The Sheep Can Smell, What a Shepherd Cannot See

Because they are prey animals, sheep have a well-developed sense of smell. Sheep are short. Further, they graze with their head lowered. Sheep have a limited range of vision. While a sheep is limited in what he can see, he is not anywhere so limited with the sense of smell. The smell of a predator in the vicinity creates a restless flock. The predator may well be out of sight of the shepherd. Yet, the shepherd does not have the acute sense of smell. The shepherd can’t smell what the sheep smell. So, a shepherd can be unaware of the presence of danger to the flock – while members of the flock are aware.

 

When the Sheep are Uneasy a Pastor/Shepherd Should Beware

Be sensitive to your sheep. The late Ralph Reynold’s book title, If the Sheep Could Speak is interesting. (By the way, this book should be required reading for anyone who will lead a church.) The title makes a powerful point. Shepherds are the ones who “speak.” Yet, as most pastors know, there are times when the sheep do speak. The speech can be about a problem. The speech from the flock will at times be patently unfair to the best efforts of the shepherd. Yet, the sheep do speak. Sometimes, I’d prefer they be silent.

The Benefit of Listening

Yet, I need to express appreciation for some occasions when the sheep spoke. A wise pastor/shepherd is not oblivious to uneasy sheep. Our home missions experience was in Vidalia, Louisiana. V.C. Etheridge was one of our men. V.C. had no formal education. He signed legal documents with an “X.” There is a difference between education, understanding, and wisdom. V.C. had no education. He had a world of wisdom. To get this picture, you need to see the contrasts:

  • I was V.C.’s pastor. The pastor of Vidalia Revival Center. I’m the guy in charge. The fellow running things. V.C. was “just a saint.”
  • Me – a young fellow near 30 years old. V.C. was near 70.
  • My name was on the sign in front of the church. V.C. was a significant member of the church, but his name was not high profile.
  • I had a bit of education from Louisiana College and elsewhere. V.C. had no formal education.
  • My signature is a scrawl scribbled so fast as to not be legible. V.C.’s signing a document was painful to watch. His “X” was not a quick “X.”  Even marking his “X” required him to focus.

Now please understand, V.C. was no rabble-rouser. He and his wife Eula were not prone to gossip. The Etheridges were some of the finest supporters in the church. Beyond retirement age, V.C. continued to work so he would have more money to give to God’s work. As a “baby church” we did not have many options for trustee. V.C. was one of those church trustees.  He loved me and Norma without reservation. V.C. was always excited to introduce me as his pastor.

Just a Sheep?

Still, in the analogy of sheep and shepherd. V.C. was one of the sheep. One among a couple of dozen in the flock. I was the shepherd. I’m the “big kahuna,” with V.C. my underling. As is at times communicated by insecure pastor/shepherds – “Me – Pastor, You – Saint.” In such situations, you can almost hear the guttural communication of egotism gone to seed.

On some church business matter, the specifics of which I cannot recall, V.C. came to me in private. He said, “Bro. Coon, I’m not sure I’d do that. At least not yet.” One of the lead sheep in my flock was nervous. V.C. was no “nervous Nellie” who was afraid of every shadow. His instincts, his sense of smell was something to trust. Something didn’t smell right to him.  V.C. wasn’t rebelling. He was not being contrary. V. C.  was alerting me to danger and uncertainty. He could sense something that I could not.

Responding to Nervous Sheep

There are at least two responses available.  A pastor can become defensive at the sheep’s unease and respond, “Don’t question me.” or “Are you trying to tell me what to do?” The classic response is, “V.C., where is your faith.”

Another option existed. I was a novice pastor/shepherd. Even then I had enough gumption to know that the flock was restless. V.C. could smell what the pastor/shepherd was unable to see. I put the decision on hold. A man who was a financial backbone for the church soon relocated his membership. It was good that I had “listened to the sheep.”  Be wise – a good pastor will not overuse the, “Bless God, I’m running this church,” approach. Watch the flock. Be aware of nervous sheep.

It is worthy insight, “When certain sheep speak, you need to listen!” Listening to V.C. Etheridge helped me keep the flock from great stress.

When the Sheep are Sniffing – Move Slow

When there is danger, the inclination is fight or flight. There is much drama in both fight and flight. Good pastor/shepherds do all they can to limit the drama.  The more of your life and ministry that can be spent not having to “fight or flee” the better. Fight and flight create a tumult in the flock. Sheep are healthier where there is less tumult.

Don’t do the wrong thing, just to do some-thing!

Let’s set the scene. The flock is not grazing. As they huddle close to each other the sheep sniff the air suspiciously. Their weak eyes strain as they try to see the source of the danger they can smell. The shepherd senses the nervousness of his flock. In our scenario, the shepherd decides something has to be done! We have to do it now! Quickly, he begins to move the flock along. The shepherd berates the laggards and uses his staff to pull others along. The pastor/shepherd is leading. He is doing something. Since the shepherd does not actually know where the danger is; he leads the flock to the wolf. 

The sheep knew there was a danger. It was communicated by their behavior. The shepherd was not wise. In his haste to resolve the matter, to escape the danger, the pastor/shepherd led his flock into chaos. When the sheep are nervous, it is not wise to act without knowing for sure where the danger is. Some take the approach, “I’m going to do something, even if it is the wrong thing.”  Most of the time, it is the wrong thing.

Wise shepherds don’t panic.

A panicked pastor/shepherd does not inspire confidence in the flock. God has provided tools to respond to any crisis or to any predator. His Word and the Holy Ghost provide you deliberate guidance. Don’t act outside the guidance of His word. So while quaking on the inside, outside the pastor is a rock.

Do you see this? If you don’t know exactly where the predator is, your impulsive action may move the flock into greater danger. Don’t move the flock into harm’s way. Take it slow. Somewhere a wolf waits. The sheep can smell it. it isn’t time to figuratively take a nap while the flock is restless. Hear what is being communicated. There could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. There may be moral turpitude. Personal grievances may not be being addressed. Some key family may be on the verge of divorce. When the sheep are nervous be aware but don’t panic.

Strategies for the “Nervous” Times

There are things a pastor/shepherd can do when he senses the nervous flock.

  1. Keep the flock close together.  Keep them near you. Be at the door as people enter or exit. Be available. Listen. Be close. Hug the old ladies and kiss babies. Use the power of touch and blessing.
  2. Be watchful of people on the outer edges of the church. Do your best to reach out to them.  It is a good time to send cards and make phone calls that say, “I had you on my mind today. I prayed for you.” Don’t talk problem, be their pastor.

Most things a pastor/shepherd can do to keep the flock secure focus on spiritual disciplines. These include:

Lead a season of focused prayer and fasting.

  • Jesus taught that unclean spirits can only be cast out through prayer and fasting. Most issues of carnality are addressed in the same way.
  • Call the church to a prayer chain, or have several nights of prayer. Leading this is not something you can delegate. The pastor/shepherd will have to lead the church in focused prayer.
  • On occasion, I’ve forgotten the normal protocol of Sunday church. Instead, leading the church in an entire service devoted to prayer.

Preach the exaltation of Jesus and nothing else.

  • When there is church stress, the default setting is to preach Jesus. When you don’t know what to do preach and teach on the “exaltation of Christ.”
  • How do you preach the exaltation of Christ? Each message celebrates some unique attribute of Christ. When Jesus is preached, Jesus comes in as the protector and provider. As Jesus is exalted the presence of a predator is less ominous. Jesus is bigger than whatever the battle may be. When you exalt Christ, it is as if the flock settles down to feed on the good things of God.
  • A suggested resource for preaching and teaching of this sort is Charles Rolls books. Specifically the five books on the Names and Titles of Christ.

Take communion together.

  • There is something profoundly spiritual in celebrating the Lord’s supper.
  • It is somehow humbling yet powerful in remembering His body broken and His blood poured out.  This practice has served well in times when the sheep can smell what the pastor/shepherd was unable to see.

I have spent a bit of time on this topic. Here is a recent blog post about the “science to shepherding: http://carltoncoonsr.com/practically-spiritual-science-sheperding/

Now I need to learn from you. Many of you have similar experiences to what I address here. Would you be kind enough to share your story? It is also helpful to share times when we did not handle things in exactly the right way. There are some other occasions, when I’d have done well to listen to some other key sheep. How I wish I’d listened. We learn from each other. We learn from each other’s mistakes.

I’ve shared three strategies for “nervous times.” Perhaps because Norma and I, “don’t do drama” there have not been many of these times. I’m thankful. I’ve not had to seek many solutions to these challenges. Others will have needed more strategies. You may have used different strategies. Teach us. What have you done when “the sheep could smell, what the shepherd could not see?”

The next post will address things to do when a predator is identified….


Questions? A practical and understandable guide to dealing with the real world stuff in ministry:

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