By Sue Magrath
I have been thinking a lot about the challenges that clergy are facing these days. You are all having to deal with an entirely different type of ministry in this time of pandemic. So many of you pattern your ministry after the example of Jesus, and that has always been the best way—calling on that overused, but appropriate question, “What would Jesus do?” But what about now?
Jesus was a hands-on kind of guy—walking among the five thousand, healing and teaching, taking water from the woman at the well, spitting in the mud and rubbing it on the blind man’s eyes, preaching in the temple while his disciples gathered around him, no six-foot distances between them, breaking bread with saints and sinners alike, gathered around a common table. Even Jesus might have been flummoxed by the situation we are now in. How do we continue to spread the gospel, do the tasks of ministry like pastoral care, Bible studies, communal worship, and sharing a common cup when our very lives demand distance and separation? Where is the biblical equivalent for that?
Obviously, most of you have found workarounds, using the gift of the internet to find ways to connect. But it doesn’t feel the same. Perhaps it doesn’t feel as fulfilling, as life-giving, as Christlike as the “normal” way. It might leave you feeling that something is missing.
Whenever I am struggling, I look for a metaphor to guide me. So when a pastor reached out to me with his/her existential angst, I started trying to find a metaphor that might help. And my search brought me to the “good shepherd” passage in John 10. This is such a rich passage, with a multitude of metaphors and meanings to grab hold of. Two verses, in particular, feel pertinent to the times we are living in and the function of the pastor within it. Jesus says, in verse 7, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep.” And in verse 11: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Somewhere along the way, I heard someone, probably one of you, who shared the context for this passage. Apparently, a sheepfold is a large circular corral of sorts with a fairly wide gap that allows the sheep to come in and out. There is no gate. Instead, when the shepherd brings them in for the night, he lays down in the gap, serving as a human gate to make sure the sheep don’t wander off in the night, and also to protect them from wolves and other predators.
But we are now living in a time when the predator is smaller than the eye can see, and being gathered together within the sheepfold can be deadly. So now the good shepherd’s most important task for the protection of the sheep is to lay down in the gap and keep them out! It is to allow them to roam the terrain, feeding on the grasses of the wilderness, wandering far from one another. They can still hear the shepherd’s reassuring voice, and he/she can hear them when they cry out. This is what the good shepherd would do and what you are already doing.
I hope these words help you stay centered in these trying times. I hope they give you renewed purpose and meaning. Jesus states in John 10:10—“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Amen.
Sue Magrath is a spiritual director and the author of several books. Her previous career spanned fourteen years in the mental health field, where many of her clients were victims/survivors of child sexual abuse and/or sexual assault.