“The LORD is my shepherd…He leads me beside quiet waters…He guides me in paths of righteousness”. (Psalm 23: 1-3)
I don’t have any sheep at home—but I do have dogs. Two of man’s best friends, Reggie and Ellie. Home now from sabbatical, I have rediscovered the joy of long walks through our neighborhood with my dogs. Lines of trees tower above the homes—like sentinels against a blue sky. It has become a wonderful time to think, pray, worship and simply enjoy the changing colors and hues in the Creator’s palette. Our neighborhood is also full of inclines and declines, which means good exercise for both dogs and me.
But in order to share that experience with our youngest dog, Ellie, I’ve had to put her in a harness with a strong leash. She is strong-willed, energetic and curious. If she were human, I’m sure she would be diagnosed with A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder). Without strong guidance she rushes ahead or lags behind, depending on what catches her attention. If she gets too far ahead, she’ll wander in front of me and get hurt when I stumble over her (if I’m not watching!). Without verbal correction and a short leash, she barks too much or even lunges at other dogs and strangers.
My dog is learning to walk with me and keep pace with me. She’s learning the discipline of looking instead of lunging—and specifically of looking to me when something unsettling comes her way. She’s even learning the discipline of silence and patience as we walk together. She knows the safety of keeping pace with her master.
In his book While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, Timothy Laniak recalls how the Bedouin shepherds he observed led their flocks. Sometimes they led from behind, when they needed to drive their flocks on a long journey to a new pasture or campsite. Sometimes they led from the front, where the sheep could see them and follow. Sometimes they lead from beside and among their flocks.
In the Old Testament, he writes, three key Hebrew verbs are used for leading a flock:
“Nahal” means leading with tenderness and can refer to bringing a flock to a place of rest and refreshment. “Nakkah” is a straightforward guidance verb. “Nahag” suggests the kind of directive herding accomplished best from the back of the flock, when the will of the shepherd has to be imposed… The Twenty-Third Psalm describes God’s personalized shepherd leadership with two of these verbs: ‘He leads (nahal) me beside quiet waters’ in verse 2, and in verse 3, He guides (nakkah) in paths of righteousness.” (at pp. 196-197).
In other words, the leadership position of the Good Shepherd in Psalm 23 is one of tenderness and guidance, rather than driving.
I found that rather convicting when I compared the pace at which I sometimes live and lead.
Then I began to think about Jesus and his style of leadership—how much time he spent in the Gospels walking with the disciples. Clearly, it was at a pace in which they were able to absorb his teaching, both the encouragement and the challenges, all along the way. I remember his promise in the shadow of the Cross, to send us the Comforter (literally parakletos, the one who comes alongside) to abide with us, teach us, and remind us of all things (John 14:16, 26)—just as Jesus did with his disciples. I remember how Jesus appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus immediately after his Resurrection - how Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, unfolding the scriptures until their eyes were opened and their hearts burned with new life and a new mission (Luke 24:13-35).
Laniak challenges leaders to reflect on their leadership positions and dispositions. Being out front and up-front influencing others can be a very heady experience! But that may not be the best position at all times, and with all people. There may be some circumstances when we need to push. But how often do we take the position that Jesus himself took with disciples on the road, to guide by the side?
It’s easy for leaders to look at the Shepherd Psalm and see it simply as a model for shepherd leadership. But as Laniak notes, Psalm 23 is a very personal love letter to every leader that says leading begins with being led:
“Being in front most of the time can easily inflate our sense of self-importance. But understanding first that we are followers curbs our self-aggrandizing impulses. We need to know what it feels like to follow before we can lead others well.” (at 198)
Dogs are a far cry from sheep and disciples along the road, but I can’t help wondering if the Good Shepherd isn’t teaching me the same lesson that I’m teaching Ellie—that a “good walk” from beginning to end happens when you keep your eyes on the Master and keep pace with Him.
The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is President & CEO of the American Anglican Council.