It can be pretty daunting at times to speak against the shepherds, the church leaders who feel they’re fulfilling their calling and serving God… but there are times when the right thing is to speak out against what’s going on. So I’ve been sticking my neck out, talking critically about the shift from shepherds to CEOs and the fact that we like it that way, and even about Surviving Church. Sometimes I get to wondering if it’s all just me, if I should really be saying critical things about situations that so many others have accepted… after all, these folks are the leaders of the church, aren’t they?
Ezekiel 34 conveys the message of a time when it was right to speak out, when God called ol’ Zeke to speak out. God weren’t so happy about the job his shepherds were doing… there’s more, but the first 6 verses run like this:
Then this message came to me from the Lord: â€œSon of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign Lord: What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldnâ€™t shepherds feed their sheep? You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them.
Wow. Despite it being the perfect “proof-text,” this chapter had basically slipped my mind when I wrote “The Rise of the Pastors & The End of the Megachurch Era” some two and a half weeks ago. Then via Bill Kinnon, I found Susan the Philosophical Pastor talking about it, saying “When you understand the depth of the love of God, you understand why God is so serious about leadership.”, and advising leaders, “The fact that a lightening bolt has not hit you today is not necessarily a sign that everything is hunky dory, and why wait until thatâ€™s all God can do about you?”
Well done: this nails it. Unfortunately though, my experience suggests that leaders are not generally open to the fact that they’re in danger of lightning bolts, or that they tend to welcome being told that they’re not caring for the flock very well. I suppose that Zeke couldn’t expect a warm reception to the words he levied in the direction of the leaders of his day, so I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise if not much has changed in this area between his time and ours.
As I had said last week, I donâ€™t really “settle” well, which is why I can’t seem to make peace with some of the practices that others seem able to. It isn’t my responsibility to hold particular leaders to account, but I do feel it’s appropriate to speak out in general terms about the ways that we’ve practicing leadership in the church… and what we ought to be striving for. As Bill commented on Susan’s post, it’s a word in season.
Look at Ezekiel’s description of the state of God’s people and how the leaders had let it develop… the leaders treated themselves preferentially, ruled harshly, ignored the weak. He says the “sheep have been scattered without a shepherd” and “have wandered …across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them.” Is there even a remote chance that this does not describe the landscape today? Should I be putting the question to the “leavers” or the “stayers”? Doesn’t that distinction alone tell you something’s amiss?
It’s not just you. I am following your train of thoughts here about leadership, and I also especially liked the quotes that Bill shared.
In some ways, I feel I’ve lost the ability to credibly speak out about leadership due to the fact that I have written so extensively about spiritual abuse. I am often perceived as a hurt or bitter victim lacking perspective.
I agree with you about these passages. They could also be applied corporately to our institutions and the tendency to take such good care of ourselves ($$$) while overlooking the needs around us in our communities and in the world.
There are some great thoughts in the rest of the passage also. One in particular:
“I myself will tend my sheep and give them a place to lie down in peace, says the Sovereign Lord.”
I am no longer looking for another shepherd. I may find a flock or two to graze with, but I look to the Lord to lead me. That may be written off as reactionary (see paragraph 2), but personally, I think it’s the way it was supposed to be all along.
Thank you for the link. I really want to emphasize the fact that a prophet with a broken heart is different than a lightening bolt. Sometimes people believe the prophet’s words are supposed have the same effect as that bolt: strike ’em down mostly dead, and with pain and suffering, humiliation, “God’ll show them…” and so on.
No. The responsibility to speak truth to power comes with the responsibility to pray first until your heart is broken, and full of love. That love might be fierce, but it does not murder or bring vengeance. That belongs to God, who reserves the power of the lightening bolt all to Himself.
As a leaver who wanted to stay, I have no words. I have no place anymore. There is a part of me that echoes with what Grace says, but another that rejects it. If we are to be Christ’s living body here on earth, we cannot be disparate cells wandering aimlessly, apart from one another grazing together for a time here and there. And relying on bodyless spirit for leadership. I want that to work, because I see that as the only way that we’ll be safe from one another’s lusty desires for power and place and security. On the other hand, I see Jesus’ call for us to submit to one another and how can we do that fully if we’re not amongst each other living carefully, cautiously with leaders who are not on a psychotic power grab.
Not that I’m about to go out and find a faith community any time soon, you understand. Twice burned, three times shy and all that. I’m simply struggling with what we are called to in light of what’s written vs. what we are actually capable of in light of what we’ve lived.
One thing is for sure- prophetic words (real ones) are taken just as well today as in Ezekiel’s (or Jere’s or Eli’s, et al) day. Even the ones that are direct quotes from those guys– whom we esteem as truth tellers now that (what almost 3000 years?) have passed. Say it or write it and you’re immediately labeled. Then there are the “prophets” who speak against the prophets! eeh gads.
Ahem. What I meant to say it that I find the subject of shepherd/ing confusing. Yes, we’ve missed the boat. True, more “shepherds” have served poorly than well throughout history (my estimation.) What do/can/should we do about it?
Like Grace, I’ve learned not to say much, since I’m not a shepherd myself and, though currently a stayer in general, am still seens as leaver by some.
And also, like grace, I don’t see a shepherd in my life. So what makes me such a smart sheep who doesn’t need a shepherd? I despise feeling presumptuous like this.
God clearly instituted this shepherd image. Is it still relevant? Does feeding and tending equal shepherding? Or perhaps feeding and tending just means seving as a stable hand. If we’re going to look at these prophetic words as possibly having current relevance, then we must look at what happened in ancient times. The shepherds lost their jobs, so to speak. Actually, I guess theylost the entire farm. :-)
It could be said that today a lot of shepherds are losing their farms. I’m feeling a little pessimistic. I’m not sure that many of them have the ability to look at shepherding in any other way- the shepherds of Israel were clueless.
ahh i’m rambling. you touched a nerve.
Great thoughts sonja and cindy! It is good to wrestle through these things with you. Now you’ve got me thinking…
Is it such a stretch to believe that God wants to shepherd us himself directly? Hasn’t that been His heart all along, for example, when He wanted to speak to His people directly, but they stood afar off asking Moses to mediate for them, and when He wanted to rule His people directly, but they insisted instead on a king like all of the other nations.
What if He still wants us to deal with Him directly, trusting Him to be our source for life and direction, trusting a bodyless Spirit for leadership?
That doesn’t negate the need to be a part of the body, submitting to one another, loving and serving each other with the gifts that we share. However, it does question the type of reliance we place on a particular individual, expecting them to facilitate our relationship with God.
I don’t feel too smart or presumptuous to need a shepherd. Rather I feel desperately dependent and reliant on the Father, trusting Him to keep me close, and even to redirect me if I’m off track in this area.
I agree with Susan, that is often a fierce love for the church that is willing to speak out for something better.
That doesnâ€™t negate the need to be a part of the body, submitting to one another, loving and serving each other with the gifts that we share. However, it does question the type of reliance we place on a particular individual, expecting them to facilitate our relationship with God.
Grace … I really like that bit … I’ve been wrestling with this a lot lately (as you know). I read a really good book called Organic Community by Joseph Myers … in it he talked about power sharing, or letting a project have the power (relational power) rather than positional power. So that power shifts throughout a community depending on what the community’s needs are at any given moment, rather than having it sit in one position/person all the time. I think this does a lot of things. First, it helps to ensure that all members are actively listening to and seeking the leadership of the Father. Second it helps to protect everyone against that faclitation you speak of. It does other things too … but I’m late for an appointment and I had to get these thoughts out of my head ;-)
Like Grace said – being seen as a bitter and angry victim and choosing to follow God before man and sometimes without man, or being a prodigal like Sonja – feeling destined to return, or like Cindy – the one who planted her feet and chose to ride it out. Or me, the one who walked away and doesn’t necessarily ever see herself setting foot in a “church” again simply because there is too much love needed in a world that is not receiving if from the churches.
I just want to say: these are all hard places to be, and we are all on challenging some journey which God has orchestrated for us, and while our experiences are all different, we are the same in our sense of the desperate need for change, maybe especially in the way leadership is done.
But I love how we have created a community, here in this world made of technology, in the face of our RL communities which may be broken. Maybe for some of us it is only a temporary substitute, but I think in light of the developing and cool relationships I have with each of you girls and the relationships you have between each other, in some strange way, it works.
not to leave out brother maynard…. whom we greatly appreciate! ;-)
well said ladies. erin i especially like the point you made about how we’ve moved into these different places for much the same reason. that’s the God way of doing things, isn’t it.
An observation and then a couple of comments.
Observation – all who have, so far, responded to this needed post (thanks again bro. may) are females expressing some level of hurt/injury/pain with “church as usual”. Is there something driving this? I hear enough distaste for the “church” from women that it is giving me pause to wonder if something is a foot of which we need to be aware.
A couple of statements.
1. “There is no shepherding without caring, but you can lead without caring” Glenn Wagner, Escape from Church Inc. I think Wagner hits it on the head. Many of us have had experience with “shepherds” interested only in fleecing the flock. Bro. May’s words of condemnation need to be heard by such shepherds.
2. The church is the bride of Christ. Like its warts or not, Jesus thinks her beautiful and is making her more beautiful. How can you not participate? Been hurt? How about finding healing in His body? I seem to recall some words Paul wrote about the foot saying I’m not an eye so therefore I’m not part of the body (or something like that – it’s in 1 Corinthians 12 i think). If you are in Christ you are part of His body and the expectation is that you will participate in the process. How can you do that if you are AWOL?
I leave you with the marvelous promise of God to Jeremiah, “Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding” (Jer 3:15).
Actually, my husband would express his distaste in terms far more condemning than mine. His hurt and distrust run much deeper and I think it will take him longer to recover. But he doesn’t comment on blogs. So I don’t think this is a male/female thing. I think it just so happens that women commented here.
Another thing that might have driven the gender gap is that in conservative churches most leaders are male and this post was aimed at leaders. My guess is that not too many would come forth and comment here.
The last thing I am beginning to wonder about is this … just what is the “bride of Christ?” Is it that gathering in specific buildings on Sunday mornings? Just because we humans define something as “church” does not necessarily mean that God does too … what if Jesus is thinking He doesn’t know that?
I am not sure who you were referring to when you talked about not participating in the Body. Assuming you may have been referring to the women who commented, I can say with confidence that each one of us consider ourselves a part of the Body of Christ, and I believe we have experienced healing through His Body. Speaking for myself, I don’t consider myself AWOL, and personally I wouldn’t say the same about the other women who commented either, whether or not they are currently attending church services.
It is actually love for the church, not distaste, that drives me to envision something better. I believe it is appropriate to speak out about the changes that we believe are needed.
Sonja, Grace – Thanks.
Thanks, girls — and John! Now somebody’s going to be talking about the feminization of the emerging missional church soon….
To clarify, I don’t think that any of us in the “room” would consider ourselves AWOL… most of us might say that we followed our Shepherd out the door. I would say that every believer is part of the church — the body of Christ — period. Whether they’re members of a local church congregation or not is a different matter. The former is not optional, but for many, the latter has become so. Of the people that I know in that category, most continue to fellowship with other believers, share the sacraments, and generally maintain the essential bits of organized church — but in a destructured way.
I love the observation that you can lead without caring, but you can’t shepherd that way… it really sums up a lot of how I would see things as well.
To be shepherded directly by God would fit well within the themes of the Bible… God wanting direct relationship with us, and proclaiming himself as our only King, or our Good Shepherd. I think one of the ways he cares for us is through people, some of whom have pastoral gifting… but as we’ve been saying this gets messed up when we hire leaders as pastors instead of looking for the shepherd God has sent.
To all whom I may have offended…
I extend apologies. This is one of the things that I HATE about trying to communicate through this medium – however, I LOVE the fact that I can dialogue with folks like you whom I would otherwise never have opportunity to converse with.
I am concerned (as a shepherd – well compensated btw) that there is an exodus from the “church”. Do I believe we can do church in ways other than those traditionally handed down to us? ABSOLUTELY! Do I believe I can do church on my own? NOT AT ALL! Church is very much family – sometimes they piss you off and hurt you deeply but at the end of the day you’re still family. Like it or not, you very well may spend eternity living beside the very ones who have hurt you. Is it possible that some of God’s greatest grace gifts are being missed by those who follow His ways because they are bailing out early?
Please understand this is not meant to be accusatory toward any sitting at this table. I am one of those leaders watching this thing happen and I honestly want to know how can I help? How can I shepherd folks who’ve been devestated by the church? It pains me to see so many who could be agents of needed change depart because opposition arose or leadership mishandled (or even worse, abused) the trust given to them. Pleae hear a plea for understanding from this shepherd’s heart.
I know I’m late to return to the conversation here but maybe someone will read.
No offence taken, but thanks for your response… I love the charitable dialogue we can have around here even when we’re not always on the same page with each issue that comes up.
You ask a good question though… how does someone pastor those who have left the church and are considering returning? Or simply been abused elsewhere and are seeking sanctuary? Perhaps this is a question that some of us could tackle in greater length through posting our blogs… but first off, I would suggest that people in that camp do not want to hear a defense of the church that hurt them or of those leaders. Sometimes we don’t want to hear a defense of church in general… but otoh, a simple acknowledgment that what happened to them (us) was wrong will go a long way. A lot of stuff is going to be said out of pain, and it’s important to hear past the words in that dialogue. I should give this one some further thought.
Just to let you know, I wasn’t offended by your comments. I appreciate your desire to understand. I have a point of view about church that might not fit with the way you see things.
As far as helping, you might not want to use the phrase “bailing out.” (I’m smiling BTW, not upset.) I’m sure every circumstance is different, but often leaving a church is a difficult and painful decision, not a rash method of escape. The kind of growth in grace that you describe is not possible in a toxic situation.
This topic hits close to home for me. As Br. Maynard suggested, I may need to do a little writing to process the thoughts you both have triggered.
Blessings to you!
John – I am interested in responding to your comment. However, please know I speak for only myself here.
As far as “family”: I DO participate in the family (body), even though I do not attend a church. I have people I serve, people I meet with to pray and worship, people I am accountable to and ministries I give to. I also receive sound teaching on a regular basis, mostly through the podcasts of respected leaders, but nonetheless. I just don’t do all these things in the same place.
You asked how you can help. This is what I would say (not necessarily directed at you personally but at Pastors in general):
First: don’t criticize or judge those who leave church, either publicly or privately. This will only drive them further away.
Second: try to truly hear what they say – even if you disagree – think about whether or not there is even a grain of truth to their points. More than anything they want to be “heard”.
Third: be willing to remain in the same level of relationship with the people who leave your church, and encourage your church members to do the same. People who leave, even if they cause a ruckus, should not be shunned – either literally or figuratively – ever. If you believe, as you say, “people who hurt you are still your family”, this belief goes both ways.
Fourth: release them to the God you both serve, and trust that Jesus is able to go after the one who wanders.
Maybe I seem wounded. I am, but I’m recovering. I’ve been out of church 2.5 years, but I do see myself returning to church eventually. My faith is stronger, my spirituality healthier than ever. You certainly don’t have to accept what I say, but these are my thoughts. Thanks.
John, I’m very glad you came back to clarify your thoughts.
Brother Maynard, Grace and Erin have given you some good stuff to chew on.
Here are a few more tidbits from my end of the spectrum.
I left my church when it became clear to me that the only choice for me to stay was to lie … either about myself or about the leaders. I was to confess to the body things that I had not done and that were not sins in the first place. This became clear after three months of protracted, painful meetings. I did not “bail out” in a rash decision. I was released … it was a clear moment when God released me from the church. I can understand that now, but I did not at the time. I’m not offended at your choice of language, I’m just attempting to give you a picture of what happens when committed Jesus-followers leave a church. It is almost never done lightly. Or without great pain.
Here is my question for you, as a shepherd, there are people leaving churches all over. Committed people, committed Jesus followers … who leave churches all the time. No one ever asks why? No one ever follows up with them or wonders what could have so badly broken with them that they left. Why is that? Why are they allowed to just break and leave? Why do those that remain seem to believe whatever pap that is fed to them and go on about their business. If church is to be a family, then someone leaving is a divorce and we all behave as if it’s no big deal.
So, yes, I am wounded. I am without a home and wandering. Wondering. Waiting to hear where to go and what to do. I have given up on church as we currently understand it … for the time being. Erin calls me a prodigal and I think there is a lot of truth to that. In the main, I am wondering if it is possible for us humans to have community without idols. Is is possible to have community without heirarchy and power struggles and grinding each other into the dust? Thus far I have not seen it exist …
Ah yes, language counts. I am a practitioner of the spoken word and the personal interaction. The written word carries nuances that can easily be mis-interpreted… I will try to choose words more carefully. Again, this is the part I despise about this format. I wish I could sit down around a nice meal and talk with you guys for the evening. I think then we would all come to a better understanding as we could all hear each other’s words and also sense each other’s hearts. But that won’t happen and, thankfully, Bro. Maynard has provided this table for us to sit around.
The idea of “being released” from a church I understand. I go through this each time I have a transition in where I’m leading as a pastor (only 2 times in 20 + years). The difference is that the release I have experienced (so far) is a release from one place of service in order to go to a new place of service. It is not a release from involvement in the corporate/community aspects of the body of Christ. I’m not certain that is even a biblical notion (I will check on this).
I know there are toxic churches out there, I’ve ministered to and with people coming from those very places. Sometimes it is the right thing to leave – I’m concerned about leaving and never finding another body/congregation/community. I’m also concerned that in some of those toxic places God may be using individuals like you to bring the toxicity to the light. Not a pleasant job but someone has to do it (see Jeremiah for more on this).
Final note on leaders and hierarchy, (I’m responding between our morning services)…the body must have structure. The nature of this structure is vital and unfortunately open to much abuse unless it is vigilantly guarded. We are structured in our church very traditionally with this single guiding principle – there is one head in our church and it is Jesus. Trite, sure. Practical, absolutely. It reminds all of us (pastor included) that no aspect of the life of this church belongs to anyone or any group. It all belongs to Jesus. We actively oppose language like “My Sunday School Class” or “My small group”. There is one owner and this keeps us all a little more humble and less power hungry.
Thanks for listening to a pastor and sharing your wonderful wounded lives with me. We are all wounded. There is only one who can heal us.
I’d like to put in my thoughts…
As a person who left, I left a toxic relationship with my former pastors. I don’t see them as the whole problems, because I carried alot of hurt from other issues, that got in the way of my seeing them clearly. I will take responsibility for the misunderstandings I was a part of, and the hurt I caused.
It has helped to look on my relationship with my mom. I had to walk away from my relationship with her, cause it was getting toxic. On both our parts, we caused pain and heartache, and we both needed time and space. In that separation, we found out more about ourselves, and learned to see life, God, and each other differently. Now, as we’ve re-established that relationship, we enjoy new perspective, and love the fact that we’ve arrived at similar conclusions separately.
I struggle with seeing the leaving of a church, as a divorce, as that’s too committed. Are we married to our church? Does God require that level of commitment?
thanks you bro. have heard this word over and over all year. as a shepherd type, i need to keep in check. it’s a subtle temptation.
I know I’m coming late to the table, but I want to add another thought.
Not all of us who’ve left have done so for reasons of toxicity predominantly. As I’ve mentioned before, we have a son with FASD who is severely affected with behavioural and sensory expressions of the syndrome. We left because his needs make it impossible for us to participate in the standard format of pretty much ANY church body. We spent 10 years as part of this local body and finally left when our son was 8. We kept waiting and asking for the “village” needed to raise our son – but it simply wasn’t coming. The committment and community we require is more than this particular group of people was willing to put forth. And, yes, we were serving and giving of ourselves – not just expecting to be waited on.
My husband would very much like to be part of a local church body again, but I’m still too wounded to go forth. I have absolutely no expectation that there even IS a body out there that would be willing to take us on and care about us as their own. And even if there were, my kid could still not manage sitting through more than 2 minutes of a worship service and would throw a temper tantrum if we even tried putting him in Sunday School (which would also be impossible without a one-on-one aide). Ever seen a nine-year-old throw a temper tantrum?
See, I don’t feel that we bailed prematurely. I feel like we held out as long as we could.
We serve in our community. We give where we see need. We love Jesus. I’ve spent the last year or so devouring the works of Francis Schaeffer, so I don’t feel we’re lacking good teaching. We are lacking in fellowship, but then we were lacking that when we were hauling ourselves to fill seats on a Sunday morning or when we were paying a sitter while we went to a small group or when we were leading one in the inner city that nobody came to. I was lacking that when I helped run a women’s retreat for 8 years, when I went to worship team events, or to our mom’s group. We just gave up one stressor in our lives. Hopefully, God has a plan to connect us with some life-giving folks again – but I’m not holding my breath.
Thank you for sharing your story. I think stories like yours are more common than the “church” would like to acknowledge. I know of far too many churches that will accept you as long as you’re not a burden. We have a couple with twins who are autistic in our church family. Frankly, some of the congregation just doesn’t understand and don’t seem to want to understand. The twins are noisy, they move around a lot, and sometimes scream with a high pitched voice that certainly wakes any who may be sleeping at the moment ;-). In short they are a distraction. We are working at ministering to this family. Imperfectly to be sure but steps are being taken to encourage and minister to them. As pastor I consistently communicate what a blessing these twins are to our church family. Others are picking up on the message.
It is incumbent upon the people of God to extend the hands of God to those who are aching. I pray you will find a fellowship willing to go beyond the norm to minister life and hope to you and yours.
For those of us that don’t know, what would be helpful to you, as a mom, with a special needs child? How can the church become more inviting/welcoming to a family like yours? What needs do you have personally that a church family could meet? I’ve got a sneaking suspicion we all know someone like you to whom we might be able to minister. Help us help others Cindy-Lu…