By Tim Harlow
I don’t think I fully understood shepherding until I took my family to visit a little Dutch theme park in Holland, Michigan.
It was a petting zoo\cheese-making\candle-dipping experience. On this particular day, one of the sheep in the petting zoo had executed a clever escape and was wandering through the outlet mall next door.
Up to this point, he had done no harm (although he was glaring at the sweater store). His escape had been through a little pond at one end of the zoo. He must have been desperate, because, as the nice Dutch lady told me, sheep hate water.
Well, I am a problem solver. It’s who I am . . . it’s my spiritual gift. So I took it upon myself to help the couple of ladies in wooden shoes get their sheep back. We figured the easiest way to return this animal to the fold was to convince him to go back through the water. Suffice it to say that “Lamb Chop” had been there, done that, and had no intention of trying it again.
We chased him, we cornered him, but everywhere that we went, the lamb was sure not to go. He was too fast to catch and too dumb to realize life would be better in the barn than it ever could be at the Bugle Boy outlet.
It was then it hit me. When Jesus said, “I am the shepherd and you are the sheep” it wasn’t a compliment! Sheep don’t know what’s best for them. That’s why the shepherd must lead them to the still water and green pastures. Otherwise they’ll go shopping.
I’m a shepherd, too. “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). My role in leading the sheep is to make sure they are headed in the direction they need to go.
Only 56 Percent
It’s often just as hard at church as it was at the farm, isn’t it? Have you had to wrangle any sheep lately? We had this problem at the church where I serve.
We had grown to three services on our two-acre piece of property, and it was time to relocate. The elders decided the best way to start the relocation was to do a capital fund-raising campaign.
At that time, we still operated largely under the nonbiblical, but democratic, system of “sheep-voting” on all major issues. The decision to hire a stewardship consultant was a significant enough cost to merit a congregational vote.
The issue at hand was a consultant, but the deeper issue was the relocation. Some of the sheep agreed with the vision to move and some liked the present pasture. The vote was taken, and only 56 percent were in favor of moving forward.
I remember the informal postvote meeting of elders (shepherds) in the hallway. “Are we going to listen to the people or to God?” “It’s enough of a vote according to the bylaws, but if we press on we’re going to lose some good people.” They were right.
This is where the shepherding analogy breaks down. Let me tell you why losing church members is so much harder than sheep, especially in a smaller church.
My wife and I had spent a great deal of time with these people. We had baptized these people, taken meals to these people, and poured our lives into their lives. And I’ll admit, some of them were more spiritual than we were. They were mentors, partners, and our friends. Their kids were our kids’ friends. I feel sick to my stomach writing about it years later.
You can’t get away from the pain either. You don’t punch a time clock and go home in this job. You live with the runaway sheep in one way or another. We couldn’t go to Wal-Mart without wondering if we’d see someone who had deserted our flock. My wife remembers thinking, A hundred people have left—is that normal? We felt like failures.
The Right Decision
Moving forward with only 56 percent support was not good political leadership, but it was good spiritual leadership. As I remember, we were barely down the hall, we didn’t even sit down, as we made the decision. Unanimously the shepherds came to the same conclusion—the flock was moving on in faith. I don’t know if it was faith, leadership, or naiveté, but we prayed and we led. And a bunch of sheep left.
Here is the big question we faced: Can a stewardship program work with all those people gone? In hindsight, this should have been the question: How could a program have worked if those people had stayed?
This is what happened: the remaining sheep were united and inspired by the vision of the future the shepherds promised. Many good givers and deeply committed Christians left, but the ones who stayed proved their spirituality in the most faithful way, through giving. We had a campaign and raised pledges of 25 percent more than our “Miracle” goal.
That was almost 10 years ago. As a result of faithful shepherding, God brought us a remarkable piece of property in a great location and we moved. Ten years later we are 10 times larger than we were then. We are on track to baptize as many people this year as we averaged in attendance back during the sheep vote!
Knowing What’s Best
Should a shepherd lead, or ask for a consensus from the sheep? It’s not easy when the sheep are paying his salary. Not every situation turns out like this one. Shepherds have lost their jobs over this stuff. Please don’t read this article and think the same thing will happen to you.
But the point of Jesus’ lost sheep story in Luke 15 is that the sheep outside the fold are supposed to be our focus, and we must do everything to find them.
If you look carefully at that text in Luke, Jesus asks, “Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4, emphasis added by author). “Open country” implies to me the shepherd’s desire to find the really lost sheep meant putting the rest of the flock in an uncomfortable situation. That’s shepherding. That’s knowing what’s best for your flock and making the right decisions.
The sheep who left our church were good people who could serve God in other places. They were certainly not going to Hell. But in some ways, they were keeping us from being able to find the lost sheep that were headed for Hell. “What would Jesus do?” If you’re honest with yourself, you already know the answer to that question.
When he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (Luke 15:5-7).
In case you’re wondering about the theme park adventure, we finally wore “Lamb Chop” down and with one last lunge, I scared him into the pond and he swam home—wagging his tail behind him.
The people cheered.
I bought a sweater . . . wool.
Tim Harlow grew up in a preacher’s family. He was born in 1961 when his parents were students at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri. Tim went to Ozark in 1979 and he spent one year in weekend youth ministry at Glendale Christian in Springfield, Missouri.
Tim graduated in 1983 and went to Amarillo, Texas, as a youth minister. He received his master’s degree in religion from Wayland Baptist University while in Texas, and earned his DMin from Northwest Graduate School in Seattle in 2003.
In 1984, Tim married his college sweetheart, Denise Vernon, who also grew up in a minister’s family. In 1986 they began serving with the West County Christian Church in St. Louis, and in 1990 they moved to the south suburbs of Chicago for Tim’s first preaching ministry at Parkview Christian Church.
Since then, the church has grown from a congregation of about 150 to regular attendance of more than 3,600 people in three weekend services. In May 2004, Outreach magazine rated Parkview as one of the fastest-growing churches in America. To accommodate this growth, Parkview embarked on Phase II of its long-term plans, an $8.7 million, 84,000-square-foot facility with a seating capacity of 1,500.
Tim and Denise have three teenage daughters: Rachel, Lauren, and Becca.