Everyone going into ministry should be forced to work with actual sheep.

"Have you ever dealt with a bunch of actual sheep before?" I asked a friend recently at lunch. I throw a lot of non sequiturs at her.

Growing up, my family had bottle fed lambs as well as 4-H sheep projects. I was meeting my friend for lunch having just come back from a housesitting vacation where I helped care for a small flock (or herd, if you prefer) of sheep.

My friend shook her head.

"I think everyone who is going into full time ministry should be required to spend a semester helping a sheep farmer. They need to understand the metaphor," I said.

God doesn't use things carelessly. Ever. The use of sheep, shepherds, and all of the actual stories about them--all of it--is in the Bible for a reason. We use the word "pastor" instead of shepherd, but we get the word "pastor" from Latin; it means shepherd. It means to lead to pasture, to grazing, to get sheep to eat.

Sheep are unique. You want to scream at them, you want to hug them. They can be infuriating.

Sheep are easily frightened. They run in all directions and follow other sheep even if the other sheep are not geniuses. They make bad decisions when doing this, sometimes running into fences and walls out of thoughtless terror. They get caught up and hurt themselves. They get through fences and eat gardens. Sometimes they just stand there staring off into nothing, bleating repeatedly. They often have twins. They might reject a new lamb, requiring it to be bottle fed with great effort by caretakers. They can get sick easily. Most have to be sheared or there can be problems. They learn to recognize their caretaker. They learn habits of how they are cared for and respond accordingly. They are dirty. They can be friendly or shove their head into you when you aren't looking.

Sometimes I think ministry leaders want to kill their sheep. It seems some might slip from shepherd to butcher easily if they forget the where and how and what of the job.

Sometimes I think ministry leaders want to lord over their sheep. They want to be in a hierarchy, in control.

You never really control a flock of sheep. You might manage them generally, but it is through habit and trust that they willingly acquiesce. Most importantly, the shepherd needs to be on the ground, where the sheep are, to take care of them. And it's there, in that role down on the ground with them, that you can understand better that the primary motive is to feed them.

This blog post could go in a lot of directions on this topic, but I want to point out two, which I made my friend suffer through in our discussion as I tried to get to a point of clarity.

The shepherd and the sheep are on the ground, getting dirty together. You can't feed the sheep from up high or behind some kind of fence. You mass feed farm animals with systems of partition and automation when you raise them to be efficiently slaughtered. Hopefully, people in the ministry aren't trying to mass feed animals and move them through in efficiency towards slaughter.

So the point here is about two things: partitions, and feeding.

First, partitions.

At an event last year, my mom and I seemed to both notice the same thing; I discovered that reality when she voiced an observation I'd made but hadn't voiced. It seemed, unfortunately, that the women in ministry (either the wives of pastors or actual pastors themselves) grouped together.

"I get the sense that there's an us-against-them thing sometimes," I said to my friend. "You know, ministry leaders versus the people. I think that's a stupid distinction."

I don't do hierarchies. There's us, and then Jesus as the head over us. That's it.

I suspect this partitioning of ministry and lay folk is compounded by the events and groups directed solely to ministry leaders and their spouses. Unintentionally, to lift people up and find connection, they began separating them. We get these weird terms and ideas that seem to say "leaders and spouses over here, lay people over there" and then blow a whistle so we can run for a dodge ball to throw at each other. Even the word "retreat" for some of these events makes it more about a war than about rest. You retreat from a battle. If the retreat excludes a whole segment of identifiable people, that seems to say they're the ones you're doing battle with.

It's a wrong metaphor.

The sheep are all around the shepherd. Jesus was the Good Shepherd, our model, and he was all about his sheep. Modern farming makes it easier to mass manage sheep, and the same can be said for modern churching (if that's a word), but I'm not sure the sheep are any better for it except for slaughter.

A painting by my grandma.

The second thing is feeding.

Jesus told Peter three times to feed his sheep.

Not push them off the cliff in frustration. Not scowl about how they need constant feeding. Not become angry about their requests for wanting more food (teaching). Not gripe about babies and milk and meat and maturity. Sure, adults don't need the bottle...but they still gotta eat.

The shepherd can't say "I gave you some food last month; you should be able to figure it out for a while now."

Shepherds are about feeding the sheep. That's it. They protect them, move them to grazing areas, shift pastures, keep them together -- but it's all about getting the sheep to eat and keeping them alive to do it.

The year I won Grand Champion Market Lamb at the county fair.

So Jesus is the bread of life. Food. There's a lot of bread and water and manna metaphor going on in the Bible. Food. Eat. Eat the scroll. Teach, preach, exhort, encourage, feed, feed, feed. One meal doesn't cover it for a lifetime.

"If ministry leaders had to take care of actual sheep as a qualification to graduate, it would open their eyes," I said. "People are just like sheep. Just like them. We are sheep."

You have to understand the metaphor.

A Quick Read
By Julie R. Neidlinger
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