When was the last time you heard Psalm 23, about the Good Shepherd? Perhaps at a funeral? It is one of the most well-known texts for funerals, used either as a reading or as a hymn. Today, I would like you to take a fresh look at this text, written by King David several thousand years ago, and think of it in terms of leadership. I believe that the Shepherd offers a model for good leadership, something we need very much here in the West – in politics, in our communities, and in the Church. Based on his personal relationship with God and his experience as a shepherd, David paints a picture of a good leader, a picture which can apply to the people of Israel in Biblical times, the leader of a business or organisation, the pastor of a Church, and to a parent.
In the first verses, we learn that a good shepherd provides for his sheep. He leads them to places with green grass that they might eat. When the sun is high he will get them to lie down and rest. He leads them to quiet waters, which actually means waters that go slowly, so that they can bend down to drink without risk of being snatched by a strong current. The shepherd revives the soul of the sheep – the Hebrew word for soul here is nephesh, which relates to a living being whose life resides in the blood. Hunger or thirst can weaken the nephesh, when it needs restoring (imagine the feeling of drinking an ice-cold can of lemonade on a scorching summer day). This helps illustrate good leadership. Parents provide for their children, giving them food and safe places to sleep. Good leaders take responsibility for the wellbeing and safety of the people in their care.
As a shepherd, David had important responsibilities from a young age, being entrusted with his father’s sheep. When wild animals threatened to kill the sheep, he fended them off with his rod, once even killing a lion. Later, the giant Goliath was threatening Israel, and the metaphorical sheep – the people – were all afraid, ready to scatter. But young David already then felt his responsibility as a shepherd and asked, ‘Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?’ (1 Sam 17:26 NIV) In verses 4-5, the valley of the shadow of death could refer to someone who has gone astray or is threatened, like the people of Israel. David shows how a good leader will deal with them: protecting them, using a rod (a club) to fend off wild animals; correcting and directing them – shepherds used the staff to guide the sheep; and comforting and consoling them.
In the Jewish tradition, lovingkindness, empathy and mercy are at the heart of leadership and pastoral care, embodied in the role of the Mehahem, ‘the giver of care, consoler’. This requires a close and trusting relationship between the Shepherd and those s/he leads. We should also remember that the comforting words apply to those who choose to submit to the leadership of the Shepherd. Submission is not a popular word in Western culture, which may explain why the role of the pastor (from the Latin pastorem, shepherd) has been diminished over the years.
Reading Psalm 23 again, with its sense of complete safety and trust, and applying it to the church leadership can help us re-think the roles and responsibilities of church leaders and the people in their care. For me, Psalm 23 is more than a comforting hymn: it helps me understand what a good leader is like.
 Katz, Robert. Pastoral Care and the Jewish Tradition. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.