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Adaptability and the Good Shepherd: A Reflection on Pastoral Leadership

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by George L. Parsenios, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of New Testament Princeton Theological Seminary

To read the Gospel of John is to stare into a kaleidoscope, in which the same images and phrases are often recast so that, when seen in a new context, they look somehow the same - and yet very different. Jesus tells his disciples, for example, that he is the Good Shepherd, and that the Shepherd enters the sheepfold through the gate (10:2). But with a turn of the kaleidoscope, although he is still speaking about shepherds and sheep and a gate, Jesus no longer says that he enters through the gate, but instead insists, "I AM the gate" (10:7). That the imagery of the Good Shepherd is so elastic and adaptable is what I would like to consider here, not for what this tells us about the Gospel of John, but for what it suggests about the adaptability required of any Good Shepherd.

It is precisely this adaptability that St. John Chrysostom praises in St. Paul. Chrysostom writes that Paul "varies his discourse according to the need of his disciples." In his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, Chrysostom evaluates Paul's impassioned and disapproving tone by noting, "Always to speak to one's disciples with mildness, even when they need severity, is not the character of a teacher, but it would be the character of a corrupter and enemy." Chrysostom adds that, like a careful physician, Paul knows when to prescribe to his patients soothing balms and medicines, and when to apply the knife in painful, but necessary, surgery. Paul, then, is the adaptable and elastic Good Shepherd. He utilizes the posture of parresia, which we translate as "frank speech" or "boldness," but always with the deft hand of the shepherd.

For us, as for the ancients, such adaptability is not easy to achieve, partly because our responses are often habitual and instinctive, so that some of us might react aggressively to every crisis - even when something milder is required. Or, we might always meet problems with a passive response, even when awful behavior needs to be curbed sharply. Beyond our particular personalities, political or social calculations can also impede frank speech. Stern severity is easy with people we do not like, just as kind compassion comes effortlessly with those we do. But in such cases, frank speech and adaptability have become something less noble and less transformative.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers provide helpful models for the proper use of adaptability in a Christian setting. I would like to hold up two things as especially instructive.

The first is silence. The school of silence instructs us in the art of speaking. But here, silence does not simply mean the absence of conversations, which produces only a superficial silence. What is needed is silence as a preparation for speech. Abba Poemen notes, "A person may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent; that is, he utters nothing unprofitable." Poemen 27, PG 65:329A. Translation from Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism ( Oxford: Oxford University Press) 144.

A priest's work requires him to speak constantly. It is impossible not to speak, constantly. But we can temper our words, with a view to how they affect others, and how they make us appear, especially when we feel compelled to correct someone by saying, whatever the topic, "No, it isn't So and So, but So and So." For the image, see Tito Colliander, The Way of the Ascetics (Transl. Katherine Ferré; St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Repr. 1994) 26. In even such small matters, if we pause to reflect on the motives behind our speaking, we will have begun to cultivate the spirit of silence, where we no longer speak in order to assert ourselves upon others, but have begun to discern when it will hurt to speak, and when it might help.

To do this requires freedom from fear: fear that you will not be seen as the smartest person in the room; fear that someone will "get away" with making you look foolish and that you won't be able to "get them back" in the next conversation. Paraphrasing Burton-Christie, Word in the Desert, 283. Rebukes are necessary, but not always. Correction is necessary, but not always. Discerning when and how to speak begins with the discipline of knowing how not to speak. In this way, paradoxically, silence breeds frank and bold speech.

The second source of pastoral boldness is similarly a paradox. For, we might think that bold speech originates out of a prophet's righteous indignation or that people who speak frankly are those who do not suffer fools gladly. But in the desert, frank speech was cultivated from the seeds of mercy and from the same impulse that might lead one to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. Three young brothers went to Abba Achilles and asked him to help them in making fishing nets. He refused the first two, because he was busy, but the third had a very bad reputation among the monks. With him Achilles agreed to work. When the others whom he had refused asked for an explanation, Achilles responded, "If I had not made one for him, he would have said, 'The old man has heard about my sin, and that is why he does not want to make me anything." This would have disheartened the brother, and separated him from Achilles. "But now," Achilles adds, "I have aroused his soul." Achilles 1, PG 65124BC. Translation from Burton-Christie, Word in the Desert, 284. Not only, then, does silence teach one how to speak. Mercy teaches one how to correct.

Finally, a corrective. It would be wrong to suggest that cultivating the demeanor of the Good Shepherd is entirely moral or psychological. Theology matters. Without theological moorings, pastoral adaptability can become a mockery of Paul's warrant to become all things to all people (1 Cor 9:22), and the shepherd can become so elastic as to lose a firm identity. Theology matters. In the Good Shepherd scene, Jesus insists that "I know my own and my own know me" (10:14). All pastoral adaptability and all frank speech are intended to provide a more fertile field for this knowing to increase.

George L. Parsenios is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. He completed his PhD at Yale University in 2003, after graduating with an MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 1996. The coming months will see the release of his first book, Departure and Consolation, which is a study on chapters 13-17 of the Gospel of John. He lives in Princeton, NJ with his wife, Maureen, and their children Nicholas and Julia.

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