Community of the Sisters of the Church

Welcome Service for Linda Mary

16 April 2010

Isaiah 55.1-5, Psalm 34, 2 Corinthians 5.17-6.1, Mark 6.32-44

Jesus had compassion on the crowd, because they were like sheep without a shepherd’.

A few years ago I was told about a young English doctor who went to live in NSW – voluntarily, you understand – and he did rather well, as most GPs do in Australia. So as an investment – or a tax dodge, perhaps – he bought a small property just outside Dubbo in the mid-west. He planted some grain crops, wheat and barley mostly, and then decided to run a few sheep as well. Come shearing time he rang up the contractor, and the conversation went like this: - now for this part I have to relapse into my native dialect – or our native dialect, I should say.

‘Emmeny’. ‘Pardon?’ ‘Emmeny, emmeny sheep?’ ‘Oh, um ten’. ‘Ten thou’ – he could hear the contractor writing it down – ‘ten thousan sheep’.  ‘No, not ten thousand, just ten’. Silence – and then: ‘Not ten thousan, jiss ten.’ Another silence. ‘Dja wanna gimme their nimes?’

So many discussions about Christian leadership make use of the metaphor of sheep and shepherds. There is very good biblical precedent, for all the major prophets make use of the metaphor: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel – some of the minor ones as well like Amos and Zechariah. All of these writers point up the dangers of having bad shepherds or having no shepherds at all – and that is the point here in our gospel reading. It is because the crowd have no shepherd, or appear to have no shepherd, that Jesus’ compassion is aroused.

The contrast is made more dramatic by various NT writers. St John has Jesus saying ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. The letter to Hebrews speaks of that ‘great shepherd of the sheep’, and St Peter looks forward to the time when ‘the chief shepherd shall appear’. 

However, the problem with images is that they have a tendency to change. The image of looking after sheep has changed. In places like Australia, they tend to deal in large numbers, and to treat the animals simply as commercial items. With large numbers of sheep you don’t lead them, you drive them – you use dogs and stockmen on horses – though these days horses are often replaced by four-wheel drive vehicles.  

If you think back a bit, this was the model of leadership the church sometimes projected. It was certainly this model of leadership that the larger religious orders used to project. Leadership was often about control, about forcing people into patterns of behaviour, tried and tested, we were assured in the noviciate, but based on top-down theories of theology, which left little room for initiative or individuality. It could be deadening and it made many of us cry out with Isaiah, “Why do you spend your labour for that which does not satisfy?”

By contrast, the ancient image of the shepherd is of a man leading a smallish number of sheep, a number small enough for him to know each one of them – and for each one of them to get to know him and recognise his voice. The great advantage of small communities is that we do get to know each others’ voices – and body language; we get to know all the ways the members of the group give expression to their thinking and feeling. 

Intimacy is an important part of community life, the building up of trust, being comfortable in each others’ company, able to express our ideas, even our fears, confident that we will be heard, and taken seriously – provided we don’t take ourselves too seriously. For if we take ourselves too seriously we may become intolerant of opinions that differ from our own and disparaging of suggested courses of action that we hadn’t thought of first.

Furthermore, though intimacy is important, it has to be that kind of intimacy which respects the other’s need for privacy. There is that deep part inside of each of us that is known only to God, and we need to respect that. There is that hidden part of the self which needs to be nurtured to maturity in God’s own space and in God’s own time. Nurturing is certainly part of leading.

There are other things we can learn from sheep. I used to think they were stupid animals, until we got four at St Michael’s House to keep the grass down in the lower paddocks. But they kept on finding ways of getting through fences to get to flowers or young shrubs where they caused havoc. They weren’t stupid; they were cunning and determined. Well, you know what I’m going to say don’t you! It was only a matter of days after I was first made a prior in our community that I met the force of this cunning determination in one of our brothers. I was tricked into making a decision on the spot; you know when you’ve got one hand on the front door knob, keen not to be late for an appointment… It’s always then that someone needs to ask something. Having got me to make a decision, the said brother waited a day or two until he had an audience, and then with something of a flourish, he aired his disagreement with the decision. I was furious with him – and I was furious with myself for being so daft. But that was all part of the power game we used to play, the power game we were trained to play, I think. People had to find their place in the scheme of things; they had to find where the boundaries were.

The leadership of the Good Shepherd is so different. As often as not, when people asked Jesus a question, he didn’t answer it in a straightforward way. Sometimes he asked another question. Sometimes he told a story and asked the questioner – and us – what do you think of that… The welfare of the person, the power to think and respond, the individuality, the development of mind and spirit is what the Good Shepherd seems to elicit – and an awareness of the consequences of our decisions and actions. ‘Depart from evil and do good’, said the psalmist; ‘seek peace and pursue it’. In the end we have to be sorted – sheep on one side and goats on the other.

The leader has to lead. The shepherd keeps his eye on the sheep and when one of them is missing he can leave the ninety and nine to look after each other for a bit, while he finds the sheep that is lost. But his place is out front, leading the sheep. The shepherd knows where he is going, more or less. The leader of a community will have a vision, sometimes a detailed vision, usually the more general idea of where the good pasture might be. But the vision will not come to fruition if it is not communicated effectively. If the vision is not shared, it will simply fade away. We are back to that matter of intimacy again, the sharing of ideas, the sharing of fears, the sharing of hopes and ambitions. 

Bill Countryman argues that we are all called to be priests to one another. I would add that we are also called to be deacons to one another, and to be bishops to one another. I think that our part of the church has a good record of being deacons, of being of service to each other and to people outside of the church. I think that we also have a good record of being priests to one another, of encouraging the exploration of holy things, of enlivening each other’s experience of God. I think the religious communities have had a special part to play in this sort of ministry. However, I don’t think we have been nearly so good at being bishops to each other. That ministry of support, practical as well as emotional and spiritual, has lagged behind a bit. So has the ministry of supervision, keeping a benevolent eye on one another, so that when we see signs of fatigue or temptation we can stand alongside, and sometimes even challenge, if it seems appropriate. 

The leader of a community has a special responsibility in this area, but I would suggest that we are all called to this ministry, to know our fellow sheep, and be known by them: Intimacy, yes, but not intrusive. I remember a former Superior of this community telling me once that the novices had given her a piece of paper saying that she had failed in ‘Smothercraft’.

Linda you have entered a goodly heritage. This community led the way of reform in 70’s and those of us who were privileged to know the community then are grateful for CSC’s leadership: for its vision, for its ability to communicate the vision, for its care for other communities and especially for the leaders of other communities. It is a ministry of reconciliation which goes on, a ministry to which we have been called. ‘As we work together with him’, as St Paul says. At the start of this new dimension of your ministry we assure you of our love, and our prayers ‘that we should work together with him’, who is the Good Shepherd. Amen.

Jonathan Ewer

Chaplain General