If I let my 5-year-old have a can of Coke, a bag of Skittles, and half a dozen Oreos right before bed, I shouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t listen when I say it is time to sleep. Yes, my child would still be responsible for his willful disobedience, but I have set him up for failure. Through my permissiveness of sugary junk food before bed, I have failed him. My leadership and oversight can set my children up for success or failure. The patterns, rhythms, and habits that a mom and dad establish for their family will shape the behavior of their children.
This is also true in ministry. Consider Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
The basic idea of this verse is that believers ought to obey and submit to their leaders — that is, the pastors and elders of their local church — who are tasked with caring for their souls. It is more beneficial for believers to make this a joy-filled job since they will be on the receiving end of their pastors’ care. You don’t want to antagonize the surgeon moments before he cuts open your heart for your quadruple-bypass surgery. A church’s willingness to obey and submit affects the joy and the care they receive from their leaders.
But the reverse is true as well. Leaders can lead in a way that makes obedience and submission easy and happy, or difficult and frustrating. Shepherds shape the habits of the sheep. Patterns of leadership affect those on the receiving end, for good or for ill.
Wanted: Eager and Happy Pastors
A foundational text for leaders is 2 Corinthians 1:24: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.” Christian leadership ought not to feel like oppression or the rule of a dictator. Instead, pastor-elders labor for the joy of those they serve. The apostle Peter writes that the task of shepherding and oversight is to be done willingly, eagerly, and by setting an example for others (1 Peter 5:1–4). Begrudging shepherding doesn’t serve the shepherd or the sheep. But joy-filled and eager shepherding results in the joy of those on the receiving end of such care.
Jesus is a happy-hearted shepherd of his sheep. He says in John 15:11, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Jesus, full of joy, takes joy in loving his people and desires his joy to fill his people. Similarly, Jesus says, “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24).
Hebrews 12:1–2 gives us another look at Jesus’s own joy: “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus looked for joy, even through the shame of the cross, knowing his death would save sinners, grant forgiveness, and satisfy God’s wrath. Jesus is a joy-filled shepherd of the sheep, and his undershepherds are to be like him.
So how does a pastor consistently reflect the happy heart of Jesus? Let me share three reflections by applying Hebrews 13:17 to the pastor.
1. Lead wisely to maximize joy.
Good leaders make following easy, and bad leaders make following miserable. Wise and godly leadership, for a godly and humble people, makes everyone more happy. Like a dad who serves as an engine of joy in his home, good leaders ignite and maximize joy in others. And when those in your charge are happy, your labor is joy-filled and not carried out in groaning.
Wise and godly leadership engenders trust — and one of the best ways to engender trust is to lead with consistency. If a mom and dad are arbitrary in their rules, always changing the target and never following their own standards, children will fail to obey. Similarly with churches, disobedience often stems from inconsistent leadership.
Thus, let your yes be yes and your no be no (James 5:12). Do not appease or placate with lies or half-truths. Renounce all the disgraceful and underhanded ways of the world (2 Corinthians 4:2). Be tenaciously true to your word. Be candid and gentle, corrective and encouraging. Never excuse misbehavior, in yourself or in others.
Godly leadership has a profound effect upon those under them: “When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth” (2 Samuel 23:3–4). Wise leadership maximizes the joy of God’s people and the joy of the shepherd.
2. Serve humbly to multiply joy.
When Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4), he wrote as one who had modeled selflessness and sacrifice as he put the Philippians’ interests above his own (Philippians 1:24–26). Paul even goes on to exhort the Philippians to imitate his example of humility and faithfulness (Philippians 3:17).
In a family, a dad who barks at his children to help mom in the kitchen when he’s fixated on college football is communicating something. He’s leading by example: “Do as I say, not as I do.” This father undermines the trust of his children and wife. He works against the very thing he wants — family joy — through his poor example.
Contrast this with humble service that multiplies joy in others. The Queen of Sheba comes to Solomon’s kingdom and exclaims,
The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard. Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! (1 Kings 10:6–8)
At least early in his reign, Solomon multiplied joy into the lives of his men, servants, and kingdom through his rule. This godly leadership glorifies God. Joy multiplies under good and humble leadership.
One might object, “I’m not as wise as King Solomon!” True. But Solomon humbled himself before God to ask for God’s help (1 Kings 3:7–9). He says that he is like a little child trying to shepherd God’s great people. Though we are not as wise as Solomon, we can humble ourselves to ask God for help, knowing that God “gives [wisdom] generously to all without reproach” (James 1:5).
3. Shepherd faithfully for enduring joy.
Lastly, Hebrews 13:17 reminds us that undershepherds “will have to give an account” to God for how they led their people. This will be the most sober job-performance review. We will be judged for our teaching (Acts 20:27; 1 Timothy 2:15; James 3:1), our example (1 Timothy 4:12), our continued progress and growth (1 Timothy 4:15), and our bearing the fruit of the Spirit (1 Timothy 6:11).
Though we are not perfect shepherds, we can, by God’s grace, be faithful shepherds. Elders are to carry out the high and holy calling of shepherding God’s people without shame. So, pastor, shepherd with earnestness, eagerness, and honesty. Do not shrink back. Do not fail to rebuke, admonish, and correct with gentleness. Do not withhold the whole counsel of God. Do not fail to build up, equip, and encourage.
This faithful shepherding results in enduring happiness for both the shepherd and the sheep. Those who are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ will invariably grow in joy. And shepherds who labor for the joy of others will share in that multiplied joy. Knowing that shepherds will have to give an account to God frees them from the fear of man. Joy is not bound up in accolades, hindered by criticism, or decided by physical circumstances. Instead, like Paul, we can rejoice as long as Christ is proclaimed, people are saved, and the church is conformed to the likeness of Jesus.
Thus, Paul reminds us again in 2 Corinthians 1:24 that we labor and work with others, as he did, for their joy. And as their joy grows, so does our own. And as our joy grows, we shepherd in the joy of the Lord. Dutiful, dour, and begrudging shepherding satisfies no one — not the sheep and not the shepherd. Therefore, strive to be a happy-hearted shepherd of the people of God, multiplying the joy of others in Jesus.