Shepherds and Sheep
by Tim Mooney
One of the most common metaphors for God, in scripture, is a shepherd (e.g. Gen 49:24; Ps 23; Isa 40:11; Ezk 34:11-24). Jesus describes himself as the shepherd of God’s people, the Good Shepherd. (Mt 9:6; John 10:1-18). It’s not surprising then that God’s people are consistently referred to as his sheep (Ps 95:7; Ps 100:3; Isa 53:6; 1 Peter 2:25). It is the last part, wherein we are pictured in Scripture as sheep, which sticks in our craw a little. Sheep, after all, are often dirty, smelly, (reputedly) stupid animals unable to care for themselves and prone to wandering into the most awful situations, from which they cannot extricate themselves. Although shepherds and sheep are personally unknown to most of us in modern America, we are generally convinced that being a sheep is a bad thing. “Dumb as a sheep.”
Sheep have become a metaphor for people who will blindly follow anyone, who do not think for themselves, who are waiting to be fleeced or slaughtered, and who are easy prey.
And therein lies the problem. We do not much care to apply the sheep metaphor to ourselves, and few Christian leaders these days seem to want to apply the shepherd metaphor to themselves. They would rather see themselves as CEO’s, entrepreneurs, life coaches, and – God-help-us – Entertainers and Movie Stars.
The metaphor of shepherd and sheep go together, but has the metaphor lost its power? Is it a dead metaphor? How many of us really know what it is to shepherd sheep, or be a sheep that’s shepherded?
But if I read the Scriptures well, I’m left with the inescapable conclusion that this sheep metaphor is central, vital, essential to understanding God and ourselves. God’s people are sheep and those who lead God’s people are shepherds. Phillip Carnes, in his 2007 Master’s thesis, puts it this way: “Indeed, I am convinced that the shepherd metaphor is the unifying metaphor for all ministry leadership. In other words, whatever other metaphor a ministry leader might wish to use to describe his or her ministry style, he or she is first and foremost to be a shepherd…Indeed, shepherding encompasses all the desirable qualities evoked by more modern metaphors for ministry leadership, while any one of those other metaphors fails to convey the richness and fullness of the shepherding metaphor.”
But let me be clear. The Shepherd and Sheep metaphor does not refer to two different groups of people. It is not the pastors, elders, and deacons (the ordained) on one side, and the sheep (the non-ordained) on the other. These are roles we play, but the truth of it is much messier. Every one of us – you, me, Louise – is a sheep. And all of us are called to shepherd one another. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.
The metaphors we choose to describe ministry leadership both illumine the way we see ministry, and shape the praxis of ministry. One who views ministry leadership as being a shepherd will shepherd. One who sees himself as a CEO will lead as a CEO. One who sees herself as a coach will lead as a coach. But only one metaphor for ministry leadership is supported by Scripture – the metaphor of the shepherd. And there is one primary metaphor for who all of us are – the metaphor of sheep. We are, no matter if ordained or not, first and foremost sheep. We are a flock. Frankly, this is quite humbling. Sometimes, we are stupid as sheep. And it is also freeing. We don’t have to have it together all the time, and others offer helpful shepherding when we’re lost.
In 2014 I was serving First Avenue Presbyterian Church where I started a New Worshiping Community called Community of ONE. It was contemplative, we engaged with art, journaling, sang chants, used all our senses, and meditated silently for ten minutes every time we gathered. In July of 2014 I led a gathering of Community of ONE; the theme was Moses and the Burning Bush. I asked them to consider what it was in their lives that kept burning but was not consumed. Could this burning thing be God trying to get their attention, something they were called to be and do? Many were visibly moved; they said they had a powerful new way of discerning how God was leading in their life. I had shepherded well. As people left, my cello player, Bill, came up to me, looked me in the eye and said, “Hey, what’s going on?” I almost lied and ran away, because I was ashamed and felt very vulnerable. But that look in his eye was a shepherds’ crook gently placed over my neck, bringing me back to the fold. My girlfriend of 19 months had just broken up with me without hint or warning, and said she didn’t want any further contact. Something that had been burning so bright was completely snuffed out. I was as lost as I could be, and Bill reached out. He saw me, listened to me, he cared for me. Two intentional choices made this happen. He was willing shepherd me, and I allowed myself to be a sheep in need of shepherding. This is what we get to do for each other.
We don’t have to have it together all the time, and others offer helpful shepherding when we’re lost.
Two years ago we started the Parish Shepherd program. We had some hiccups rolling it out, we kept tinkering with it, and as Covid hit, we saw its potential for building community, to help us feel like a flock. We added five new Parish Shepherds to the Deacons who all had parishes. We reorganized the parishes geographically to make in-person gatherings and visits easier, and we made the parishes smaller, 10 family units per parish, for easier shepherding. The Deacons and Parish Shepherds are asked to reach out monthly to their parish with an email, phone call, text, or letter, first introducing themselves, then being a liaison between you and the church, and to organize a gathering or two over the summer to build relationships, build community. And they are asked to report back to us if someone is sick, struggling with faith, has changed phones or addresses, or someone in their family has died or is celebrating a birthday, an anniversary. They are asked to shepherd in gentle ways.
And we would ask you to be responsive sheep. When you get that email, text, phone call, or letter from your Deacon or Parish Shepherd, please respond authentically. It could be, “Thank you, things are great with us. What can I bring to the gathering in Bruce and Judy Heagstedt’s backyard?” Or it could be, “We’re having a tough time, and I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about it yet.” And please let your Deacon or Parish Shepherd know your preferred way of being communicated with. And if you have not received an email, phone call, text, or letter, please contact me, Kathleen, or Billie Lusk, and we will make sure you are a part of a parish. We do miss things, because, like a said, we are all sheep!
The invitation for all of us is to be good sheep, and to be a good shepherd for each other. This next week we will send out a letter to everyone with information on who your Deacon or Parish Shepherd is, a picture of that Deacon or Parish Shepherd and a list of who is in your parish. It is said, and Jesus said it himself, sheep recognize their shepherd’s voice. But sheep do more than recognize their shepherd’s voice., they respond back to the shepherd with their own baaahs and bleets. The communication is two-way.
I am going to call out the names of the Deacons and the Parish Shepherds. When you hear your name called, would you please stand and remain standing until I finish reading the list? Thank you.
Deacons: Eunice Shankland, Sarah and Charlie Baldwin, Kristen George, Elin Towler, Dave Ramsey, Laurie Hergenrader, Tom Clark, Jo Culbertson, Billie Lusk. Parish Shepherds: Chuck and Debbie Stephenson, Chris and Helen Gibson, Ron and Phyllis Covey, Jo Culbertson, Rachel Dempsey, Cathy Hawk. If you are interested in being a Deacon or a Parish Shepherd, please contact me.
In a recent article a sociologist described that most societies have 3 major groups. The first is the intimate circle of family and close friends, the second is community groups like church, PTA, book clubs, where there is a larger common bond. The final group is the least intimate, acquaintances, people you recognize at the store, the coffee shop, the occasional encounters. The middle group is the one that is shrinking the most in our culture. As we go forward, our Parish Program will be one way we make sure that middle group – the church – not only survives, but thrives, as the Beloved Community, where we are both sheep and shepherd, in need of each other, so we might truly be God’s flock. Amen.