Subject to Change – Part 2

The slightly ornery phrasing of this set of blogs suggests that being on the receiving end of change isn’t always fun. But, my intent is to suggest that those in the pew have some real input to offer to their shepherd as he leads them toward a new day, a reality I have discovered to be true again and again.

The first of these unexpected insights is that we may not be wanting the same things.

What do you suppose sheep want in a shepherd relationship? Now, I realize that nobody really asks such questions of barnyard animals, partly because of the single-syllable vocabularies of wool producers and partly because talking to animals is one childhood dream that can end in adulthood incarceration. If sheep are answering your questions, farming may not be for you.

But if we could coil ourselves inside the tiny cubby-hole where sheep intellect quietly dwells, what would we learn about their goals for their shepherd? My guess would be that green grass and quiet streams where the current doesn’t threaten to topple you off of your leg of lambs would top the list. “Take care of us,” is the most likely translation of that Baaa sound.

Good shepherds oblige, but they often have a different set of goals. They want to preserve the sheep, helping them grow healthy while somehow maintaining their spotlessness, but they also want to grow the flock. Bigger flocks often indicate better shepherds. Old Testament stories show Abraham, nephew Lot, son Isaac, and even grandson Jacob established their wealth through sheep multiplication.

Sheep and shepherd pursuing different passions in the midst of their relationship can create some challenges. I’m guessing that sheep don’t typically mind having other sheep around provided the grass and water are abundant. Still, it’s likely that the shepherd celebrates new members of the flock a little more exuberantly. Sheep don’t throw baby showers.

When we trade the barnyard for the sanctuary, this potential disconnect comes into practical focus. Not long ago, I met with the leadership team of a smaller congregation as they were preparing to welcome their new pastor. I had spoken with the new “shepherd” a few days earlier and I marveled at his excitement, knowing that his most recent predecessors in this role had struggled a great deal. History wasn’t really on his side, but his dream of building a great church and reaching his community in creative ways was captivating. Maybe he’s the one, I told myself. Like Yoda and the other Jedi masters around the presbytery table, I wanted to believe that balance might have come to their Force as long as he’d be careful not to get too forceful.

Problem is, the people had a different agenda. Yes, they wanted to experience God’s future and see their church reach the full potential their founders had dreamed about and prayed for a half-century ago. These are good people and they would never say “No” to the Great Commission, but I knew that their enthusiasm for this moment of decision centered on having a pastor, a shepherd, one who would care for them and nourish them from God’s Word. They treasured what is and what had been while I knew that his eyes were searching elsewhere for what could be. And in a matter of minutes I could see that their enthusiasms weren’t for the same path.

Here’s the first intersection of change and trouble. Pastor and people try to imagine they’re on the same road when they’re actually seeking different destinations. He dreams of larger flocks and producing enough wool to warm the entire village. They long for greener grass and cool, refreshing drinks at crystal pools. He pleads with them to help him chase down more sheep, and they beg him not to forget that they’re sheep too.

Truth is, they’re both right. Jesus’ clear vision for His Church is ever expanding, seeking to fulfill His Commission within its community and beyond, and at the same time loving one another, nourishing each other with His wisdom and caring for every little lamb with a need. Sadly the pastor and the people seemed to each have a different half of the playbook. Two very different goals, two remarkably distinct directions, and two agendas that often bring a confusing “why” to the issue of change.

Now, the danger in identifying these two conflicting ideas is the accusation of making them sound mutually exclusive. Pastors with their eyes on church growth aren’t calloused to or disinterested in the needs of the existing congregation. Such an assumption would be unfair. And it would be just as careless to imply that the congregation is so consumer-driven that they don’t really care about anyone else’s healthy life plan or eternal hotel reservations.

Yet, when there is change conflict in a church, those are often the colors chosen to paint one another into corners. And suddenly it seems that the amps have been shut off, turning Jesus’ command to love one another into little more than a feint whisper…

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