Does Your Church Have a Sheep Ministry? It Should
I am a city kid. Until I married a farmer, my experience with sheep had been limited to my attendance at the county fair. In school, I had learned that lanolin, an ingredient in hand cream, came from sheep, that the meat was called mutton - which would never be found on our dinner table, and that sheep produced wool so I could have those itchy jumpers my mother thought were so practical in the late sixties. But in the mid-1980s, I found myself the owner of 60 head of cross bred sheep and I quickly understood why there were so many stories comparing shepherds to ministers.
As strange as it may sound, humans could be sheep version 2.0. Certainly, humans are in a more attractive package and the opposable thumb thing, speech and critical thinking skills were great improvements but on the inside, similarities between these two are too close for comfort.
Sheep have been domesticated for as long as humans have a history. In the Middle East, during biblical times, humans and sheep had a symbiotic relationship that exists even today. Sheep provided milk and meat for food and skins that could be made into clothing, drums for music or storage containers for wine and water. Eventually, the wool fiber was traded for other supplies and woven into tapestries and fabric. The abiliy to survive on weeds as well as grass and its steady footing and compact frame meant sheep could use pastures not suited to larger animals. All a human had to do was be observant and take care of the sheep. That's all.
In reality, though, sheep are not the doe-eyed visions of Easter cards and sleep-aid advertisements. They are smelly, simple minded beings that can exhibit every one of the Seven Deadly Sins before lunchtime. Carrying a bucket of feed and having nothing between you and three and a half tons of charging flesh supported by 240 sharp hooves gives a new perspective to the concept “to lust after”. Rams (the males) will fight until one kills the other over ownership of a single female. A lamb turned out onto Spring grazing can die within hours if not vaccinated against overeating. Hobbies include sleeping 20 hours a day and finding a hole in the fence so they can see if the grass is really greener on the other side. Their curiosity makes them a danger to themselves and their high metabolism translates into quick death if preventative measures are not the norm, Being a shepherd is not the dull, boring job seen through today's impressions of CEOs and positions of authority. A skilled shepherd held the fate of the family in his hands since the flock was both the main food and income source of the family. Losing even a single animal was a tragedy.
So is the role of minister and shepherd the same? Should they be compared litterally? A review of the scriptures finds such figures as Moses and David being called by God during their time as a shepherd as if it were the skills of the shepherd that each needed before they could be successful as God's messenger. God and Jesus are also referred to as a shepherd of men/Israel. The Parable of the Good Shepherd (John 10) has a ring of truth for every modern flock owner and speaks to the relationship between sheep and shepherd that is well documented in farming. The shepherd mentions that he not only knows each animal in his flock but they, in return, know him. There is a level of trust, dedication and awareness that shows the investment he has for his chosen profession. Along with the Parable of the Lost Sheep, these scriptures lay out a clear picture of what is expected from anyone choosing to be a servant of God.
In much the same way as farmers study what contributes to the decline of their flocks, churches study the reasons some fail and others thrive. In both, positive results are based on more than numbers and accomplishments. The building of relationships is a key but the concept of a group that functions as one is also present. Some might say a church needs to act like a flock as well as be treated like one in order to be successful. As a flock, shepherd and animals move together as one toward a better understanding of God and his plan.
Today's clergy are an important resource for any church. While, perhaps the image of a minister is changing, he/she is still vital to the mission of the church. To keep from over-spiritualizing this, it might be best to think “sheep” rather than attendance. Short of spending a few months of intensive training with real sheep here are a few tips from one shepherd to another to help establish your Sheep Ministry
- Be the Shepherd - Even if you have others who are committed to pastoral care, make sure your first purpose is to be the “good shepherd” (John 10). Know each and every person attending your church (not just members) and continue to learn about them. Make the contact personal and more than the handshake you give before or after Sunday Service.
- Remember the Nasty Ones - Every farmer has one or two nasty old mamas that they would not part with for any amount of money. While they can be a pain to work with, they can also give great support for you in your ministry.
- Keep records – No one can remember everything. Keeping notes on your pastoral flock can be an excellent tool in building a foundation of trust. But a word of caution – This is not a place to 'fake-it-until-you-make-it'. Do your own homework. Sooner or later insincerity always finds its way into the light and is difficult to repair.
- Expect to work for it – Paul doesn't sugar coat the job in his many letters to the early Christians. The salary and benefit package may be better than it was in Paul's time but the job is still 24/7/365 if you follow Paul's example. There will be the easy days and there will be days that nothing goes right. Even if you have structures in place that allow you to take time off, recognize that regularly missing out on the daily life of the church hinders your ability to connect and influence those in your care..
- Don't expect Thank yous – Sheep, and humans, are hungry and thirsty every single day. It is only if you expect nothing and open yourself up personally that you will see the signs of true gratitude. A first-time volunter, an increase in giving even if the coffers are full, or a quick email can be far more rewarding than a spoken one.
- Lead without Force - This is where a shepherd reaps the rewards of his/her efforts. As it says in John 10, a flock that trusts its shepherd will follow him/her. Save yourself some trouble and before you try to take your flock on a new journey of faith, get to know them and let them get to know you. Trust is a lot easier on the Shepherd than constantly wielding the Shepherd's crook.
Accepting the ministry is not an easy job and just as in Paul's day it can mean hard work and few accolades. Yet, a minister (layman or professional) has the potential to give the greatest gift the church has - a connection with each other based on God's grace and teachings. What better way to spend one's days than to be like Christ – A Shepherd of Men.