31 Shepherding Movement – its rise and fall

Shepherding – a story.

Among the books on my shelves is a small green volume written by one Juan Ortiz, a pastor from Buenos Aires in Argentina and published in 1975.  This small book, called Disciple, was a reflection on his ministry over the previous ten or more years.  It was to help cause a small revolution in certain parts of the evangelical churches of his time.  The history of shepherding is something I discussed in my book Ungodly Fear but I did not have then access to this key foundation document by Ortiz.

I want to list some of the key Biblical ideas that Ortiz picks up in explaining the ideas that led to the so-called Shepherding Movement.  Reading them one can see how innocent ideas can be turned, as indeed happened, into something monstrous and abusive.

According to Ortiz we are slaves of Jesus Christ and he bases this teaching on Luke 17.10.  In other words Jesus owns every part of our lives.  The idea of being the slaves of Christ is one worthy of exploration but when it becomes combined with Ortiz’s other key ideas about discipleship, it becomes subtly much more oppressive.

Ortiz in chapter 14 of the book Disciple sets out two ‘laws’ of discipleship.  The first is that ‘there is no formation without submission’.  Formation is for him a key factor in the way that Jesus discipled his followers.  In accepting his call to discipleship, the disciples submitted to his authority.  In short undergoing formation for discipleship through submission is to be a key task for every member of the church.  Most members would also have others ‘below’ them who needed to be discipled.  This process of discipling is not dissimilar to the role of parents ‘forming’ or bringing up their children.  But Ortiz quickly recognises that submission has to be something that everyone has to agree to, including the pastor.  So Ortiz sets out the second law ‘there is no submission without submission’.  Everyone was thus tied into an interlocking hierarchical structure that placed everyone in a situation of submitting to someone else but also having others submitting to them.  The church then dropped the word member in favour of the word disciple to describe an individual who formed part of this pyramid structure.  Thus everyone except the very newest members was both discipling and being discipled.  As can be imagined this networking idea proved fairly successful in the context of Argentina where the ravages of poverty, high inflation and political oppression meant that individual lives were fairly fragile.  The vision of the church that Ortiz wanted to share was one which gave nourishment, both spiritual and practical to its members up and down the network of the church.  The cell structure in his church helped to bind people closer together in the context of oppression and persecution.  Also because the way that all disciples are interlocked with others above and below them, it provided for rapid communication within the whole.

Cell structures and mutual submission might sum up the insights of Juan Ortiz who inspired the Shepherding Movement in the States and across the world.  The historical details of how shepherding spread do not concern us here but suffice to say that however well it had succeeded in Argentina, the shepherding idea was a disaster when it hit the wider church beyond South America.  When you take the words ‘submission’ and ‘discipleship’ together and draw everyone in the congregation into this structure, you give those with a penchant for enjoying power a field day.  The churches where shepherding ideas were put into practice gave to naive young Christians the power to enforce their will in every area of life over others ‘below’ them.  Thus one Christian could tell another how to live their lives – how to spend their money, the relationships they were to have and who they were to invite into their homes.  Being in submission to another did not, as it turned out, prevent excesses of immature and irresponsible behaviour.  Far from it.  The situation in numerous churches became so dire that the leaders who had welcomed the ideas into America recanted on their approval by 1975.  Needless to say, and Chris will confirm this, these ideas continued to hold sway for many years after this.  Most of the House Churches which flourished in the 80s were deeply influenced by these ideas and ideals.  As with the cults, the idea of living a communal life, sharing and submitting to a community ideal seems very attractive.  No doubt some succeeded in sustaining the ideal for a period but the snake of power abuse at work in the Garden of Eden appeared very quickly and destroyed what seemed so good at the start.

Somewhere in the writing of Ortiz are some interesting and profound insights and perhaps they should be revisited at some point.  This can, however, only be done when the sad history of the Shepherding Movement has been revisited, the countless lives wrecked and destroyed are mourned and we acknowledge in repentance what happens when scriptural ideas are taken and misapplied.


About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

19 thoughts on “31 Shepherding Movement – its rise and fall

  1. Thanks very much for this interesting discussion about Shepherding which I hadn’t heard of. The word “submission” can have an unhealthy frisson for some people of both attraction or repulsion, and it takes prayer and insight to separate the holiness of true submission to God from entanglement in abuses such as you describe.

    I am reminded of the current debate in the Church of England about having an optional revised baptism liturgy. One person commented that the sticking point for many people is not the words devil or repent, but the requirement to submit to Christ as Lord. Many of us feel a tinge of discomfort at this proclamation for very real reasons, even if at the same time we accept that it can or should express our desire to reorient our life with Christ at the centre, as an essential part of the spiritual journey.

    In the same vein I have sometimes reflected on effect on the spiritual environment in the Muslim traditions associated with the word Islam meaning “submission”, which is prized as such a key concept. I imagine that this has both positive and negative angles, and perhaps we have something to learn from them about how they succeed or not in promoting the positive and curbing the negative.

    1. I too was quite disturbed when the word ‘submit’ was introduced into the baptismal liturgy in Common Worship in 2000. I went off to work in Scotland soon after so did not have to use it. Submission in a religious context to anything quickly turns into submission to an individual which feeds narcissistic tendencies in this person. There are precious few people that can manage being ‘submitted to’ by others without it having a deleterious effect on them eventually. It blows up their pride and vanity. You are fortunate indeed haikusinenomine to have managed to steer clear of shepherding. There used to be a lot about and its remains linger on in many fellowships etc.

      1. There are many different strands in the church, and I belong to a traditional rural backwater which is somewhat Anglo-Catholic inclined, though we have people from strong evangelical backgrounds among us and working with us. Our main tradition is commonsense English moderation, which at bad moments feels like apathy, ignorance and failure to grasp the radical nature of the Gospel, but it does also have positive features, including for example that the shepherding movement would not get a foothold even if anyone had heard of it.

        No one here would ever dream of thinking that they submit to the Rector, but in fact her authority is well established and largely highly respected, partly because she works with and includes people so positively. So actually, we do often voluntarily “submit” to her, if that means giving weight to her ideas and accepting her decisions sometimes in preference to our own wishes or perceptions of the common good, or when complete consensus can’t be reached.

        There is a belief that we need a leader who leads and unifies and takes responsibility as well as enables, and that’s a dynamic process involving all of us on a journey of discovery of how best to play our part in it. She herself is involved in a leadership training course which she is finding very fruitful.

        1. Well, I’m glad of your experiences. Sadly, in mine, leadership courses seem to teach them that they should be in charge! But maybe that is just the outworking of the phenomenon that people usually come away from these course with precisely what they went with!

          1. Yes, English Athena, I’m looking on the bright side and painting a rosy picture of my church(es), because I think there’s a lot of good in them. But I don’t mean at all that nothing questionable, dysfunctional or bad has ever happened here. Far from it!!! In my view it would be impossible to expect otherwise in a fallen world. So we must be wise as serpents as well as innocent as doves and ready to stick our necks out, take risks and stand up both for others and ourselves when things are wrong.

  2. Yes, but it isn’t the only kind of understanding that can lead to abuse of submissiveness. When I was growing up, women were supposed to submit to men! And yes, as far as I could see, in every respect. Apart from anything else, it made me terrified of sex!
    Then there’s the way religious orders “break” their postulants in order to remake them. The height of arrogance in my view at best, and when you analyse the breaking part, not at all nice.
    Then, religious orders again, there’s traditions such as the Franciscans’, where submissiveness is placed very high. I have a huge respect for the Franciscans, so this isn’t meant to be knocking copy, but the downside is total passivity. There are some things you just shouldn’t be passive about.
    And then there’s passivity on behalf of someone else, which ties in with the previous point. If you believe that we should turn the other cheek, it’s a tiny step to believing that “they”, meaning any third party, should be turning the other cheek, and not complaining, and certainly not doing anything about what is wrong. (So you can’t even talk about it, which would be a start.) So only another small step to believing you shouldn’t do anything either. Whereas in fact, if I am obliged to turn the other cheek, and be dumb before those who despise and reject me, I am completely dependent upon other people’s righteous indignation for my own protection.
    So 100% with you here, Stephen.
    So, plenty of ways in which the preaching of submissive behaviour can become a stick with which to beat people.

  3. Thanks English Athena for helpfully opening up several important aspects. I think there’s every difference in the world between submission to God and submission to people. And God never intends to force us into submission to him.

    I think there’s an easy test of whether submission is healthy by its fruits. Does it result in being a doormat or a bully? Or does it result in life, love, peace, creativity and empowerment?

      1. Yes people do do things about it. I’m not thinking on the level of church-wide campaigns, which is above me. I’m thinking about ordinary people in local situations trying to make things work better, to promote the good, protect the vulnerable, and spread empowerment. On a personal level this has included a journey of growing from a level of deep disempowerment to greater understanding of all these things in the light of Christ, and developing with many twists, turns and set-backs to sustain hope, love and fullness of life. In this I’ve been massively sustained by people in my church’s life, and the church’s corporate life, even though I’ve also been attacked by negative dynamics at times. And I try what little I can to share the benefits of my journey with others.

        Does the leadership need to do more on a wider level? No doubt it does. But here we are – this blog is here doing something about it.

  4. Stephen and I are concerned that the on-going pain of shepherding is being borne by those who cannot think their way out of it. I know these people intimately. Again I come to the sickening ‘Top down’ structures like the C.Q.C. that fail so much, and who’s answer to everything is yet another ‘Training course’. I share English Athena’s feeling of suspicion here, i.e. what you can’t change complicate! Someone once said to me that ‘Hell is this earth.’ For those left to fester in the loneliness and desolation post this evil, I see no hope and indeed their Hell is on this earth. I try to see things as they are and not as; ‘I hope they could be,’ so, for the present at any rate, I see no ministry apart from this blog to the victims of Shepherding. They remain ‘out there’ where the world is their asylum and have more chance of finding a snow flake in Hell than getting a cure. (I use the example of the C.Q.C. to describe a very English mentality)
    Chris Pitts.

    1. Thank you Chris for pointing to the plight of those most in need. I’m not at all sure about the Care Quality Commission either. I had a much better experience with the Mental Health Act Commission (which did some good things, so it was scrapped).

  5. Thanks Haikusinenomine, I’m really pleased you see how bad and urgent the situation is. Somehow, only God knows why, there is a blindness in the church towards these issues? I am reminded of the horror of this when I see Fellowship theaters, with ‘worshipers’ raising their hands in the air and jumping up and down and then I think of the thousands of elderly people suffering the disease of loneliness in (so called) Nursing homes unvisited. It almost seems that we are being conditioned not to think?
    Chris Pitts.

    1. I haven’t got the answer Chris. I don’t have direct experience of that kind of church. How people are taught and trained and maybe manipulated and brainwashed instead of encouraged to think is a huge issue. A blog like this could be a lifeline for many people who have been damaged in churches but do not want to abandon Christ.

      I’m coming from a slightly different place, because I grew up trained in critical thinking, and haven’t been brainwashed by religion. But I have been brainwashed by the stigma and shame attached to having mental health problems, which crippled my mind and emotions and social functioning very severely for a long time. I’ve been brainwashed by psychiatry and social attitudes generally. I see some parallels. I’ve been on a long journey out of there, and the suffering has taught me some invaluable lessons, and my life has been transformed by Christ, but I wouldn’t say I’ve reached a destination.

      But I see that selfishness, indifference and in-group-centredness disguised as religion can happen anywhere in all sorts of forms. There are also many people who care, and struggle with all sorts of difficulties, whose gifts for action and effectiveness have been impaired through negative dynamics and who need prayer and nurture for release into fullness of life. I count myself in this category to some extent. I have struggled at times to do anything more than survive myself and look after my family, or even that. If I’ve achieved any little things for others, it often seems paltry. So often I feel I’m merely lukewarm; I’m appalled by so much suffering I see but don’t know what to do about it, and then I just carry on trying to be comfortable and stay well and earn a living. The world hurts so much, and my heart is only big enough to hurt with it a bit of the time. People come to church to receive comfort for their wounds, which is right that they should. But some action of the Spirit has to happen in God’s good time, and we have to become open to it happening in and through us, so that we/they can do more than just go home comforted, but are “sent out in the Power of the Spirit, to live and work to Thy praise and glory”.

      1. If it helps, and it may not, remember you don’t have to save the world, that’s already been done, and you are not alone. Sometimes when I get those “But the fields are white!” feelings, it’s hard not to rush about going “here, I’ll do it”! Well that’s me anyway. But we all really are only responsible for our own bit, whatever that is. Of course, sometimes you can’t do it, or not properly. But you can give yourself permission to be ill. It’s allowed! Go easy on yourself a bit, sis.

        1. No, I gave up thinking I was going to save the world a long time ago. But “our own bit, whatever that is” – establishing what that is has not been an easy proposition, and is still unfolding, and there can be painful dynamics. Indeed, how many people know exactly who they are and what their calling is, and just get on with living it out with no uncertainties, obstacles or struggles at any stage?

          1. To go a bit deeper, this is part of the disempowerment of marginalisation, that of being excluded from a fulfilling or on some level even any role in society at all. Far from thinking I can do everything, I’ve had to really work hard (I’m talking over decades now) to get to the place where I see myself and am seen by others as fit to do anything much.

            1. That’s hard. Your posts on CiF tell me you have a fine intellect. You and the likes of Barrabasfreed have taught me a huge amount. Perhaps the blogosphere is your milieu for the nonce at least. You’re certainly doing me a lot of good. And if you are being used by your church, then you are by definition useful. Keep smiling!

  6. Thanks haikusinenonie,
    Thanks for sharing these painful personal things. ” There are strange Hells within the minds war made” (Ivor Gurney). It is a war this issue, a war against apathy. Lets hope we get somewhere? Chris Pitts

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