Shepherds and Sheep Dogs: Sermon for April 25, 2015

When I started seminary years ago, I never expected that as a minister I would spend so much time thinking about sheep.

More Bible passages than I ever realized have to do with sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd…” Jesus separating the sheep and the goats. Jesus as the lamb of God. Jesus leaving the 99 sheep behind to go after the one that is lost. The prophet who said that we were all like sheep who had gone astray…the list goes on and on. There are literally dozens of Bible verses about sheep.

Fiber artwork by Kathy James.

Fiber artwork by Kathy James.

And here’s the thing about sheep…they’re not that bright. They sort of follow the leader and do what they’re told. There’s a reason that when we are talking about people who blindly follow others we say that they are like “sheep”.

And that’s why sometimes all this talk of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” bothers me. Because if Jesus is the shepherd that means that we are sheep. And, really, I don’t want to be a sheep. Do you?

To put it in context, in today’s Scripture Jesus is doing a lot of talking about sheep. Jesus says the sheep will follow the shepherd. And he talks about how a good shepherd is unlike a sheep thief. A good shepherd guides us, instead of devouring us. A good shepherd cares for the sheep, even putting themselves at risk to save the sheep. And Jesus says that this is what he himself is: the Good Shepherd.

So, for those of us who do not want to be sheep, how do we wrestle with that? Do we accept that we are, at least metaphorically, these sort of not-so-bright animals? Or do we reject all of this “Good Shepherd stuff?

And there’s another layer to this has always bothered me too, and that’s that the “shepherd” language doesn’t just stop with Jesus. Christian ministers are often referred to by this title of pastor. And if you go back to the roots of that word, “pastor” has a very particular meaning. It’s a derived from this Latin word: pascere, which means to shepherd. In other words, in a congregation the pastor is the shepherd and the people are the sheep.

You might be feeling a little offended by that right now. That’s okay. I would too. You probably don’t want to be sheep anymore than I do.

But I tell you this because it was in wrestling with what it meant to be a pastor that I came to understand what it meant to follow Christ as a “shepherd”.

And that’s because, despite the title, it is Jesus, and not the pastor, who is ultimately the “Good Shepherd”. It is God who leads us through the valley of death to safety. It is God who makes sure our cup runs over. It is God who brings us into green pastures and leads us beside still waters. And it is God’s house, not the pastor’s, in which you will dwell forever.

In other words, it’s not about the pastor, or anyone else who claims to be the shepherd. It’s about Jesus Christ.

When my old conference minister in Vermont, Lynn Bujnak, was called to her ministry there she wrote something interesting in her candidating materials. She wrote that she didn’t see herself as a shepherd, because in Christ we already have one of those. But she did see herself as a pretty decent sheep dog.

A sheep dog can do a good job gathering us in. They can find the ones around the margins, and help lead them back to crowd. They can guide the way. They can push us forward. They can sound the alarm is something is wrong. And they can be pretty useful and helpful.

But as good as they are, they are replaceable. And they should be. In the 375 years of this church there have been a lot of pastors, a lot of sheep dogs, but there’s only ever been one Good Shepherd. And that’s good news.

Almost a year ago to the date, I stood at this pulpit for the first time and preached my candidating sermon for you. And then I went over and sat in the church offices while you prayerfully discerned whether or not you wanted me to be your new sheep dog.

And when I went home to Vermont, back to a church I loved filled with people I loved dearly, I told them I was leaving. And then I opened my lectionary for the next Sunday and found that, like today, it was Good Shepherd Sunday, and this was the passage. And so that Sunday I preached about the Good Shepherd, and how I genuinely believed that he was leading me in a new direction. And how I genuinely believed that he was guiding them into something new too.

“You’ll get a new sheep dog,” I told them. “But I’ve always just been the middle man. The Good Shepherd was here long before me and will be here long after I am gone.”

A year later, I truly believe God meant for me to come to this place. And I see God doing new things with my former congregation, and I rejoice for them. And I am reminded once again that there is a Good Shepherd, and it is not me.

But in the moment, in those days of saying goodbye, and saying “yes” to something new, it wasn’t that easy to trust in that truth. I genuinely felt called here, and yet, it was scary. I liked my old pasture a lot. I wondered if I would like the new one. I kept saying to myself, “I think this is God’s will, and I don’t think I’m making a mistake…but what if I am?”

Maybe you have been there. Maybe you have felt led in a new direction. Maybe you have felt God calling you to something new. And maybe you have been scared to death, and unsure of yourself. Maybe you’ve wondered, “God, what are you doing? Why are you moving me somewhere else? I was just getting comfortable in this pasture!”
You are not alone. I think we’ve all been there. We have all been nudged by God out of our comfort zones and into the unknown. And that can be incredibly hard.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. I really believe that. And he wants what is best for us. But wanting what is best for us does not mean that Christ always want what is easy, or comfortable, or convenient for us. In fact, often what is best for us is none of those things.

And so, God guides us. God nudges us out of what we’ve always known, through the gates to something new, and into new pastures. And, here’s the catch: unlike sheep…we have had a choice about whether or not to follow.

But in some ways, that makes it even harder. I was saying at the beginning that I never knew how much I’d have to deal with sheep as a pastor. Because sometimes I literally have to deal with sheep.

This past Christmas was a good example of that. A few weeks before Christmas we realized that in all the transition, we had forgotten to order the sheep for the live nativity out front. And so, we got a hold of the shepherd and we scheduled them, and on the night of the nativity we waited patiently out front…and we waited…and waited.

It turns out that the sheep were stuck in traffic, and then lost. And right as we had given up hope, and the shepherds and angels and wise men were coming out on the grass, the truck turned into our driveway, scraping the curb as it went, and parked.

And then the shepherd got to work. She put this fence up in no time flat, and she opened the back of her trailer, and all the sheep, entirely unaware of the rush, filed out in this orderly line and went right into the little pasture she had made for them without a second thought. And at the end of the night they went right back in. That whole preconceived notion of the sheep being mindless followers? Those sheep proved it for me.

And there is something about that that just is so much easier than what it’s like for us. Sheep have no real choice in the matter. They go where they are told, they eat what they are fed, and they stay within the fences that their shepherd puts up for them. You don’t have to make a lot of decisions as a sheep.

But you and me? That’s different. We are more than sheep. We get to make choices. And if we are too cautious, if we are unsure, if we want to stay put out of either fear or stubbornness, we can do that.

But, when our other option is to follow the Good Shepherd, why would we want to stand still?What do we have to lose?

The reality is that I think we all choose to follow something, whether we admit it or not. We can follow Jesus, and we can dare to break out of the pastures we have always known and into something new. Or, we can follow something else, or someone else. We can follow popular opinion. Or, we can follow fear. We can follow uncertainty. We can follow negativity and self-doubt. We can follow comfort and complacency.

But no matter what we do, even if we are just standing still, we are still followers. Because even if we are leaders, we all still follow something. And here’s the most important part: we are defined by what we follow.

And so, how are you going to be defined? Who or what are you going to follow? And who or what deserves that kind of trust or loyalty?

In the end, I know I am more than a sheep, but I also know that there is no other way I want to be defined than as a follower of the Good Shepherd. I know this because every time I have willingly followed, even when I’ve been afraid, he has led me to something better than I could ever imagine.

My hope is that if you choose to follow the Good Shepherd, that will be true for you too. My hope is something will catch you, and connect with you, and lead you to go deeper, and to follow the one who will never forsake us. My hope is you find Christ, or at least a glimpse of him, in prayer and song and silence. And my hope is that this community will help you to find Christ’s love in a new and uplifting way, and that we may be fellow followers, and fellow travelers on the path.

Because we are not sheep. But we do know a pretty Good Shepherd, and he’s holding the gate open for us to follow. Amen.

What Kind of a Pastor Does Your Church Really Want?

About six months ago I started a new call as the senior pastor of a church in New Hampshire. I truly loved the congregation I previously served, but with a wife who had just graduated from seminary herself, and a feeling that God was nudging me to something new, I began the long discernment that comes with a pastoral search process.

Unlike my first search process, where I sent my profile (the UCC version of a pastor’s resume) to just about every church that was searching, I was more selective this time. I wasn’t willing to move for anything less than the right call, which is a great luxury for a searching pastor. But it also meant that I ended up saying “no” a lot. I love a challenge, but I did not feel called to a place where my understanding of ministry, and the church’s, were so radically different that we were in fundamentally different places.

The Rev. John Wheelwright, the first Pastor and Teacher of the church I now serve.

The Rev. John Wheelwright, the first Pastor and Teacher of the church I now serve.

The biggest thing I learned is that everyone says they want a pastor, but not everyone means the same thing when they say that. Here are just some of the understandings of what it meant to be a pastor that I encountered in my search:

Chaplain – No disrespect meant to chaplains (I was one for eight years) but the role of a parish pastor and that of a chaplain are very different. And yet, over and over I met parishes who wanted someone to spend most of their time “doing home and hospital visits”.

I’m always glad to visit, but the first question I had for churches who wanted this was “Who does this now?” Most of the time the answer was “no one…that’s the pastor’s job”. This was always a huge red flag for me because the work of visitation is supposed to be done by all Christians, not just the pastor. In fact, having a strong and vibrant network of lay visitors is a great sign of church vitality. You don’t have to go to seminary to make a visit, after all; you just need to love the people of your church.

Fundraiser – In my interviews when the time came for me to ask questions I asked “What’s the biggest crisis facing this church right now?” More times then not I was told “money”. Churches said they didn’t have enough of it, or people weren’t pledging like they used to, or expenses were too high. Then they often asked me, “How can you help us fix that?”

The reality is that I like talking about stewardship in the church. I think it’s a key part of the Christian life. But, the pastor can’t be your church’s “fundraiser”. The pastor can help to set the tone for the conversation, but they cannot control the bottom line. The money has to come from the congregation itself, and the stewardship campaign itself needs to be run by faithful and creative lay leaders. A new pastor will not be the magic bullet that balances your church’s budget.

Complaint Box – This works two ways. First, people complain to the pastor about everything that they think is wrong with the church, and expect them to immediately fix it. Later, when they don’t, people complain to the pastor about everything that is wrong with the pastor.

Some of the churches I talked to spent their interview complaining about everything from the fact not as many people came to church anymore to the fact their last pastor was “terrible” (a red flag for interviewing pastors if ever there was one). Those were the churches that I knew were ready to blame everyone else for what wasn’t going right. And every pastor knows that it only takes so long until they will become the sacrificial lamb in a church like that.

Entertainer – I will be the first to say that pastors need to do their best to not preach boring, lifeless, irrelevant sermons. And yet, so many churches I talked to wanted someone who would be “funny”, or “tell us stories” in the pulpit. A few even noted that they loved when their pastor sang solos on Sunday mornings. They wanted a pastor who would entertain them!

But that’s not the role of a pastor in the pulpit. The pastor’s job in preaching is to present the text in a way that is faithful to Scripture and relatable to the congregation. Hopefully they won’t do that in a way that puts everyone to sleep, but at the end of the day the church would do better with more faithful preachers than more “entertaining” ones.

Recruiter – “What will you do to increase our membership?” It’s the question candidates get all the time from churches. The expectation is that a new pastor needs to come in and build up Sunday attendance and church membership. In this way the pastor becomes the church recruiter, and is even seen as a sort of potential savior. (That should be a red flag, if it’s not.)

But while a new pastor might draw a few more visitors, they can’t be the person responsible for building church membership up. Even if they go door to door to invite new people to church, if those people come to church and don’t feel welcomed by the congregation they will not stay. Instead, every church member needs to be responsible for inviting others, welcoming them on Sunday, and then helping to make them part of the congregation.

Kept sheep – My go-to “softball” question for search committees was a no-brainer: Do you want a pastor who is involved in your community? Usually search committees jumped on this and said “yes, of course!” But in one interview I asked the committee this question and, instead of hearing “yes”, I instead heard “well…maybe”. The committee then went on to say that they thought their pastor would have enough to do just serving them. They didn’t want their pastor to get involved in local organizations, to hold drop-in hours out in the community, or to do much in the wider church.

This interview reminded me of a question I heard someone ask a church years ago: “Do you want a shepherd? Or a kept sheep?” Of course almost every church will say the former but, the egregious example above aside, how many mean it? Do you really want a pastor who will serve your community and the wider church? Or do you just want a pastor who will serve the people who are already in your church? Healthy congregations don’t just “allow” their clergy to engage the world beyond the church’s four walls; they encourage it.

Pastor and Teacher – This is the one I was looking for, and the one I found. The Letter to the Ephesians talks about how Christ has given each of us different gifts and graces. The author writes, “The gifts (Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”

For most of us in the United Church of Christ our call agreements state that we are becoming “pastor and teacher” of a local church. At the end of the day, that’s what I believe a clergy person is called to be. We are called to faithfully shepherd a congregation in their life together, and to teach that congregation about Christ’s love for all.

Signing the pastor making me "pastor and teacher" of my current church.

Signing the pastoral contract making me “pastor and teacher” of my current church.

What that entails can look different for each congregation, but at the end of the day your pastor should be doing the ministry that they have been prepared for through calling and training. And they can’t do that ministry well if they are also taking on the responsibilities that belong to, and can and should be carried out by, all members of your congregation.

So, what kind of pastor does your church really want? If you are a congregation in search, or even just a congregation trying to figure out where it wants to go, take the time to ask yourself this question. And then, if necessary, adjust expectations. If you do, you will free your pastor to do the ministry God has equipped them to do best. And, more importantly, you will see the people of your church stepping up to do the ministry God has equipped them to do as well.