to bear with one another in love. Pray that God would raise up more faithful shepherds. And pray for discernment so that amid a cacophony of voices the Church might more clearly hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who still speaks to his people today and whose voice is for them a spring of abundant life.

About The Author

The Rev. Jonathan Turtle is rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Orlando, Florida.

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One Response

  1. Charlie Clauss

    During the riots in Palestine in the middle thirties a village near Haifa was condemned to collective punishment by having its sheep and cattle sequestrated by the Government. The inhabitants however were permitted to redeem their possessions at a fixed price. Among them was an orphan shepherd boy, whose six or eight sheep and goats were all he had in the world for life and work. Somehow he obtained the money for their redemption. He went to the big enclosure where the animals were penned, offering his money to the British sergeant in charge.

    The N.C.O. told him he was welcome to the requisite number of animals, but ridiculed the idea that he could possibly pick out his “little flock” from among the confiscated hundreds. The little shepherd thought differently, because he knew better; and giving his own “call”, for he had his nai (shepherd’s pipe) with him, “his own” separated from the rest of the animals and trotted out after him. “I am the Good Shepherd and know my sheep—and am known of mine.”

    Eric F. F. Bishop, Jesus of Palestine (London: Lutterworth, 1955), pp. 297-98.


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