In John 10:12–13 Jesus is quoted as saying the following about the difference between a hired hand and a shepherd:
“The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” (NIV)
What is the primary difference between a hireling and a shepherd according to Jesus? The primary difference is their motivation for tending the sheep. The hireling does it for his own benefit and the shepherd does it for the benefit of the sheep.
When tending the sheep no longer benefits the hireling, he is nowhere to be found and leaves the sheep scattered and unprotected.
In contrast, the shepherd stands in when things get tough and does what his can to protect and care for the sheep.
I have known of “pastors” who have worked the church job market the way that some seek to climb the “corporate ladder.” A true shepherd doesn’t start with a small congregation and then seek to find an opportunity at a larger church so that he can be more comfortable or improve his lifestyle.
Sure, God can call men to change and grow in their responsibilities, but it must be God directed and God focused for this to be a true calling. If God is behind the change, it will be good for both the former church and the new church. If the change is prompted by the desires of a hireling, the former church will feel as though it has been left in the lurch.
Speaking as a sheep, I want a pastor who has a sense of calling, who ministers because he cannot do anything else without violating who he is, and who is in ministry for the long haul, no matter how difficult it gets.
How can you identify the hirelings? It is not always easy since the hirelings are often very good at appearing spiritual and self effacing.
I think that Ephesians 4:11-12 provides some insight to help distinguish between hirelings and shepherds. These verses tell us that the goal of church leadership should be the “equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”
If a pastor is seeking to control the congregation, if he is the center of all the activity, if he maintains his place in the spot light, you might find that he is a hireling and not a shepherd.
On the other hand, a shepherd will be seeking to develop the gifts in his congregation, he will be feeding them from Scripture, he will focus on equipping the congregation to fulfill the mission of the church. He will then turn them loose to do the work of ministry. His focus is on the sheep and their development, not on his own position as leader.
In the end, it comes down to motivation. If you are a sheep, ask yourself is your pastor is working for the benefit of the congregation. If the answer is no, then move on and find a true shepherd. Staying under the leadership of a hireling will not be to your benefit.
If you are a pastor, ask yourself the same question. If you are pastoring primarily because you need a job, save all of us a lot of grief and go get a job outside the church. You’ll probably make more money and the collateral spiritual damage will be greatly reduced.