Shepherds or Sheep: Who Sacrifices More?
A while back, one of our readers asked for an article that explores the relationship between UBF shepherds and sheep. Many volumes could be written about that subject. In my limited experience as a blogger, I have learned that it is best to write pieces that are narrowly focused. So today I will raise just one question.
In a shepherd-sheep relationship, who sacrifices more: the shepherd or the sheep?
For clarity, let’s define the terms. A shepherd, in our UBF lingo, is a believer who attempts to evangelize and disciple someone else in the Christian faith. A sheep is the target of his or her efforts, the one who is being actively evangelized and discipled. The main vehicle for this discipleship is one-to-one Bible study, so shepherd and sheep are sometimes called “Bible teacher” and “Bible student,” respectively.
When asked the question “Who sacrifices more?”, many would instinctively respond, “The shepherd.” UBF messages, testimonies and reports are filled with anecdotes of exemplary shepherds who go the extra mile to serve others at great personal cost. And our metaphorical language of shepherds and sheep is rooted in Bible verses that emphasize the sacrificial life and death of Christ: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Because Jesus, our Good Shepherd, gave himself so completely for us, we ought to follow his example and do the same for others.
This common understanding of the shepherd as the one who gives, and the sheep as the one who receives, influences our reactions when someone decides to leave our fellowship. When a person leaves, the one who shepherded him often feels betrayed. “How can he do that to me now, after all I’ve done for him?” Those feelings of hurt run especially deep if the person who is leaving criticizes us as he goes. The pain of rejection and broken relationship, combined with our dashed hopes and expectations, is almost unbearable. Many of you know that feeling. I know it too; I have experienced it multiple times. It may produce antipathy and hardness toward that person. It may lead to bitterness toward God who, despite our best efforts and intentions, did not answer our prayers to transform that sheep into someone who would pay back the love and service he received from us by doing the same for others.
But this conventional wisdom – the idea that the shepherd sacrifices more – deserves to be scrutinized. In many respects, I believe that we have underestimated what it truly costs for someone to become a sheep in a ministry like ours.
The shepherd-sheep relationship is asymmetric. Is there ever any doubt about who is in charge? The shepherd is the person who is considered older, wiser, more mature in his faith, or more committed to the UBF ministry. He is the one who initiates the relationship, proposes the agenda, and leads the Bible study. The sheep is the one who follows his lead. Outside of this discipleship process – in “real life,” as one might say – these same two persons might relate to each other in other ways. Perhaps they are friends or classmates. Perhaps they are husband and wife. Some UBF members have become Bible teachers to their own parents, a very interesting situation with unusual personal dynamics. Nevertheless, once that process of discipleship begins, the one being discipled very quickly figures out that within that context he is the passenger, not the driver, and the spiritual journey will continue only if he continues to yield control to the other person.
Thus, from the very beginning, the sheep has sacrificed something of immense value: He has swallowed his pride and allowed himself to be led and instructed by someone else.
And that’s not all. Here are some other sacrifices made by the sheep.
The sheep allows his worldview, spiritual practices, lifestyle, character and culture to be probed, questioned and challenged by the shepherd. To allow these aspects of his personal identity to be critiqued by someone else – by someone whom he may have just recently met and still barely knows – requires a remarkable combination of courage and humility.
Very early in the relationship, the sheep understands that the shepherd has hopes and expectations for him that he may not share. If the sheep is not yet a professing Christian, he realizes that the shepherd would like to convert him. If the sheep is a believer, he realizes that the shepherd wants him to join the UBF ministry and become a shepherd too. In many cases, those hopes and expectations are not openly discussed, but they are communicated implicitly through the shepherd’s actions and prayers. When the sheep realizes that the shepherd has an agenda for him that he does not yet agree with, he finds himself in a very awkward and uncomfortable position. Yet the sheep endures this discomfort and continues the relationship anyway.
And as the discipleship process continues, the sheep begins to expose to the shepherd his true self: his feelings, problems, inadequacies and sins. He makes himself vulnerable, providing information that could hurt him if the shepherd indiscriminately shares it with other people.
Now consider the sacrifices made by the shepherd. The shepherd spends considerable time, effort and resources to be with the sheep, to pray for him, to show him love and care through Bible study and sharing meals, conversation and recreational activities. These sacrifices are real and important. However, when we compare them to the sacrifices made by the sheep, they are of a completely different nature. These sacrifices made by the shepherd are not intensely personal. They do not place him in a position of weakness, undermine his beliefs and values, or threaten his sense of self. Rather, the sacrifices made by the shepherd tend to reinforce his own faith and values and strengthen his identity as a Christian worker and disciplemaker.
Consider the UBF shepherds and Bible teachers that you know, and ask yourself the following questions.
- Does the shepherd ever assume the role of the learner? Does he ever allow himself to be instructed by the sheep, to learn something of lasting value from the sheep, to the point where it may visibly change his own life?
- Does the shepherd ever allow his own beliefs about God, his church, his lifestyle, his character, or his culture to be probed and challenged by the sheep to the extent that it actually becomes uncomfortable and causes him to seriously wonder whether he is correct?
- Is the shepherd truly upfront and honest about the hopes and expectations that he has for the sheep? Does he make this agenda explicit, or does he keep it completely or partially hidden?
- Does the shepherd expose his true feelings, current problems, inadequacies or present-day struggles with the sheep? Does the shepherd openly reveal any weakness or doubt? Or does he merely wear a mask of joy, confidence and strength, sharing only good things about himself to be a “good influence” and uphold himself as a good example for the disciple to follow?
- Does the shepherd ever allow the sheep to serve him, to do something of value for him that he cannot do for himself? Does the shepherd give the sheep any opportunities to occupy the moral high ground by becoming the giver, allowing him to experience the joy of serving in real, non-symbolic or non-token ways?
- Does the shepherd ever entrust the sheep with confidential information about himself, information which makes him vulnerable and would hurt him if it became the subject of gossip?
If the answers to these questions are “Rarely,” “No,” or “Never!”, then how can we honestly claim that the shepherd sacrifices more?