Chapter 10. The Good Shepherd and the Christian Menagerie: on the Necessity of Strong Pastoral Leadership
Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. Luke 17:37
On my ordination papers I am commissioned, among several duties, to "feed the flock of Christ." That phrase references Chapter 21 of the Gospel according to John and the resurrected Jesus' summons to Peter. The imagery of shepherd and sheep rises strong in the Bible. Many of us can recite the King James Version of Psalm 23 with only an occasional loss for words. Among my favorite Words of Assurance, repeated a hundred times during my pastoral tenure, are those borrowed from John 10, the Good Shepherd promising the flock, that he comes "that they may life, and have it abundantly." Of the several titles attending the ordained office, the one dearest my heart is Pastor... with its suggestion of pastures and sheep and shepherds.
There is about an effective pastor the aura of the intimacy and self-giving attributed to a good shepherd, the one who fights off the mountain lions, the one who goes in search of the lost lamb entangled in the world's brambles, the one who shares the sunlit days and the cold nights with his flock, and there's nothing they must face but he does too. Oh, I could rhapsodize about the strong and loving connections forged between the pastor and his flock. I have albums of tributes and pictures testifying to the closeness and importance of that very special relationship. Said albums were presented to me on the completion of my last pastorate. It took me nine months of hesitation before I could screw up enough courage to read through those albums without letting tears smudge the ink. One after another of the flock of my caring credited me with kindnesses and wisdom and influence I can honestly say I was unaware I was providing. If I were to list the reasons why pastoring souls is the best job this mortal life has to offer, the top of that list would read: the overwhelming payback of gratitude from the flock shepherded.
But the tender imagery of shepherd and sheep should not be pressed too hard. The shepherd's mix of motivations, always and inevitably, because pastors too are very human, includes a dose of self-serving. Pastors can be famously egotistical. Congregations help to make them that way, in part because of the chorus of praisers telling them just how wonderful they are for delivering so eloquent a sermon or providing such personal and helpful counsel. Besides, most of us, clergy and lay, try to please, to be popular, to be loved. Who better to get that loving than the one who so often preaches about the two great commandments? Like I have joked with those who have asked me what I miss most about no longer leading a congregation: I answer with a smile, "Being important." I should have added, "And being loved."
Then too the shepherd-sheep imagery, the tenderness thereof, often falls on the rocks of congregational reality in which the sheep are not very sheepish.
As a young shepherd in western Connecticut while still a student at seminary I discovered early on that sheep have teeth. The organists in each of the two churches on my Sunday morning circuit regularly instructed me in what hymns to choose and how many verses of the hymn they would play. It was never negotiable. Just out of my hearing, but reported to me anyway, the knock on the young preacher was that he was, well, young. So much for the vaunted aura of infallibility which is supposed to accrue to the pastor in the opening weeks of a new pastorate! These churches had, of course, seen clergy come and go, with such regularity that the absence of pastoral leadership had led to a shadow hierarchy of lay leadership. And pity the poor pastor who didn't smarten up quickly and understand that the flock of Christ, like the famously undirected Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, managed very nicely on its own, so don't think ordination papers make you the boss when it comes to fixing the plumbing or choosing the hymns.
My introduction to my first full-time appointment as a pastor included a tour of the basement hall of the Sunset Park (once Norwegian) Methodist Church in Brooklyn. On the walls of Wesley Hall were hung large photographic portraits of the saints of yore. Everyone of them was a layman. Had I the wit during that tour and my first weeks at the church I would have been clued in to the local church's tradition in which the pastors were expected to be very spiritual and temporally irrelevant. Fortunately I didn't get it, and we embarked together on seventeen and half years of wrestling with their image of The Pastor and mine. By the time I left that church, seventeen and a half years later, the photographs of lay saints were in a closet, but neither was mine put in their place... though there was a flattering, if failed, attempt to name a room after me. I learned how to be a Pastor, and they learned overlooked dimensions to the pastor's humanity.
The sheep of the flock of faith are more Mary's Little Lamb and Whiffenpoofs than the docile creatures of our strategies for going to sleep.
The effective pastor, therefore, knows the necessity of using a firm hand in leading the flock. Setting the tone at the beginning saves a lot of trouble later on. For the sheep of God's pasture are like the children my fiance (now wife) and I supervised at a summer day camp in my hometown for two years. The first week was a time of testing, testing the limits, of our patience and our threats to enforce punishment against bad behavior. I learned on the diamonds and picnic benches of Cummings Park that if one holds the line, is fair, and, occasionally, is forgiving when there is genuine repentance, the rest of the summer is a breeze. Wise schoolteachers follow the same rule that in September one had best come on as a taskmaster because it's always easier to loosen up than to tighten down.
Under this same rubric a shepherd to be effective in the long term will at the outset scream loudly when his toes are stepped on by the herd. The issue which caused the most turmoil when I was first appointed to a large suburban church on Long Island was: what should be the sacred hour of worship? How painful it was to listen to Christians arguing for this time or that largely on the basis of their own convenience. Congregational referendums were inconclusive. In the midst of the angry infighting, I had the inspiration to (1) cite the church's book of law, which invests the pastor with the right to open the church for worship at any hour of his choosing, with or without congregational consent; and (2) borrow the wisdom of Solomon and choose an hour between the two times, 8:30 and 11, which pleased neither faction, but had the merit of displeasing each equally. The grumbling, and there was plenty of it initially, subsided within a few weeks and in less than a year or two was entirely forgotten.
The shepherd doesn't wield a crook for nothing!
Not that it should ever be wielded irresponsibly or for the shepherd's own aggrandizement. In my young life I have seethed over my encounters with senior clergy who, frustrated with my unwillingness to see things their way, erupted like ecclesiastical Major Hooples: "Young man, don't you know who I am?" Which was to say to me, "Who do you think you are challenging me; I'm not just a divine but an ancient one deserving of respect and compliance?" I resolved then and there never to think of myself more highly than I ought, especially in the presence of those, like junior highs, who would be quick to grant my office all kinds of special dispensations. I also resolved never to be afraid to tell the emperor with new clothes the naked truth. Chapter and verse on this last resolution I'll save for another time and place.
Pastoral authority must always be reasonable.
Perhaps the crook's necessity is best understood when absent. If many churches have wilted under the heavy hand of an authoritarian pastor, still more have fallen apart when the pastor cannot bring himself to writing an occasional line in the sand. The sheep have a dreadful tendency to become jackals in the absence of clear, kindly, and firm pastoral leadership. Because the church, if an institution with otherworldly aspirations, still has this-worldly aspects. Congregational life is subject to the same kind of hierarchical arrangements as are families and businesses. For all of the talk in my denomination of late about being brothers and sisters, the fact is that the competition for a place in the sun, for recognition, for better appointments, for higher honors continues unabated, since the day James bested Peter in the race for patriarch of Jerusalem. The church is also a place where people vie for status. That competition can be fierce and wounding.
I recall with regret how badly blindsided I was by the exception taken by a woman in middle life to the selection of a young mother as Sunday School superintendent. The latter seemed to be the obvious choice for that position. She had the credentials, but, more important, she was charming and a born leader. What I hadn't counted on was the depth of feeling by the disappointed woman, with equal credentials but missing the warmth and enthusiasm that draws in other people. She and her family departed, claiming that the younger women of the church didn't like her. Besides, the pastor hadn't been supportive enough to her or her children. Little lambs can also bare their teeth. And the good shepherd will learn to stare them down, and, if need be, let them find a happier pasture in which to graze.
As when it dawns on a woman with a child in the choir that the director is gay, and mom immediately sets out on a campaign to subvert his leadership, visiting in the homes of similarly situated families, stirring up protest. The pastor gets wind of it, phones the crusader, and summons her to his office to clear the air and tell her to cease and desist. Her husband arrives instead and deflects the complaint. She leaves the church, taking her two teenage children with her, but no one else, other than her husband a year later, goes. Pastoral firmness, in the name of fairness and openness in the conduct of life together in the flock of Christ, stopped a mess before it started.
Or how about defending the flock from predators? Consider this two million dollar issue: the Long Island Church I served held a 17% interest in a construction company thanks to gifts of stock over several years from the principals of the corporation. When it appeared the company was selling valuable property it had offered earlier to another purchaser for $6 million, now to a company in which the officers, but not the church, held major interest, for $2 million, I sought independent legal and financial advice. That effort was interpreted by the company president as "going behind his back." The president, a church member who hadn't attended worship at the church for at least twenty years, made a personal appearance at the Church Council meeting and berated the pastor (me) for not trusting him. He left the meeting in a huff, withdrew his membership, tried to buy back the shares the church owned (for one-sixth their value), and never did understand what everyone else at the meeting apparently did: that I was, however misguided, seeking to serve the best interests of the church. Sometimes the shepherd has to guard the gate of the fold against wolves, even when they look very much like his own sheep.
But the shepherd not only defends the fold, he will actively take it into new directions, out to greener pastures, up to clearer vistas. I have in another context celebrated the integration of congregations as disparate as Norwegian and Swedish-Americans. (Don't laugh, Vikings carry prejudices against one another, that, to the rest of the un-blond world seem insignificant.) My mantra for integration was: we're doing it for Jesus Christ. Then, we we added a third segment, a Dutch Reformed congregation from across the street, I promised them, like a faithful shepherd, that I would stay around and see that the merger worked. I did and it did. I wasn't putting my life on the line, just my time and my career. The sheep will follow the shepherd when they believe the shepherd is following the Good Shepherd.
Tough love is the new name for the good shepherd's kindly firmness.
Strong leadership can enable good things to happen. Like keeping the gate to the sheepfold open to include, as Jesus puts it, other sheep not of this fold. I count among my proudest accomplishments as pastor my leadership for the Lord on this issue. Sure, Long Island has long experienced the pulsation of New York City demographics. "Go east, young immigrant," has been the advice to up-and-coming families for generations. The latest wave of emigrants from the other side of the City Line to my corner of Nassau County are people from the Caribbean, the Asian Rim, and Africa. But integrating newcomers, even those of the same complexion, into the fold filled with sheep with ancient loyalties is no easy task. Good things don't usually just happen. They often must helped along, encouraged, prayed for. The "bully pulpit" celebrating diversity helps. Charming, gregarious new little lambs also help. But the eyes of the fold will fasten on the shepherd. Is he welcoming? Is he too welcoming? Does he love the old ewes and rams as much as the brand new cuddly little lambs? Is he crusading for a social cause, or is he genuinely seeking to uphold the cause of Christ and the future of the church? Does he practice what he preaches? And there are a dozen other questions, all of which need the reassurance of the shepherd that what is happening is the tide of God's love, a new opportunity for Jesus and the church bearing his name. Then what others label "integration" becomes, the widening and deepening of that family/fold of faith.
In summation let me mix the animal metaphor a little bit: the good shepherd (the effective pastor) is a tough bird with a kindly disposition, capable of ruling the roost and scaring off the jackals, all the while tenderly nurturing the nestlings. It's not an easy chore, but someone has to do it. Besides, the satisfactions, if not the pay, are the best.