There is an unmistakable tie between a call to pastoral ministry and the vocation of shepherding. It’s everywhere in the New Testament. So often I’m left wondering if the work we pastors do today bears any real resemblance to the call extended to Peter when Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” Learning about real shepherding has been refreshing for my soul. James Rebanks farms in the Lake District in England and wrote The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. While so much farming has turned toward greater size and efficiency, the Lake District is a setting so rugged that only the most ancient of methods work. It’s an all-too-perfect metaphor for pastors and churches.
“And then we do it all again, just as our forefathers did before us. It is a farming pattern, fundamentally unchanged from many centuries ago. It has changed in scale (as farms have amalgamated to survive, so there are fewer of us) but not in its basic content. You could bring a Viking man to stand on our fell with me and he would understand what we were doing and the basic pattern of our farming year. The timing of each task varies depending on the different valleys and farms. Things are driven by the seasons and necessity, but not our will." (p. 32)
“We don’t give up, even when things are bad. We pay our debts. We work hard. We act decently. We help our neighbours if they need it. We do what we say we will do. We don’t want much attention. We look after our own. We are proud of what we do. We try to be quietly smart. We take chances sometimes to get on. We will fail sometimes. We will be affected by the wider world… But we hold on to who we are” (79).
The opening page of Rebanks’ book gives a definition that is critical to understand what follows:
HEFT - Noun: 1)(northern England) A piece of upland pasture to which a farm animal has become hefted. 2) An animal that has become hefted thus. V
Verb: Trans. (northern England and Scotland) of a farm animal, especially a flock of sheep: To become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture.
Adj: Hefted: describing livestock that has become thus attached.
The shepherds of the Lake District come from families that are hefted to their land. Their sheep have access to common land, unfenced mountainsides. They don’t run off because they are hefted to the land as well. He goes on to say, “A person’s life was not a thing of his own invention, a new thing on a blank slate. We are bound by our landscape. Shaped by it. Defined by it” (80). This is more true than I typically want to admit, and it flies in the face of everything our world tells us we ought to be. Imagine the freedom of admitting it, though. The freedom from the pressure to make something of yourself, to go somewhere, do things, live up to your potential – which is just a curse of expectations that others have placed on us that will never be possible to achieve.
To be hefted in pastoral work means laying down the pursuit of platform and notoriety. It means embracing that the work of pastoral ministry is driven by seasons and necessity, but not our own will and plans. I long for that kind of rootedness in my own life and ministry. I want to escape the pressure and expectation to be a transient hired hand, always pursuing the next step of a career path and new job prospects. The truth is that focusing on deeply rooted, local work just doesn’t count for much in the eyes of far too many. It requires a rooted identity and confidence to be able to say, “We hold on to who we are.”
The Shepherd’s Life brilliantly intertwines the history of a family, a region and way of life, and a year-long journal that lays out the seasonality of the work. Each season brings its own opportunities and challenges.
“Everything that makes us who we are culminates in the autumn. Sheep farms, particularly fell farms, earn most of their annual income in the few weeks of the autumn from September to November” (117).
“I’d somehow convinced myself that working hard on the family farm would be a thing that people respected, that people would respect me as I had my grandfather. I soon realized that this wasn’t the case. In our family it was normal to work on the farm, it wasn’t news. Outside the family it was of no significance to anyone” (127).
The autumn in The Shepherd’s Life is the season for sales and auctions. The males (called tups) are shown and sold. Each flock is shaped by choosing the right tups to breed and shape the new lambs. Autumn also brings the hard work of harvesting the hay, baling it, storing it, and preparing for the winter. Let’s face it, most of us want to glory of the culmination and profit of our work, but don’t imagine that coming right alongside continued hard work.
There are seasons in pastoral ministry that bring the culmination of the work we do. Even if it’s in small glimpses, the payoff comes. A church plant is launched. A marriage is saved. A new service is started. The beauty of the gospel comes alive in someone’s soul after years of investment. Leaders are sent out and equipped for the work. Right alongside it all, though, is continued spiritual labor. That labor is always expected within the church family, it isn’t news. Outside of the church it’s of no real significance to anyone. It’s a challenge to trust that our labor’s significance in the eyes of the Chief Shepherd is the only recognition we really need (1 Pet. 5:1-4).
“Winter is my swollen pig-like fingers throbbing under the hot tap, thawing out, as I howl unheard blasphemies at the stinging pain. It is my bloodshot eyes in the mirror as I finger out hayseeds. It is snowflakes or hailstones hitting my face as I drive the quad bike into the wind. Snow or rain becoming perfect lines like those scenes in Star Wars when ships go to warp speed and the stars transcend. Winter is my father’s neck in front of me, steaming with rain, as we catch an old ewe that is unwell. Ewes grabbing desperately at hay in a storm before the wind robs them of the rations. Lambs lying dead, defeated before they have even started. Winter is hayracks and trees blown over, torn and smashed.
Winter is a bitch.” (196).
“These are the days when the wind blows right through you, filling you with a sense of hopelessness. Days when the sheep stand sourly behind the walls. Short sullen dark days in winter when you are just holding on, days when you can hardly stand up and you can’t help but be aware that man is but a feeble thing in a hostile universe that doesn’t care” (211).
These vivid images are visceral for any pastor who has served for longer than a few years. Winter comes. Conflict. Financial pressure. Walking alongside people in suffering and death. Broken relationships and families. Fear and anxiety internally. Seasons that bring dark days when you are just barely holding on, hardly able to stand up. And yet there is work to be done.
No season shapes the work of pastoral ministry like the winters we endure. It’s true that “The bond between shepherd and flock is formed in these cruel months” (232). There is no question that some who are reading these words right now are in the depth of winter, wondering if spring will ever, or even can ever, break through. Pastor friends, press on! “We are weathered like the mountain ash trees that grow here. They bend away from the wind and are battered, torn, and twisted. But they survive here, through it all, and they belong here because of it. That weathering makes us what we are” (233).
Not all is bleak even in winter, though. “But winter is also pure brilliant cloudless days when all is well in the world, when the fields dry out, the sheep are at peace, full of hay and lying in the sunshine, and we can work and also enjoy the beauty of the valley and its wildlife. Winter is beautiful too” (196).
“It’s a strange mixture of dread and excitement at the start. Dread at the work to be done and the things that can go wrong. Excitement because if the sheep are your life this is a key moment in the year, both commercially because a sheep farm without lambs is pointless, and from a breeding perspective because you see whether your flock is improving and your breeding decisions are working. But mostly it is about getting lambs out alive and seeing them get a good start in life” (242).
“Lambing time often feels like it starts in the depths of winter and ends in summer. About halfway through the spring comes, and everything becomes easier. The seasonal transition is dramatic. The days are lengthening. The sun grows in warmth, hanging higher in the sky each day. The sheep have started to thrive again and put on flesh” (268).
Spring is the reason it’s worth it to endure the winter, however long and bleak.
There may be no greater admonishment for a church than to say that a church “without lambs is pointless.” Rebanks also describes his anxiety and concern in the spring, and his wife’s cautions that if he moves at the pace his anxiety drives him toward, he won’t make it a month. The most exciting seasons in my ministry are seasons of new birth. It’s changes the very nature of a church to have new birth in Christ. It’s messy and chaotic.
Just like shepherds, pastors have to know how to help a new lamb to life, what nourishment to provide, how to ensure that the lamb will make it through when the next winter comes. So much of pastoral ministry is “getting the lambs out alive and seeing them get a good start in life.” That it begins in the depths of winter is the precise encouragement and fuel a pastor needs to make it through the grueling winter seasons.
“Making hay. Clipping. Looking after ewes and lambs. Gathering. This is what summer means to us. Making good hay is like a commandment from God if you live here. People would once have faced ruin or even famine if they couldn’t feed their animals through the winter. Misjudging your crop even now is an expensive gamble that can wipe away the year’s profit in an instant” (69).
The sheeps’ evident satisfaction to be back where they feel at home means that winter and spring are fast receding behind us. The fell sheep can largely look after themselves in the coming weeks. So I lie down by the beck and cup out a handful of water. I slurp it. There is no water tastes so sweet and pure. Then I roll over on my back and watch the clouds racing by” (287).
Summer is focused on cultivating and maximizing the chance to store up for the coming winter, because winter is always looming. In ministry is essential to recognize the seasons of cultivation and planning, and to know how to work in such a way that it stores up the needed reserves for the more challenging seasons on the horizon. Winter is always looming, it’s inescapable. It’s also endurable with proper planning and reserve. It’s only by careful cultivation that a good harvest comes. But winter is not the time to plan. It’s a season to survive. Summer is the season to step back from the hard work of ministry and to plan for the challenging seasons ahead.
It’s also a season of rest. Seasons when the shepherd can drink deeply from streams of cool water. To lie down in in warm sunshine and soft grass. To trust the sheep can look after themselves for a season. Without seasons of rest there will be no energy for the hard work that is right around the corner. After all, in every summer we know that autumn, winter, and spring are right around the corner.
The rhythms and seasons of pastoral ministry mirror shepherding more profoundly than I could have imagined. The hard work that is simply expected by those in the family and seen as insignificant by those outside is the reality for every pastor. The mirage of Christian celebrity has clouded the vision that Jesus gave us for caring for His sheep. To work hard, come home tired, and be hefted to a people and a place has its own glory in obscurity. To learn to endure seasons and take pride in a rootedness that will win by surviving and enduring will bring real freedom.
“There is nothing like the feeling of freedom and space that you get when you are working with the flock and the dogs in the fells. I escape the nonsense that tries to consume me down below. My life has a purpose, an earthly, sensible meaning” (285).
This is my life.
I want for no other.