Priorities for Shepherds

In Luke's Gospel Jesus tells the story of the sheep who got lost. Not a bad sheep, I'm sure, but stupid and careless. The Good Shepherd leaves his ninety-nine responsible nibblers and goes in search of the lost one. I picture the shepherd clambering over rocks and climbing steep hills, risking at least exhaustion or a sprained ankle. When he finds the lost sheep, he is overjoyed and carries it home on his shoulders.

"This is a story of caring, tenderness, and generosity. The shepherd goes to extra trouble and clearly didn't count the cost: he took a real risk in leaving the ninety-nine to look for the errant one.

"Mine is the confession of a Bad Shepherd. My experience turns the story upside-down.

"Just as in the real estate business location is everything, so in ministry, lay and ordained: motivation is everything. Ideally, we are able to forget ourselves and to forget all possible rewards and satisfaction. We do our best and do not expect applause. After all, we have no evidence that the faithful shepherd was welcome when he returned with the straggler. Maybe his friends wondered why he had bothered to search for it instead of cutting his losses. Maybe no one even noticed that he had been gone.

"Recently I gave a workshop. It was sold out. People were more than ready to like me, to like what I said, and to go home feeling that it had been a good experience. For three days we danced together, spiritually if not literally. The participants assiduously took notes while I talked, cooperated graciously in small group exercises, and ended by giving me a standing ovation.

"I was walking on air. I was also working hard at not taking the adulation too seriously, working hard at my 'aw shucks, gee whiz' response, trying to be a sort of spiritual Jimmy Stewart, who charmed a nation for decades with his homespun humility. But deep down inside, I was lapping it up. I was loving the warm experience of being loved. Even then, I knew that I was more than slightly in danger of forgetting my own small place in God's great economy.

"Then the program ended with the exchange of hugs and E-mail addresses. I modestly thanked all the people who were so effusively thanking me. The crowd thinned, then disappeared, and I sat in the lobby of the conference center and waited for my transportation to the airport. While I waited, I leafed through a great pile of mauve papers, the evaluations filled out by the program participants. If anything, my glow of satisfaction increased, as I repeatedly read 'excellent' in the space for rating the presenter. I glowed even more as I read the comments, extolling my warmth, my accessibility, my wit, and my holiness. I was hot stuff! God was lucky to have me on God's lecture circuit!

"Then near the bottom of the heap, my stock plummeted. For this program participant, I was rated 'fair-to-poor' as a presenter. Maybe I was a fairly good writer, the disgruntled participant wrote, but it just didn't carry over in person. Clearly I was an introvert, inhibited in the extreme. All in all, the days at the workshop had been a disappointing experience.

"I remembered her: we had chatted during one of the breaks. She was an articulate woman, focused rather narrowly on her own approach to our topic, with a bit of an edge to her, but seemingly open and friendly. I hadn't felt great affinity between us, but I hadn't felt hostility, either. Now her intensity took me aback. She hadn't liked me! Worse, she had sat there for hours on end disliking me, maybe hating me!

"I was surprised, hurt, outraged. How dare she! How could she fail to recognize a stellar performance, especially when everyone else had leaped to their feet to applaud!

"The longer I reflected on this one negative response, tucked in the middle of a great sheaf of adulation, the more I was surprised — not at the disappointed program participant but at myself. Why and how could a few sharp words outweigh ninety-plus love letters from my fans? Why did I remember that one brief page? Why did it overshadow everything that had gone before — the candid give and take of discussion periods, the easy laughter at just the right places in my lectures, the earnest conversations over meals, the spontaneous friendliness that had characterized the workshop?

"I like to think of myself as a humble follower of the Good Shepherd, happy to put self aside as I scramble through rough terrain and smooth in emulation of him. I like to think that I have my priorities straight — that my work is not about me or about my own satisfaction, but about the Good News of God's prodigal love. So it pains me and shames me to be caught out in pursuit of selfish goals, to find myself lost and in need of rescue.

"I doubt that I will meet this woman again. In a way, I wish that I would, even though I am sure that she would scare me and make me self-conscious. I would like to thank her — not for her tips on public speaking or guidance on how better to present myself in large groups but for the powerful reminder that I am a Bad Shepherd. Or, more charitably, that I am at best an Apprentice Shepherd, Junior Grade.

"It's all too easy to forget who my boss is. My real boss isn't my bishop or even the church herself. My real boss is certainly not the people who engage me to entertain or enlighten them. My real boss is the shepherd who is willing to clamber over the rocks and up the cliffs, then to disentangle the lost sheep from the thicket and carry it home. Rejoicing. Without a thought of thanks from the rescued one or the ninety-nine left to fend for themselves. That Good Shepherd probably doesn't have time to read the evaluations."