Shepherding is challenging and rewarding—but it won’t bring you the rewards that are often coveted in this world. This is why proper motivation for ministry is so important. Its reward in this life is the joy of serving the One who died for you when you serve those he has entrusted to your care. Jesus’s final words to Peter at the post-resurrection seaside meeting mirrored the words of his first call to Peter: “You [must] follow me” (John 21:22).
Excerpt taken from Timothy Z. Witmer, “Chapter 1: Read This First: Motivation for Shepherds,” The Shepherd’s Toolbox: Advancing You Church’s Shepherding Ministry.
Have you ever been confronted by the challenge of assembling something complicated? Even before you gather the tools for the job, it helps to turn to the material labeled “Read This First.” Here we typically find helpful hints and directions for how to proceed. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way several times after failing to consult these instructions. Stumbling and bumbling are the right words to characterize my efforts, not to mention hand-wringing frustration!
When you picked up this book, perhaps the first thing you did was scan the table of contents to see what might be most interesting or helpful to you. There is indeed a lot of helpful material in the pages to come. But as we begin, we must address the motivation behind everything that follows. When Jesus met the frustrated fishermen on the Sea of Galilee a short time after his resurrection, he knew how important it was to reset their motivation for ministry.
Do You Love the Good Shepherd?
It was after a long night of fruitless fishing that Peter came face- to- face with the risen Christ. The Chief Shepherd had come to restore his wandering sheep to the fold and to renew his call on Peter and deploy him once more for kingdom purposes. In obedience to the shadowy figure on the shoreline, Peter and the other disciples cast their nets into the water and suddenly brought in a haul of flopping fish.
After breakfast, the important conversation began.
“Do you love me?” Jesus asked. If it had been me, I would have asked, “Peter, what were you thinking?” or “Peter, how could you mess up so badly?” But Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. Three times he asked his dense disciple if he loved him. Although Peter became upset by the repetition, he nonetheless affirmed his love for his Savior each time. Only after each affirmation of love did Jesus charge him, “Feed my lambs. . . . Tend my sheep. . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17). Not only does this exchange remind us that ministry is about the sheep, but it reminds us that love for Christ is the essential motivation for ministry.
Archibald Alexander writes that a shepherd of the flock is “nothing—or at best a mere ‘sounding brass or tinkling cymbals’” if he lacks “supreme love of Christ. . . . Genius, learning, eloquence, zeal, public exertion, and great sacrifices—even if it should be all of our goods and of our lives themselves—will be accounted of no value in the eyes of the Lord if love to Christ be wanting.”1 Each of us must admit that our ministry may often be motivated by something other than love for Christ. In particular, it may flow from a desire to meet the usual metrics of success—such as a balanced budget and growing attendance—and to receive the accompanying accolades. Peter himself warned against these motivators when he wrote to his fellow elders,
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising over-sight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:2–3)
Perhaps your motivation for ministry has faded and shepherding seems like just something else to do, yet another burden on top of everything else. If that’s the case, let me encourage you to take steps to renew your first love.
Remember His Call to Faith
Jesus undoubtedly designed elements of the incident by the Sea of Galilee to remind Peter of their first meeting in Luke 5:1–11. What was Peter doing at that time? He was fishing. How many fish had he caught? None. What did Jesus instruct him to do? Put the nets down again. What happened? The nets were filled with flopping fish. The John 21 encounter would have reminded Peter of the moment when he first fell down on his knees at Jesus’s feet—a moment of understanding and faith that changed his life forever. But after the seaside breakfast, Jesus repeatedly addressed Peter as “Simon, son of Jonah.” This was the name his parents had given to him—not “Simon Peter,” the name Jesus had given to him.
For us to renew our love for Christ, we must remember who we were and what we were before he called us to himself. I was a self-confident performance major in a school of music that required us to be very sure of ourselves, to say the least. Then the knock came on my door, both literally and figuratively. The literal knock was from an upperclassman music major who came to talk to me about Jesus. He was a member of a Christian ministry on campus and rightly suspected that I needed something more than my musical talent to be satisfied in this life and ready for the life to come.
My parents had faithfully taken me to church as a child, and as the student shared the good news with me, I knew I had heard these things before. But then he asked if I had ever personally believed, if I had ever received the amazing gifts of forgiveness and everlasting life for myself. This was not merely good news—it was really new to me! When I responded to the Spirit’s knock on the door of my heart that day, little did I know that an amazing journey had begun. Part of the journey has been growth in understanding the extent of God’s grace in giving his Son for me, a pursuit that will continue throughout eternity.
To renew our love in any relationship, it is often beneficial for us to remember how it all began: the circumstances, places, and conversations that surrounded it. It’s the reason I take my wife each year to the place where we went on our first date. Our relationship with the Lord is no different; we renew our love for him when we remember that we love him because he first loved us. David Powlison puts it well: “[God’s love] is at God’s initiative and choice; it isn’t given out on the basis of my performance. God’s gospel love is not wages that I earn with a model life; it is a gift. It is a gift that I cannot earn; more than that, it is a gift that I do not even deserve. God loves weak, ungodly, sinful enemies. The gift is the opposite of what I deserve. God ought to kill me on the spot. Instead, He sent His Son to die in my place.”2 These are simple yet profound truths to which we need to return.
When was the last time you meditated on the grace God demonstrated in the circumstances that he used to draw you to himself? When was the last time you thanked him for the people who were faithful to share the good news with you? Take a moment to do those things!
Another important influence in my college days was a retired missionary who served as a “dorm mom” in my wife- to- be’s dorm. Hazel took my future wife and me under her wing and invited us to her apartment for home-cooked meals. After every meal, she opened her Bible and began to teach us. She didn’t ask permission, but her instruction was as natural and satisfying as dessert. Hazel used to describe a person’s testimony as their “story,” and if she met another Christian, she would ask them about it.
When is the last time you shared your story with your church or with your family? Have you shared it with your children? If you are blessed to have grandchildren, have they heard your testimony? The apostle Paul recounts his story three times in the book of Acts and alludes to it several times throughout his letters. He writes to the Corinthians that “by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10). So it was for Paul and for Peter. So it is for you.
Just as the circumstances of John 21 reminded Peter of the day the Savior initially called him to faith, may you be reminded of the time when you first heard the Good Shepherd’s voice, began to follow him, and were assured of forgiveness and eternal life. This will fan the flame of your love for Christ and better motivate you to shepherd the flock. May his question and his command resonate in your heart: Do you love me? Feed my lambs.
Remember His Call to Serve
Peter’s call to faith and his call to serve as an apostle were virtually simultaneous. When he responded to Jesus in faith in Luke 5, Jesus called him to be a fisher of men in the same encounter. When Jesus renewed his call to Peter in John 21, he expanded that call from fishing for men to caring for the flock.
When we as elders consider what motivates us to shepherd the flock, we must remember that it is Christ who has called us to serve in this office. When Paul reunited with his beloved elders in Miletus, he reminded them, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The remarkable privilege and responsibility of caring for the flock was not something the elders took on themselves because they thought it was a good idea. No, the Holy Spirit made them overseers. It was the call of the Good Shepherd through the Spirit that brought them to this place of service. In the same way, you have not become a leader in the church because you thought it was a good idea. Remember that it was the risen Lord who called you.
Unlike Peter, who was called simultaneously to faith and to service, most of us experience gradual and progressive growth in our grasp of the call to office in the church. In my case, a few years passed between the knock that led to my conversion and my realization that God was calling me to be a shepherd of his flock.
Many factors led me to recognize God’s call. First, the Lord opened the doors of ministry experience. I started by serving in the campus ministry through which I had heard the good news. Then came the opportunity for me to take on the role of youth leader in a local church. There I discovered I had some gifting in the areas of public ministry. This was confirmed by the people whom I served.
Theologians refer to the dynamic I’ve described as the external call—that is, the confirmation by others that the Lord may be leading a person to church office. The consummation of the external call comes when a man’s gifts and calling are confirmed through ordination by an ecclesial body. If you are a pastor, this confirmation comes through a presbytery or another church authority. If you are a ruling elder, this comes via a local congregation.
The external call is an important part of the journey toward ordination. Of equal importance, however, is what is referred to as the internal call. This is the inclination of the heart to serve in a church office. This is why Paul refers to those who “[aspire] to the office” of elder (1 Tim. 3:1). You can have all the affirmation in the world from others, but if the Spirit has not put an internal burden on you to serve, it would be a huge mistake for you to move forward. Martyn Lloyd-J ones wrote that “this is something that happens to you; it is God dealing with you, and God acting upon you by His Spirit; it is something you become aware of rather than what you do. It is thrust upon you, it is presented to you and almost forced upon you constantly in this way.”3 For me, this conviction grew over time to the point that I became convinced that the Lord was calling me to aspire to the pastoral office.
Take a few minutes to reflect on the circumstances and people who influenced you to aspire to serve as an officer in the church. Be sure to think about the Spirit’s work on your heart as well. Perhaps you were reluctant at first but over time became convinced that God’s call to you included a call to become a shepherd of his flock.
If you find that your motivation is lacking, take some time—perhaps a whole day—to reflect on the Lord’s call to faith and his call to serve. As it came to Peter that chilly morning in Galilee, the question comes to you again: Do you love me? Tend my sheep.
Remember His Grace to You
As we have seen, when the Good Shepherd came to restore his wandering sheep in John 21, he chose a context that would remind Peter of his conversion and call. But he also chose a setting that would remind Peter of his boastful failures. When Peter denied his Lord three times in succession, he was warming himself by a fire in the courtyard. Here was another fire. He denied his Lord in the cool of the evening; Jesus came to speak to him in the cool of the morning. But then Jesus gave him three opportunities to affirm his love for the Savior whom he had denied three times on that darkest of dark nights.
In the upper room on the night of his arrest, Jesus had warned his disciples, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (Matt. 26:31). In response, Peter boldly proclaimed, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (v. 33). Jesus immediately confronted him with these haunting words: “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” (v. 34). But Peter doubled down and said, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (v. 35).
Of course, Peter did not live up to his boast. But Jesus didn’t return to Galilee to say, “I told you so.” Rather he reminded Peter of his words in John 10:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (vv. 27–29)
As one of Jesus’s sheep, Peter would never be lost, but he needed Jesus to seek him out and restore him so that he could be in a right relationship with his Master.
Peter was learning that there was only one Messiah—and it wasn’t him! Paul Tripp wrote, “You are called to be a public and influential ambassador of a glorious King, but you must resist the desire to be a king. You are called to trumpet God’s glory, but you must never take that glory for yourself. You are called to a position of leadership, influence, and prominence, but in that position you are called to ‘humble yourself under the mighty hand of God.’”4 Tripp is referring to Peter’s first letter, where Peter continues,
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6–7)
Peter was learning about the kingdom value of downward mobility. He was learning the way of the cross.
As you consider what motivates you to shepherd the flock, ask yourself if your zeal has waned because you have wandered. Remember, though, that Jesus loves you and forgives you when you come to him with a repentant heart. You will recall that when Peter generously offered to forgive “seven times,” Jesus dramatically inflated that number to “seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:21, 22). Remember to preach to yourself what you have preached and taught to others. Do not doubt God’s mercy! Do not doubt his grace! Do not doubt his Word! Edward Welch asks us, “Do you ever think, ‘How could God forgive me for that!’ (whatever that is)? Do you think that God’s forgiveness is a begrudging forgiveness? Do you think that God’s promises are only for other people, who haven’t done what you have done? . . . The truth is that your own sins, no matter how big, are not beyond the blood of Jesus or bigger than God’s pleasure in forgiveness.”5
Don’t allow yourself to be spiritually “dead in the water” over the sin that remains in your life. Satan would be very happy to see you immobilized and useless. Peter spoke from experience when he wrote, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). On another occasion, Jesus had told him,
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31–32)
Peter fell, but his faith did not fail. Would he fail again? Yes. Will you fail again? Yes, but your Lord is faithful. Jesus walked to Galilee to restore Peter. He comes to you to invite your repentance and to welcome you back; he is determined to restore and forgive you.
If you are struggling, you are not alone. You can be assured that Jesus is praying for you too—this time from his exalted place at the right hand of the Father. The Lord is with you, and there are many to whom you can reach out for counsel and prayer. The loving Chief Shepherd seeks his lost sheep. Perhaps he is seeking you right now.
As we reflect on God’s grace in calling us and restoring us, our love for him grows, and so should our motivation to shepherd the flock. “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”
Do You Love His Sheep?
In John 21, Jesus does not explicitly mention loving the sheep as a motivating factor for caring for them. However, love for others is a fundamental mark of the Christian.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35).
Not only that, but Jesus made it clear that the leaders in his kingdom are to be marked by service as well as love:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matt. 20:25–28)
Shortly after my retirement from forty-two years of full-time pastoral ministry, someone asked me, “What was the most wonderful part about pastoral ministry?” I replied, “The people.” Then I was asked, “What was the most challenging part of pastoral ministry?” My reply? “The people.” As leaders, we are called to serve the sheep despite the trouble they may cause. There must never be any doubt that we are there to serve the sheep and not vice versa. After all, these precious ones are those whom “he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). They are not our sheep; they are his sheep. He calls us to serve them and to love them. There is no doubt that some sheep make this commandment very difficult to follow. This is when you need to remember God’s patience with you, one of his sheep, and his gracious forgiveness toward you, a member of his flock.
Peter would not receive thrones or accolades in this life. Immediately after charging him to shepherd the flock, Jesus said, “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God)” (John 21:18–19). You may not be called to be a martyr, but as a leader you are called to give your life for the flock in other ways: to sacrifice your time to care for their needs, to share their emotional bur-dens as you walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death, to bear the anxiety that fills your heart when you must admonish a sheep who is straying. The strength to persevere in your calling is found in the renewal of your first love for Christ.
Shepherding is challenging and rewarding—but it won’t bring you the rewards that are often coveted in this world. This is why proper motivation for ministry is so important. Its reward in this life is the joy of serving the One who died for you when you serve those he has entrusted to your care. Jesus’s final words to Peter at the post-resurrection seaside meeting mirrored the words of his first call to Peter: “You [must] follow me” (John 21:22). Peter later wrote to other elders in the church to remind them of the ultimate reward: “When the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).
Take a personal retreat of at least a day and write your “story” with a view toward fanning the flame of your love for Christ. Recount your personal testimony of how you came to faith in Jesus Christ. Who were the people God used in your life? What were the circumstances? If you have time, describe how God called you to gospel ministry. Read your testimony to your family, share it with your church staff, and, if you have opportunity, share it at a men’s breakfast or a church- wide event.
In order to accomplish this, be sure to find a place where you will not be interrupted. In many regions there are camps and facilities that allow access to a quiet place you can use for a day or two.
For Further Reflection
- How motivated are you to shepherd the flock? What is your motivation?
- According to what we see in John 21, what is the right motivation for shepherding the flock?
- What factors does the first chapter say may contribute to dampening a shepherd’s motivation? Can you think of others?
- Take a few moments to remember and be thankful for the grace God showed you (a) when he called you to faith and (b) when he called you to serve as a leader.
- Have you wandered? Hear Jesus’s call to repent and be restored, then identify the way home. Is there someone you can ask to come alongside you to provide counsel and support?
Excerpt taken from Timothy Z. Witmer, “Chapter 1: Read This First: Motivation for Shepherds,” The Shepherd’s Toolbox: Advancing You Church’s Shepherding Ministry. Used with permission.
- Archibald Alexander, “The Pastoral Office,” in Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry, ed. James M. Garretson (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2012), 1:256. Punctuation has been modernized.
- David Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 167.
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preachers and Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 104.
- Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2012), 214.
- Edward T. Welch, When People Are Big and God Is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg: NJ: P&R Publishing, 2023), 149–50.