Book Review: The Shepherd’s Toolbox, by Timothy Z. Witmer


In 2010, Timothy Witmer insisted in his book The Shepherd Leader, “The fundamental responsibility of church leaders is to shepherd God’s flock.” All too often, a focus on programs, activities, and growing the membership often substitutes for healthy, biblical shepherding. Witmer challenged this short-sightedness by presenting a four-fold pastoral matrix—knowing, feeding, leading, and protecting the flock. He also distinguished between macro responsibilities like leadership and micro responsibilities like individual membership care.

How have church leaders responded over the decade-plus since the book’s publication?

Instead of revising The Shepherd Leader, Witmer collected seven voices who had embraced its theological vision and edited a new volume around them, The Shepherd’s Toolbox. The book offers practical counsel for “obstacles facing those who are committed to shepherding their flocks” (xi-xii). As the title indicates, the book deals with implementation, not theological foundations for shepherding. My review will follow the book’s three sections.


The book begins with three chapters on shepherding structures. First, Ken Jones discusses shepherding in a large church with principles adaptable to smaller congregations. In his view, each elder can have an assistant, a women’s shepherding team member, and a deacon to support up to 140 people. He discusses structuring shepherding around team members who connect with one another, contact members, collaborate with team members, ask the Holy Spirit to grant wisdom in caring for members, and then celebrate what the Lord is doing in the body. Even solo pastors may find this team approach useful and reasonable to develop.

Next, Gary L. Smith admits that he and his fellow forty (Presbyterian) ruling elders realized that elders must do more than handle administrative matters if they hope to move the church toward health and address the big back door accompanying the church’s big front door. In other words, they must shepherd the congregation. As a course correction, these ruling elders took seriously the biblical pattern for elders in 1 Peter 5:1–3 and intentionally built pastoral relationships with members. They recognized what other traditions practice: all elders must shepherd the flock. By subdividing the membership and assigning elders to each division, they’ve been able to better care for their church. The elders began to elder, proving fruitful for the church.

Finally, John Barrett demonstrates how Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2 shape pastoral work: elders must (1) know all the flock and (2) pay careful attention to the flock’s needs. Recognizing the challenge of thirty elders handling pastoral care for 1800 members, Barrett’s church developed a triage pattern in order to distinguish common-care issues from critical or chronic ones that require specialized help. Additionally, they developed a leadership pipeline to increase the number of elders. With the triage practice relatively new to his church, Barrett admits, “Our systematic plan is riddled with problems” (61). Correcting unhealthy shepherding patterns takes time and care; only longevity, multiplying elders, ongoing training of current elders, and ample grace can cure it.


The second section provides ideas to close gaps in shepherding needs. Randy Schlichting, Pastor of shepherding at the multi-service Perimeter Church in Atlanta, faced the impossible task of knowing 4500 members and 1500 regular attenders. That discrepancy itself raises a host of issues that should be addressed regarding the nature of meaningful membership, cleaning the rolls, and even the multi-service structure. Yet leaving those aside for the moment, the church’s staff and elders employed an accountability system designed by their church software company to help care for the flock. This helped shepherds stay in touch by maintaining current information on each member.

Schlichting notes that a shareable spreadsheet can accomplish the same accountability they’ve been able to facilitate through a professionally designed app. One reflection, however: apps and spreadsheets cannot replace pastors knowing their members for whom they will give an account. Although the book does not address this concern, when a church reaches a size that the elders cannot adequately shepherd, decisions must be considered to increase the elder body or plant another church.

Bijan Mirtolooi recommends “Shepherding Through Small Groups” (5–15 members) as an added layer of pastoral care. The membership process requires every member to join a small group, and the groups’ lay leaders are trained in Witmer’s knowing, feeding, leading, and protecting matrix. As a caution, the small group requirement might work well in some settings, but in others (e.g., older members, long commutes, etc.), members could feel put off by a church making mandatory what Scripture doesn’t, despite the good intentions. Mirtolooi is wise to refer to this process as an added layer, rather than the whole, of pastoral care. I think most pastors would agree that some form of small groups can assist with shepherding care.

Sue Harris then explains how women may assist elders with ministry areas unique to women. She calls for women partners to be selected, vetted, trained, and commissioned by the church. Harris wisely notes women are “not the secret weapon for shepherding,” but they may have insights on ministry to women that escape men’s sight (98). Including mature, faithful women who can assist the elders will improve pastoral care. I admit, Harris’s call to “commission” women for this role makes me a little nervous. To “commission” someone is to establish an office, even if people deny it (“a rose by any other name. . .”). If God thought churches needed female elders, the Bible would have established them. Truly, women have a valuable role to play in all of this, but my advice would be to keep genuinely informal what the Bible keeps informal.


The last section considers church planting and the ongoing mission of the church. Mark Hallock explains how one small-town church plant differed from many other plants by being characterized by “a deep passion and a purposeful plan to shepherd God’s people with intentional, Christlike care” (110). Church planters often fall into the ditch of only trying to reach new people, while burning out their members in the process. They should attend to nurturing and discipling their members as well. Church planters, Hallock maintains, have many challenges working against vibrant shepherding ministries. Planters must therefore work to

  • Fold believers into the church, beginning with a biblical view of church membership.
  • Close the backdoor through intentional shepherding.
  • Make shepherding a top priority from the plant’s beginning.
  • Have the shepherding team meet regularly for accountability and training.
  • Make the most of shepherding on Sunday gatherings.
  • Block out weekly scheduled time devoted to shepherding members.

Witmer ends the book with “Shepherding and the Gospel Call.” It challenges readers to not neglect the outward focus of mission while doing the inward work of shepherding. He calls pastors to put confidence in God’s sovereign grace to call the lost out of darkness into light. As those commissioned by Christ, he says, they should engage in scattering the gospel seed. There will be no harvest without sowing. To maintain faithfulness to the gospel call and shepherd the flock, elders must

  • emphasize the gospel;
  • preach Christ-centered sermons;
  • nurture the faith of children;
  • equip the people;
  • teach members to pray for their circles of influence;
  • provide corporate outreach opportunities;
  • welcome visitors;
  • and develop an outward face for existing ministries.

Hallock and Witmer concur that being a local church is not about either caring for the flock or engaging in gospel work in the community and beyond. It’s about both.


I found The Shepherd’s Toolbox to provide a well-written compendium of useful strategies for shepherding work. The book’s contents can be captured by four shepherding aims: intentionality, consistency, accountability, and multiplicity in approaches.

Enlisting some smaller church pastors to open their toolboxes would have strengthened the book. Most of the contributors come from a large-to-megachurch context, which will require readers to be creative in applying the book’s ideas. Still, The Shepherd’s Toolbox is well worth reading.

Phil Newton

Phil A. Newton serves as director of pastoral care and mentoring for the Pillar Network after pastoring for 44 years, the last 35 at South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which he planted in 1987.

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