During the period of time I spent as a college campus minister, there was a trendy book that claimed to teach twenty-one indispensable rules for leadership. According to the author, his rules of leadership guaranteed success in one’s endeavors. This idea was very appealing to some of the religious groups on campus because it held out the promise of successfully recruiting many new students into their organizations.
I was more than a little skeptical of the book’s claims. Admittedly, my skepticism derived from my doubts about being able to remember twenty-one individual rules. I can’t remember what I did yesterday; I am unlikely to be able to recall multiple rules, especially when dealing with an urgent issue.
John’s Gospel offers a unique perspective on leadership. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them.” (Jn. 10:11-12)
John’s Gospel tends to use very abstract language, but the abstractions refer to specific historical events. The “hired man” is a reference to all of the Twelve Apostles. All of the Twelve ran away when faced with difficult circumstances: Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied knowing him, and the remainder went into hiding in order to escape sharing in Jesus’ fate. Only the Beloved Disciple (the author of the Gospel), remained with Jesus during his trial and execution.
During his ministry, Jesus faced the “wolves” who persecuted him. He was criticized by the religious authorities in Jerusalem. He was rejected by the residents of his home town. In the end, he suffered an ignominious death. There were no satisfactory remedies for these tragedies, but The Good Shepherd remained faithful despite the hardship. Truly, he laid down his life for his flock of followers.
In a similar manner, the Beloved Disciple (the author of the Gospel), saw himself as a good shepherd because he gave over his entire life to leading faithfully his church community. He dealt with Peter’s betrayal of Jesus. He faced opposition to the Gospel after Jesus’ death. He dealt with false teachers who attempted to change the Gospel message, and he faced criticism from fellow believers who disapproved of an evangelizing effort addressed to the Samaritans. He was confronted by many challenges but remained faithful.
The Beloved Disciple saw himself as an imitator of Jesus, The Good Shepherd. He made this claim publicly, not in order to draw attention to himself, but in order to impress upon his entire church community that they too had an obligation to imitate The Good Shepherd.
A good shepherd, a good leader, is one who does not run from problems but faces them, even when there is no satisfactory solution. This lesson is applicable to all areas of life, but it is addressed directly to our relationships with God and neighbor.
Imitating Jesus, The Good Shepherd, requires that we face the life’s challenges and remain faithful until the end. We are obliged to give our help to the poor, the suffering, and the outcast despite the fact that these ills will not be eradicated during our lifetime. A good shepherd, a faithful disciple of Jesus, is the one who does not run away from troubles.
Success in the life of faith consists solely in imitating Jesus, The Good Shepherd; faithfulness equates to remaining with Jesus despite the risks. Sadly, not all relationships endure, not all social ills can be remediated, and not all problems have a satisfactory solution. Even in the face of such unfortunate events, good leaders and faithful disciples are the ones who don’t run away.