Some say sheep can’t be stolen. Is that really true?
The argument, of course, is that sheep go where they are fed. Therefore, there one should not fret when another member leaves to another neighboring church.
The Nature Of Sheep
It may be true that sheep may go where they’re fed. On the other hand, it is also true that sheep are very indiscriminating in what they eat and where they graze. Scriptures indicate that sheep left to themselves go astray. They will simply follow the food without discernment or awareness of consequences.
When sheep go where they are fed, they can get into trouble. When they follow their stomachs they aimlessly wander and find themselves in numerous precarious situations. They get lost. They fall off precipices. They fall into holes. In the worst cases, they get injured or fall prey to devouring wolves.
There’s A Reason Shepherds Have Tools
Sheep have a proclivity to be easily led into danger. They are very easily satisfied by any food that happens to come along. This is why sheep need shepherds and why shepherds need–and skillfully use–at least two specific tools.
The most important of these tools are the crook and the sheep dog. Together, the Shepherd uses these for several specific reasons.
The first reason for these tools is to keep out outsiders and anything that does not belong among the sheep. Anything that threatens whether it be animals of prey or other shepherds, do not belong near the sheep. All they do is destroy the sheep.
The second reason for these tools is to keep the sheep from wandering. The sheep dogs, the shepherd’s crook, and his voice are all used to bring back that sheep prone to wander. Sometimes it takes great pain and sacrifice to keep a sheep from following its own inclinations to wander off into another pasture. Sometimes the sheepdogs effectively instill fear to bring them back. Sometimes the good shepherd has to leave the flock and take personal efforts to rescue the sheep from it’s pray…or other false shepherds.
The third reason for these tools is to keep the flock together. External forces prey on this unity. Sheep are easily led to think that the pasture is greener in another territory. Other conniving shepherds may even call the sheep out of one pasture into another. This calling is not for the benefit of the sheep. It’s purely for the benefit of the shepherd. It is the sheep stealing shepherd that fleeces the sheep for his own personal profit and gain.
Internal forces also threaten this unity. Internal struggles between sheep, ignoring the feeding of the newborn “runt,” and the general inability to see their purpose and direction tend to fragment and scatter the sheep.
The sheep’s greatest enemy is also internal: themselves. They are the ones who get themselves into trouble. They are the ones who let themselves wander. They are the ones who just don’t discriminate between voices to follow. Because they just don’t see the big picture of the pasture, they put themselves into harm’s way.
Given these internal and external forces, the good shepherd has an exhausting job of caring for the sheep and protecting them from outsiders…and themselves.
They Only Go Where They Are Fed
Shepherding sheep is difficult enough without having to deal with other shepherds invading the flock. Unfortunately, this occurs only all-to-often in the Christian church. Sheep Stealing pastors are marked by their pious, “Sheep only go where they are fed” defense.
To a degree they are right. Scriptures do indicate that sheep do indeed go where they are fed. But their feeding habits are by no means limited to an exclusive location. Nor is their preference to eat in one pasture necessarily exclusive of their desire to eat in the other pasture.
The bottom line is this. Sheep will eat anything, anywhere at anytime. They are not that discriminate. They simply eat that to which they are led.
Sheep Are Led To The Food
“Sheep only go where they are fed” also indicates that they are very vulnerable to being led. They are easy prey. Unless led by the good shepherd who lays down His life for his sheep, they are in precarious hands.
What the sheep-stealers won’t say is that they are taking advantage of the naiveté of sheep. They know that sheep are easily led. They know that sheep are indiscriminate eaters. They know that sheep will blindly follow the food into any pasture. So under the pious, hypocritical defense “they only go where they are fed, ” sheep-stealers offer food to your sheep under your nose without your permission.
Those who are not “good” shepherds are merely hirelings. They threaten the sheep unawares. They take advantage of them. They break in a steal. When threats arise, when the sheep are fearful, they take advantage of the situation and offer immediate safety…in another pasture.
How To Steal Sheep
A. Prey On The Negatives
1) Prey on those members who visit your church indicating they are unhappy, promote how wonderful your church is.
2) Prey on those members who are confused. When members of others churches speak of conflict in their church or disagreements, don’t counsel them on how sin affects every fellowship. Instead, tell them of the joy that is in your church. After all, we don’t have conflicts here! See how we love each other!
3) Prey on other members complaints about their church being inactive. Don’t encourage them in the use of their gifts in their church. Share with them how much everyone enjoys serving the Lord in your church.
4) Prey on their disagreements by urging them not to reconcile their disagreements. Offer a caring shoulder for them to cry on and open them with warm arms.
5) Prey on their denial. If they were the cause for problems with their relationships with other pastors, don’t deal with the issues. After all, if they just join your church they’ll find it’s unnecessary to really confront the issues.
B. Prey On The Positives
1) Be extra friendly to members of other congregations. Make they feel as if you are more friendly than their pastor.
2) If they visit your church, urge them to join immediately. Do not recognize and encourage them in their value and service to their own church home. Do not treat them as a visitor. Treat them as a member. After all, your church is “everybody’s home!”
3) Put members of other churches on your mailing lists. Remind them via mail on a regular basis just how much more your church is doing than theirs. Let them get discouraged with their church as they read of how exciting yours is.
4) Paint your grass greener than theirs. Who cares what the truth is. The issue is to get them to join. Over-report your congregation’s good points and their congregation’s bad points. Under-report their congregation’s good points and your congregation’s bad points. The more green paint the better!
5) Cut the other pastor down. Let others know their weaknesses…but tactfully. “So-and-So is a really good pastor except that…” is an excellent sheep stealing approach. Certainly, these weaknesses are such that the other pastor can’t be trusted. Be surprised that they have been with the pastor so long.
6) Build yourself up. Show off your excitement. Sell yourself. Make them walk away coveting the day when you will be their pastor.
7) Call and contact them frequently. The more contacts you make with them, the more they’ll start feeling like you are their pastor. A
8) Use carrot-and-stick motivation. Remind them of what they don’t have in their church and what they could have if they joined your church. “Is that what God really wants?” is a great question to use to give them the sense that you are just concerned for their spiritual welfare. “Oh, how this pastor cares!” is, of course, the intended response.
9) When in the hospital, make it a point to visit other pastor’s members often. No where are they more vulnerable. They expect their pastor to come so they won’t brag about their own pastor’s visits. But, if blessed by the visit of the pastor of a different church, they will brag about you. “Even pastor so-and-so visited me. That pastor is so wonderful!” This strategy is especially effective because it helps to bring them on board in the sheep-stealing strategy.
10) Attend and visit other sheep-stealing source churches as often and frequently as possible. It is best if you can have yourself invited in as a speaker, facilitator, or preacher. If not, bring your spouse and attend these events together. Everyone will be impressed by that pastor who loves their spouse. Be sure to participate in the question and answer period. Stay for the reception time and meet as many people as possible.
11) Don’t contact their pastor about any of your interactions with them. After all, if their pastor is such a hot shot, why doesn’t that pastor know what you know about their members?
12) Invite them and their children to your church’s functions. “You’ll enjoy it!” “We just want you to have fun.” All these open invitations are excellent ways to show off your approachability.
What To Do With Your Sheep Stealing Problem
1) Admit the Truth: Sheep don’t just wander. They can be stolen. One brother in the ministry put it this way, “I am convinced that the expression “Sheep go where they are fed” is a myth. From what I have read, sheep are one animal that will follow wherever you lead them, even off a cliff. That expression is simply a pious sounding rationalization for leading people away from one church and in to your church.”
2) Address the issue to the offending Sheep-stealer. The issue, of course, is multi-faceted. For starters sheep-stealing can be a character issue, a church issue, and a fellowship issue. It is certainly many other things as well. In addressing the issue to the suspected sheep-stealer it is important to be direct but also charitable.
3) Don’t target the offending one. Instead, direct your ministry energies to enhance your congregation and its people not toward destroying someone else. Just because other brothers may prefer the gutter doesn’t mean you have to jump in, too. Romans 12:21 is excellent advice for those afflicted by sheep-stealers. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (NIV).
4) Romans 12:17 also discourages “tit-for-tat” revenge. Just because someone else steals sheep does not make it right, proper or ethical for one to steal back. God will repay. Just keep on heaping coals of spotless Christian churchmanship and impeccable character.
5) Recognize that other factors may have caused a misperception of sheep stealing. For example, if you heard that another pastor made personal visits on one of your member, the member may have requested the visit. Or, if you discover that the member has been put on their newsletter and mailing lists, one can’t just assume the pastor did that. Your member may not have clearly indicated they were members of the church. So, acting on insufficient information, the church may have innocently followed up on a visitor.
6) Leave room for face-saving, at least in the initial instances. Sometimes just the call itself will put the suspected sheep stealer on notice. Every time it occurs address it.
7) If the sheep stealer doesn’t respond, indicate your disappointment in an impassioned but firm manner. Perhaps other brothers may have similar experiences. If so, discuss together the possible steps that can be taken that they are willing to support. Perhaps various levels of denominational hierarchy may be able to offer counsel.
8) Discuss guidelines for how to handle inter-church local transfers with your denominational brothers or your clergy group. Some circuits or judicatories voluntarily develop guidelines that prohibit transfers from other churches of the same denomination for six months. Others have developed guidelines that prohibit transfers from conflicted congregations. Some have even developed guidelines for how to acknowledge visitors from other churches and steps for contacting their home pastor.
9) Bring in examples of articles which may shed light on the issue. Articles such as this one can serve as a useful spring board for some very fruitful discussion. Hopefully this discussion will translate into action.
10) Model by your actions and ministries a ministry which truly recognizes and respects the sheep-fold of other pastors. Sooner or later one of the sheep-stealer’s members will come your way.
11) Thank God for the other clergy who are supportive, professional and supportive of your ministry. A brother provides help in adversity (Proverbs 17:17). Thank God we’ve at least been spared from that, but in the meantime it would be nice if life among the clergy could be more friendly than brotherly.
Ultimately there may be nothing you can do to prevent attempts at sheep-stealing. Perhaps the best way to prevent it is to catch it early. Develop an attendance system which alerts you to immediate changes in attendance patterns. Sometimes just a phone call can be an introduction to open the door for special ministry opportunities for those just starting to visit other churches.
Promptly contacting the sheep-stealer when his sheep visit your church is a great way to “heap coals” on the brother. Perhaps, over time, the offending sheep-stealer may think twice about plucking sheep from your flock when he understands that you have an impeccable integrity based on principles on this issue. If he doesn’t, you can be assured his problems go beyond mere sheep-stealing.
Thomas F. Fischer
Ministry Health contains hundreds of in-depth articles to help support pastors and church professionals toward healthier ministries.