As every shepherd knows, some sheep are high maintenance. I don't mean those who deservedly require a lot of attention, such as shut-ins, the hospitalized, the handicapped or those experiencing a crisis. I mean "chronically offended" sheep.
Some of them spread gossip and venomous feelings. Others complain and continually voice unrealistic expectations of everyone in leadership except themselves. Still others are passive-aggressive.
Mercy-driven pastors often try to avoid or even deny the existence of chronically offended sheep. Even when healthy sheep suggest that sick sheep may be infecting others or causing irreparable damage to the flock, pastors often want to try to excuse their behaviors, attitudes or comments. Nonetheless, certain undeniable symptoms do appear for the discerning pastor to identify:
1. The same problem continually recurs. Just when the pastor believes the relationship is healed, the sheep is cured, and the past is buried, the chronically offended sheep involves the pastor in a new "fire" that must be extinguished.
2. Nothing ever pleases them. Pastors are not called to please people, but God. The more we try to please sick sheep, the sicker they become and we feel.
3. Control is an issue. Manipulation, domination and intimidation are in their game plan. They always perceive themselves as being on God's side. The pastor must agree with them at every turn, or they are "hurt."
4. Others begin to take their side. Offended sheep finally draw a line in the sand and recruit others. The pastor is either with them or against them. Being against them is interpreted as being heretical.
When one or more of these symptoms appear, the offended sheep has usually reached the "terminal" stage of their spiritual illness. If they continue in the flock, they will wreak havoc. So what is a pastor to do?
Sometimes the best thing you can do is invite them to leave. As harsh as this sounds, the reality is that healing for these sheep isn't possible in your pasture. Being up front and open about the sheep's sickness is a first step toward healing.
Chronic offense is a habitual sin. It should be handled according to Matthew 18:15-17, in which Jesus outlined what to do if "your brother sins against you." If it gets to the point where you must invite the offended sheep to leave, I suggest the following:
1. Speak the truth in love. When you meet with the offended persons, be truthful and honest. Invite them to admit it, quit it and then forget it. Before your meeting, share confidentially with another leader in the church exactly what you will say. Listen to that leader's wisdom. Then report back to that leader what was said.
2. Take a witness. If the offended sheep refuses to repent and stop the sinful actions or words, then take the leader in whom you have confided and meet again with the offended parties. If they refuse a second time, then invite them to leave. Ask for their forgiveness for any offense they feel you have committed and assure them of your forgiveness. Release them with a blessing and encourage them to find another church in your city. Admonish them to go to that body without carrying any offense.
3. Bless them if they leave in forgiveness. If they leave in forgiveness and with a blessing, rejoice that God has brought healing to them and to your body.
4. Love and warn them if they leave offended. If they leave offended, assure them both of your love and also of your responsibility to share truthfully what has transpired with any other pastor they might seek out to shepherd them.
After 30 years of pastoring, I can assure you that inviting sheep to leave is rarely needed. But when it becomes necessary, the pastor's avoidance or delay can imperil his or her ministry and put the whole flock in danger of grievous attacks by wolves.