Perils of shepherding: sheep bites
PLYMOUTH – My earliest years of ministry were carried out in the arid mountains and valleys of West Texas in and around the small town of Marathon. This region of Texas is defined by the “big bend” in the Rio Grande River as it makes a South to North turn and is from whence the National Park located here receives its moniker. It is truly a beautiful area of our great nation with majestic views and never-ending expanses of almost totally uninhabited desert.
It receives very little moisture in the form of rain but when it does, the transformation is magical. A brown, dry scrubby landscape blossoms into a green canvas that will within days sprout the most brilliant of wildflowers. It is truly something to behold.
It has been said of these seemingly barren grasslands that “no land offers so little and provides so much. The reason being is that the grasses and vegetation of this region are some of the highest protein-yielding of any in the USA. That is why ranchers and stockmen have chosen this area to raise cattle and sheep by the tens of thousands and have done so successfully for many decades.
While living in this area, I had the privilege of working on the Dimple Hills Ranch for Mr. Eldon McGonagill. I was serving in a local church and helping at the ranch as part of my “keep”. The McGonagills graciously allowed me to live in the upstairs portion of their townhouse and were more than generous towards me.
This was my first time around sheep ranching. I had been exposed to cattle since I was very young, but not to sheep. I know this is obvious to most people, but sheep are different from cattle. (DUH!). I just didn’t realize how different they were in nature, demeanor, need etc...
The first thing I learned about sheep came when I was helping move a herd from one section to the other by horseback. You cannot push or drive sheep as you might cattle. They will scatter, run, or just lay down and die, but if you lead them properly, they will follow. As we know, the Bible uses this same analogy with people and pastors as shepherds. We must lead them and not push or drive our flock, or they will scatter, run away or just die.
Mr. McGonagill taught me many things about sheep ranching and life. He was a deacon in our church and a spiritual leader in the community. Every conversation in which we engaged would ultimately find its way to the Bible and our Lord Jesus. One such conversation that I will never forget was about the nature of sheep. He explained how they are very docile and rarely aggressive. He told me that almost exclusively male rams become aggressive when ewes are in season or when their territory or herd is threatened. He said even then, it is rare.
It was during this exchange that he asked me a very peculiar question. “Tim, which hurts worse, a wolf bite or a sheep bite?” I told him, “The wolf bite of course.” He said, “NO! The sheep bite because you’re not expecting a sheep to bite!” He then gave me this knowing look and a half smile and said, “that will be important to remember in ministry.”
I was young and naive at the time and could not really understand the depth of that truth. But the longer I have spent in ministry and the more involved I have become in people’s lives, the more the reality of that truth manifested itself in my life and experiences.
I know now how horribly painful sheep bites can be. Not only are they painful, but some seem to never heal, and the scars are ever present. Yes, I have been bitten and have many scars as reminders. If it were not for the ever-abiding assurance and presence of our Lord and a never-ending supply of Grace, I am sure I would have succumbed to my wounds.
Pastor and leaders, I want to encourage you to stay close to the healing love of the Cross. You will need it! The hurting bites will come but don’t be surprised when they come from those you shepherd, love, and lead. Sometimes they are just your “sheep in wolves clothing”. Some of the vestiges of their past are still hanging around them. It is your calling to help them cast off the old and put on the new.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Patterson is Executive Director/Treasurer of the Baptist State Convention of Michigan. Elected unanimously in May of 2015, Patterson formerly served for 9 years as pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. He also served as trustee chair and national mobilizer for the North American Mission Board.