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Bishop's Column: Shepherding on the edge

Posted: May 3 2018 at 12:00 AM
Author: Bishop Sally Dyck


Soord The Lost Sheep Md

Alfred Soord painting "The Lost Sheep"

When I was a district superintendent in Ohio, I had a series of churches which were all built about the mid-1800s. Their architecture was similar but more strikingly, they all had the same two stained-glass windows. One window was Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. The colors were darks: grays and deep purples. He was kneeling before a big rock in anguished prayer. I could imagine generations of people praying and finding comfort in front of the windows of Jesus in anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The other window was Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This Jesus the Good Shepherd had a lamb in his arms and he was walking with the other sheep who were obediently following him through a lush, sunny green valley. A look of peace, even a look of joy, was on Jesus' face as he triumphantly returned with his lost lamb and flock intact. If you looked real close, it almost looked as if the sheep were smiling! All peaceful, calm and serene, this Jesus the Good Shepherd!

But this peaceful, calm and serene Jesus the Good Shepherd didn’t seem to connect to the experience of life or church that most of these folks were having at that time. The economy was killing the small town where the church was.

One man in the congregation was furious with others in the church because they took their hardware business to the Walmart in a larger town nearby. He accused them of putting him out of business. The older congregants’ lambs were lost; many of their own children and grandchildren had nothing to do with the church. If they did, they went to the larger town nearby… and usually to a non-denominational church. The flock was fighting and in conflict. Instead of smiling, these sheep were butting heads.

I was reminded of a different picture of the Good Shepherd that I knew from my youth. It’s one that’s over 100 years old, painted by Alfred Soord. This is no peaceful, calm or serene setting for the Good Shepherd. The shepherd has left the lush, level ground for the mountainous cliff in search of a lost lamb. He is holding precariously onto his staff. There’s an eagle circling overhead, trying to snatch the lamb away before the shepherd gets to it in order to have a tasty kabob for dinner.

Consider the role of the shepherd in Soord's painting. He had to listen; listen to the lambs crying from afar and then go find them, doing whatever it took. Risking his own life as he clung to the side of the cliff was part of his work in tending the flock. There's no shepherding from the safety of level, lush ground, wishing the lambs would come to him!

The viewer of the Soord painting is left in suspense: what will happen? Will the shepherd fall or fail to get to the lamb in time before it falls or is snatched away? Will the shepherd and lamb return safely to the fold? Shepherding isn’t for the faint-hearted. It requires physical, mental and even spiritual strength to climb mountains, hang off cliffs, be acutely aware of predators and rescue the lost lambs. Likewise, when we talk about the ministry of the church or those of us who are in ministry as shepherds—laity and clergy, this is the image of the shepherd that should come to mind!

Last year at annual conference we approved an Annual Conference Shepherding Team (ACST) with corresponding District Shepherding Teams to help connect, coordinate and communicate ministry and mission throughout our annual conference as well as to vision and strategize for the future. I was a little surprised when the Organizational Task Force decided to call them “shepherding” teams.

Shepherds aren’t a part of everyone’s experience. (Although in full disclosure: my brother and I had a little sheep-raising business when we were young so I do know a little about shepherding!) In fact, some church consultants think that we should abandon all use of the word shepherd or even pastor (which means shepherd) because it’s too passive and, dare I say, serene for the tasks of ministry.

Yet, shepherding or ministry today is really about going to the edge, willing to venture out of the safe, level ground into the present and treacherous religious landscape. The Annual Conference Shepherding Team has to be ready to go to the edge of where people are in our conference, local churches, and communities so as to help equip us all to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

We have many forces around us—like those circling eagles overhead—that make it difficult to be the church in the world today. Unlike our memories of previous years, the landscape isn’t level or safe or easy; it’s rugged and sometimes being the church is a real “cliffhanger” in terms of what will happen (think: the special General Conference in 2019 or maybe any one of our local churches).

The Shepherding Teams are charged to do this "adaptive" work to help set mission, vision, priorities, and strategies as an annual conference for the near future. As is always stated in adaptive work, what we have done in the past isn't going to get us through our challenges today!

Shepherding requires attentiveness, listening, risking, and caring deeply for people around us, and not just "our own." Like the Good Shepherd, we're called to go to the edge, to go over the edge and to reach out from there! That means we experiment and risk new ways of being the annual conference, the district, the local church and yes, even disciples/members. That's scary for many of us. That's going over the edge! But even as we seek to do new things, risking like the shepherd in Soord’s picture, it’s really how we do things that will ultimately matter.

If we want deeper trust in our conference or church, then we have to reach out from there and be trustworthy. If we feel isolated and alone as clergy, laity or local churches, we have to reach out from there and meet others where they are. If we want younger, newer and more diverse leadership in our churches or the district and annual conference, we need to reach out from there, inviting them in and empowering them. If we want safe places so that we can think, imagine, dream, and risk sharing an idea that might not be quite “baked” yet, then we have to reach out from there and create that space.

Shepherding is really about leading; leading by example, listening, caring, risking in the midst of the precarious places we find ourselves, and reaching out from whatever place we find ourselves, so as to make it better, more Christ-like, more loving, and holy!

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