At Synod 2013 I heard a number of people hail the “shepherding model” as a better way of implementing Synodical decisions. This was the model employed by the faith formation committee; in it synod delayed the implementation of a potentially divisive decision and used the time to prepare the church to welcome all baptized members to the Lord’s Table. A member of the committee reported that people found it fascinating that a committee was listening more than talking. Throughout the process, he said that they found that people were eager to share.
My own experience was not quite so rosy. When the faith formation committee visited our classis, I felt the focus was too narrow. I felt that the decision had already been made and that I was being brought into line with the thinking of others. Twisting the metaphor a little, I felt herded more than shepherded.
There is much I like about the shepherding model. I am aware that the faith formation committee was about much more than just meetings at classis and about more than children at the Lord’s Supper. The committee has produced a lot of good resources, blogs and materials to help us nurture the faith of children and adults. I think the sustained attention on faith formation has been helpful. I especially like the emphasis on listening. I just think that the listening should take place sooner.
As a matter of disclosure, I was a member of the advisory committee that recommended something like the ‘shepherding model’ for the Diakonia Remixed report. The committee hoped this approach would provide a way forward, while recognizing that there are lingering questions that need to be clarified before a decision to delegate deacons to all major assemblies can be implemented. I wonder whether this could have been avoided if the process had included listening sessions in each classis before the report was brought to Synod. Listening sessions might have more clearly identified how many classes have already experimented with seating deacons. Such sessions could have informed us about the effect the presence of deacons has had at classis meetings. Sessions like these might have identified roadblocks that stand in the way of deacons’ fuller participation in major assemblies, and helped discern whether delegating deacons to major assemblies is an effective way of revitalizing the office of deacon. Listening sessions might have identified regional differences and other concerns that complicate a common understanding of what a robust diaconate might look like. Listening sessions might even lead to creative ideas that could allow for regional differences within a denominational covenant. Without these, I fear that there is less room for creativity, now that the goal has been established and the course has been set.
There is much I like about the shepherding approach. I especially like the emphasis on listening. People are eager to share. Because they are, perhaps we can learn from and refine the shepherding approach so that listening becomes a regular part of our decision making.