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Hurtful Sheep and Bullied Shepherds

shepherd the flock

The final “Amen” was given and my friend descended the pulpit and took his usual place at the back door. As people filed by shaking his hand, one particular member of the congregation approached him. Foregoing any and all pleasantries he immediately began to humiliatingly pick apart the message that had only ended minutes before. Overwhelmed by the onslaught, my friend, who is called by God to shepherd the flock, had no idea what to say or do.

Called to Shepherd the Flock, Even When Painful

Thankfully, an older gentleman who was visiting—actually a retired pastor—overheard the harangue and interrupted: “What do you think you’re doing?” The man replied with all seriousness: “I have the spiritual gift of nitpicking and it’s my job to humble the preacher.” Defensively, the retired pastor fired back: “That’s nothing but spiritual bullying and it’s absolutely unacceptable!”

The relationship between a pastor and the people is one that should be grounded in every Christian grace but also crowned, in a special way, with joy and love. The Apostle Paul shows his pastoral heart to the church in Corinth when he said: “And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Corinthians 2:3-4).

Tragically, as pastors shepherd the flock, that relationship can easily be shattered. We’ve heard and read of the abuse—physical, spiritual, emotional and sexual—that some have suffered at the hands of a wily pastor. The very man entrusted with knowing, feeding, leading and protecting the sheep of Jesus’ flock has the potential to do untold damage. If Robert Murray M’Cheyne was right when he said, “A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God,” then equally true is that a manipulative, deceitful or prideful minister is an awful weapon in the hand of Satan.

And there are lives that bear the marks and pain of hurtful pastors. Personally, I have never known which is greater—the fear I sense for those pastors who must stand to give an account before the Chief Shepherd for how they chose to shepherd the flock, or the absolute heartbreak of watching tender sheep being deeply wounded.

Without minimizing that, however, it’s also true that this relationship can easily be shattered from the other side. The sad reality is that sometimes sheep become hurtful and bully the shepherd. Now, just to be clear, I’m not passive aggressively speaking of myself. Words would fail me to adequately describe the way in which the congregation I serve has loved me and my family. Truly, they are my joy and crown (Philippians 4:1). But I know pastors—some who are good friends—who daily feel beat up, hurt, manipulated, neglected and even tortured by wily sheep.

The other day I got a phone call from one such pastor who said: “Help! Talk me off my metaphorical ledge!” That morning he’d gotten an angry text message from someone who blamed him for wrecking an upcoming family vacation because he didn’t approve of a Sunday school topic, he had an email faulting him that a woman was losing her faith because he wasn’t happy enough in his preaching, a family was threatening to withdraw their children from the church because youth group wasn’t what they wanted it to be, and he was on his way to visit a person who had been spreading gossip about him. It wasn’t even noon yet!

I know the ministry isn’t supposed to be easy. There are burdens and anxieties that are particular to pastors who shepherd the flock (see 2 Corinthians 11:28). Mary Winslow reminded her son Octavius of this when she wrote: “When you accepted the pastoral office you commenced a life of trial both from saint and sinner. Oh, do not be surprised at all you meet with.” A good shepherd will bear many of those trials in silence (1 Peter 2:19-23) and endeavor to let love cover a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). But it’s a painful reality.

Pastors are only men, and just because they’re public servants doesn’t mean they don’t have private anguish. It hurts when sheep are meticulous fault-finders in everything a pastor says and does. It wounds when sheep lay all the blame only on a pastor’s shoulders. It’s traumatic when sheep hold their pastor to their unbiblical and unrealistic expectations. It aches when sheep neglect the material needs of a pastor and his family. It’s painful when sheep hold things like time, money and talents hostage unless the pastor does what they want. It’s miserable when sheep secretly roundup the opposition failing to go privately to the pastor. It’s abusive when sheep have no regard for a pastor’s emotional, mental and spiritual well being. Yes! Sheep can hurt, wound, abuse and torture the shepherd.

Of course, that’s not how it’s supposed to be. While the shepherd is to do all he can to cultivate a relationship of joy and love with the sheep, the sheep also have a responsibility to do the same. The author of Hebrews wrote: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).

You are either a source of joy or groaning to your pastor. Of the church in Galatia Paul said: “You did me no wrong. You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:12-16). You can either welcome and receive your pastor in the love of Jesus or reject him out of hatred for the truth. To the “saints and faithful brothers in Christ” Paul wrote: “And [you] say to Archippus, ‘See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord’” (Colossians 4:17). You can either be a constant source of motivation for your pastor’s ministry or a continual deterrent.

The potential that sheep have to help their pastor and his ministry flourish by the power of the Spirit and the grace of Jesus is immense. Believe me when I write that you can be your pastor’s greatest encouragement or his greatest discouragement. What kind of sheep are you?

This article about why it’s hard to shepherd the flock originally appeared here.