I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Acts 20:29 (NIV)
In “Return of the Prodigals,” we took note that we are being told that young people are leaving the church in increasing numbers. Frankly, I was only thinking of prodigals who demand their inheritance and then squander it. It was brought to my attention that some who leave are doing so because they have been wounded and abused.
We must understand the different circumstances which cause people to leave because it will determine our course of action. With prodigals, do not interfere with what God is doing to bring them to their senses. Prodigals need to come to the end of themselves. In comparison, those who have been wounded or hurt by the shepherds who should have protected them are like sheep, which a wolf has attacked and savaged.
Paul warned that without a strong, loving Shepherd, God’s people would be vulnerable to attacks from “savage wolves.” It is disheartening that this not uncommon and has resulted in scattering and decimating God’s precious flock.
A wounded sheep requires time, love, and patience to restore trust in relationships. Thus, the parable of the lost sheep is a better example than the parable of the prodigal. Prodigals are insolent and prideful. A wounded lamb is skittish and confused. Those who leave due to being wounded are probably not prodigals, although there is inevitably some crossover.
A Tale of Two Dogs
In a perfect world, abusive leadership would be eliminated. Pastors and other church leaders would care for those who have been entrusted to them with love and respect, following Christ’s example. However, until then, we will have the responsibility to recover and care for those who have been scarred and who find it difficult to receive love and compassion.
This past weekend, we had a visit from the “grand dogs.” (Is that really a thing?). Willow was a rescue adoption at about one year. By all accounts, she had been badly mistreated. “SJ” was embraced when he was nine weeks old, apparently from a loving situation. SJ is full of wonder and enthusiasm. He bounces from here to there with great energy and curiosity. He is very friendly and outgoing. Willow is timid and has trust issues. She sticks close to “mom” and exhibits signs of anxiety if separated. The trauma of past abuse has left scars that are not easily forgotten.
There are laws and severe penalties for those who are abusive to God’s creatures, but what can be done to mitigate spiritual abuse from wolves disguised as shepherds or hired hands who do not care for God’s sheep? In his day, Paul sounded the alarm. If we can prevent abuse, fewer people would be leaving the church to wander without aim or purpose.
How to Deal with Wolves
My friend, Steve Fitzpatrick, wrote a section in his book, A Leadership Development Workbook, titled How to Deal with Wolves. He covers the characteristics of wolves, including what they want, how they will treat the flock, and even from where they come. Paul said that wolves would arise, “Even from your own number.” (Acts 20:30). To this point, Steve writes:
“A wolf must try to become a leader, otherwise they pose little threat to the sheep. That is why Pastors/Shepherds must also be very careful and know those who labor with them among the sheep. Now wolves are born wolves, and sheep are born sheep, but sheep (Shepherds) can take on wolfish characteristics. These wolfish characteristics can and must be repented of for ongoing effective ministry.”
So we see that it is not just wolves that can cause chaos, but sheep or shepherds who perhaps allow power and authority to go to their heads and, as a result, take on “wolfish characteristics.” Again, oversight and accountability are vital safeguards against these dangers.
“So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. Acts 20:28 (NLT)
Thomas Jefferson said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Whether wolves arrive from without or arise from within, we must remember our duty to “guard ourselves and God’s people.”
He Restores My Soul
Sheep, both natural and spiritual, are generally needy and helpless. Without a shepherd, they can get into all kinds of trouble. They are prone to wandering, getting lost, and finding peril. If they are knocked off of their feet, sheep will have a tough time standing up again by themselves. A “cast” or “cast down” sheep is an old English shepherd’s term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot get up again by itself. Philip Keller in A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 writes:
A “cast” sheep is a very pathetic sight. Lying on its back, its feet in the air, it flees away frantically, struggling to stand up, without success. Sometimes it will bleat a little for help, but generally, it lies there lashing about in frightened frustration. If the owner does not arrive on the scene within a reasonably short time, the sheep will die.
Unlike prodigals, sheep, whether attacked and frightened or merely wanderers, require shepherding. Often, they are unaware of their desperate circumstances and need someone who will seek and save them. Shepherds are in the business of restoration. Every sheep counts.
My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins. James 5:19–20 (NLT)
We pray that God will give us the wisdom to deal with wanderers, the wounded as well as the prodigals. May we be diligent shepherds of the flock and lay down our lives for the sheep if necessary. Amen!
 Ibid p.45