Why I speak up: our responsibilities as farm hands for the Shepherd

Last week, Karen wrote a wrenching and important post about her observation that many women she has always known as faithful, devoted Latter-day Saints seem to be throwing in the towel on formal activity. It wasn’t a post about rumored statistics or surveys. It was a personal post about her friends, about women she loves.

Another blog called her post’s reference to the parable of the 1 and 99 sheep a “tactic” in some kind of adversarial exchange with the church. A commenter extrapolated from the parable of the 1 and 99 to compare those who faithfully seek change as continually running away from the Shepherd’s arms, and trying to drag the whole herd from the lush pasture out into the wilderness.

That reaction saddened me because of how badly it misunderstood the motives and thinking of those of us who love the Shepherd, but experience pain, personally or in empathy with others, at some of the practices an policies of the church. It especially misunderstood those of us who try to give voice to those concerns and potential solutions.

I want to reframe the way we think about people who speak up, why they do it, and their role in our faith community. But more importantly, I want to reframe the way we think about our individual responsibilities to the organization and what should compel all of us to feel a sense of duty to identify and repair wrongs. I am proposing a better extrapolation of the 1 and 99 analogy.

A farm hand notices a bunch of sheep are escaping through some holes in the fence around the pasture. The person sounds the alarm, “Look! these holes! we’re losing a lot of sheep!”

Other farm hands say things like, “We wouldn’t want those sheep anyhow, obviously it’s their fault that they left and were lost,” and, “Who are you to criticize the Shepherd’s fence? Obviously He wants those holes to be there or they wouldn’t be there.”

The first farm hand exasperatedly explains why it doesn’t make sense to assume the Shepherd wanted those holes there, and that as good farm hands they all have a duty to repair the holes and bring back the lost sheep. The other farm hands mock the first farm hand, and hint that he should quit his employ.

Later, the Shepherd comes by and asks the farm hands why they have let so many of His sheep escape and be lost. He asks why they didn’t work hard at their jobs and repair the fence.

I love the Shepherd. I want lambs raised on the lush nutrition of the pasture. I serve diligently. No ward member has ever known me to be a freeloader or a complainer or a trouble-maker in the ward. But because of that very diligence, I cannot imagine standing before the Shepherd, and explaining to him why I saw those holes in the fence and did nothing. As my heart has wrestled with hard things, I have frequently found myself wanting to retreat to the comfort and ease and worldly reward of being “in” with my peers by ignoring problems. But in prayerful contemplation, I find myself imagining that meeting with the Shepherd, knowing I would have no excuse, no rock to hide under, nothing but shame to admit that I didn’t lift where I stand and do something.


  1. Amen and Amen.

    How do people so blithely dismiss the concerns of people who feel alienated from the flock? How do they not imagine Christ passing harsh judgment on such neglect?

  2. I’ve got a lot on my mind tonight, and I really appreciate this post.

    Thanks, Cynthia.

  3. At a ward or stake level, ofttimes those who dismiss others’ concerns privately have the same concerns, and have decided to just live with it. Engagement just leads to reopening things.

  4. This has inspired me to be more vocal. Thanks, SB2.

  5. Later, the Shepherd comes by and asks the farm hands why they have let so many of His sheep escape and be lost. He asks why they didn’t work hard at their jobs and repair the fence.

    The sheep follow the shepherd (or the under shepherd) because they know him and follow his voice. There is no fence, or compulsion. Agency is so crucially important. Life is an open pasture and everyone is free to come and go as he or she wills — there are no fences.

    Even so, some sheep innocently find themselves lost, and we all rejoice when they come back. My brother shared a thought with me that has resonated — the parables in Luke 15 are not three parables; really, they are one — the parable of the lost sheep talks about how we might minister to those who innocently find themselves lost but never really wanted to be lost — the parable of the lost coin talks about how we might minister to those who are offended or excluded by something we did — the parable of the prodigal son talks about how we might minister to those who purposefully left — nothing changes at home, but we wait and yearn for the prodigal’s return.

    Maybe the parable of the lost coin is more appropriate here? If so many coins are being lost, should we sweep the house and set things in order to reclaim the lost? Or the parable of the prodigal son is more appropriate? If so many children are leaving, maybe we just let them go and pray for their return?

  6. brian larsen says:

    ji, I’m trying to work through what you have written. The thing about parables is that they are so open to interpretation, and I can’t figure out how one “find[s] themselves lost but never really wanted to be lost” in the context of “agency is so curcially important” and “there are no fences.” I mean, if the sheep are “lost,” ie not in the fold, how do you account for them being lost in a way other than say the prodigal son is lost–given agency?

    Couldn’t we arfgue that invisible fences are still fences–in that one is clearly no longer “with the other coins/sheep?” Also, if the parables really are “one” how do you then make such stark distinctions between them? In what ways are they one? So, if someone, say, stops coming to your group, you wouldn’t try to check up on them and see if you could help them come back–because that would be taking away their agency?

  7. brian larsen says:

    ji, especially in context of the original parables, Jesus used them as an explanation about why he was associating with “sinners,” not a simple transfer to someone who simply found themselves lost. To then switch this parable around and argue that we shouldn’t be reaching after those who have left is, it seems, antithetical to Christ’s intent on giving them. I understand, I think, your concern, with the parable in OP, but parables are parables and maybe you can find something valuable in it, even with your concern. After all, Christ was constantly questioning the rigid interpretations of the law by those around him. I think we could all benefit from being a little less rigid ourselves in our interpretations in them.

  8. The uber orthodox view is that any sheep that are alert enough to realize their are holes in the fense must be infected with a disease that might infect the flock, if you want to hang with them you must either pretend there are no fense holes or that the holes don’t matter.

  9. MDearest says:

    I think this is a useful metaphor, or parable, if you will. Like all metaphors and parables, the analogies may break down when compared to real, messy life; especially when viewed from different angles, or POVs, if you will.

    As well, metaphors and parables are open to individual interpretation. This is the genius of many of the Savior’s parables, they hold up across a rather broad spectrum of interpretation. For instance, I have long believed that one of the meanings of the many-layered parable of the prodigal son is how like the dutiful son our attitudes are too much of the time.

    As one who is in many ways on the outside of the fence, having ignorantly wandered through a few of the many “holes” on the “perimeter” of the “fence,” and who would like to be “safe in the fold,” I would love help from a diligent “farm hand.” But far to often I have encountered those whose attitudes more resemble the non-prodigal son than a diligent servant of The Lord. It’s exhausting.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    I like the holes in the fence metaphor, and think it is indeed instructive. Thanks.

  11. It’s a fascinating modernization of the parable of the lost sheep Cynthia and entirely appropriate for today’s circumstances. ji does call out some appropriate considerations in that the three parables in Luke 15 are a set response by the Savior to the question of how should the righteous respond to those who are sinners and there is something to be learned from each.

    Richard Lloyd Anderson did a masterful exploration of those three parables and Joseph Smith’s expounding on of their meaning in an article published in the February 1987 Ensign (back when we used to get such deep doctrinal analyses by scriptorians like Anderson, Nibley, et al.). It’s a long and beautiful article given the context of the recent discussions of how to treat those who voice concerns or become disaffected. I’ll just quote a long section at the beginning that sets up the rest but provides some useful insight for those who choose not to click through:

    Recognizing the central issue of these parables, Joseph Smith analyzed the stories in an address he gave in the Nauvoo Temple in January 1843. Most of his attention was directed to the parable of the prodigal son. In his diary, William Clayton recorded the Prophet’s approach:

    “Pres. Joseph [Smith] preached in the temple on the prodigal son and showed that it did not refer to any nation, but was merely an answer to the remark, ‘he receiveth the sinners and eateth with them.’”

    In the same discourse, the Prophet reportedly explained that the setting or context of the parables revealed their meaning. He said: “I have [a] key by which I understand the scripture—I enquire what was the question which drew out the answer.”

    Applying this rule, Joseph Smith pointed to the two verses that immediately precede the three parables: “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.

    “And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” (Luke 15:1–2.)

    Perhaps because of these verses, Joseph Smith disagreed with the interpretation that the two sons in the third parable symbolized the Jews and the Gentiles. Instead, he taught that the Savior used these three stories to correct those Pharisees who feared that the uncleansed would contaminate the purified. Though not all Pharisees shared this attitude, the New Testament clearly shows that others in Jesus’ time associated exclusivism with religious commitment. So Joseph Smith logically added “Sadducees” in his comments.

    Any religious group that values purity and morality must deal with the problem of clannishness. However, clannishness can be largely avoided if the members of the group have a vigorous concern to share. There is a big difference between reaching out and shutting out—and Jesus steadily opposed every hint of the latter.

    The Prophet Joseph Smith viewed the three parables as the Savior’s answer to the murmuring of the Pharisees and the scribes. The Prophet understood the veiled rebuke directed at the narrow views of the Jewish leaders.

  12. Perfect.

  13. Having spent time on my uncle’s farm growing up, I learned that fence mending is an important and never ending chore. To keep quiet about a break in the fence was unthinkable. Your thoughts struck home with me.

  14. Yes, perfect.

  15. I don’t understand. You don’t like how that other blog characterized the parable, so you make up your own? Part of the reason we don’t want fences around the flock is that it limits where the flock can go with the shepherd. I know the work involved in shepherding in that era is fairly unknown to modern experience (as is the care of olive trees), but I think this attempt is doing a poor job of communicating the original.

    We absolutely don’t want everyone confined within a fence, full of holes or not. It’s antithetical to being able to go where the shepherd wants to guide us.

  16. brian larsen,

    It’s easy to imagine a sheep becoming lost with intending to become lost. Happens all the time. Usually, the sheep finds its way back, hears the crowd, or hears the shepherd calling. Sometimes, though, the shepherd will go and find the lost sheep and bring it back. All of this supposes that the sheep wants to be with the flock. Sure, a sheep can innocently become lost, and the parable beautifully describes the loving care of the shepherd.

  17. Angela C says:

    Beautiful thoughts, Cynthia.

  18. Awesome post.

    To extend the metaphor and possibly derail its purpose because this is where my brain goes, Mormon historians and anthropologists are the ones who say, “Hey, check out these holes in the fence. Wonder how they got there…” and old-school apologists are like, “Those aren’t holes at all! And even if they are the shepherd clearly meant to put them there”

  19. Jason K. says:

    Truly inspiring. Thank you, Cynthia.

  20. Absolutely awesome, and in my view accurate, reframing.

  21. I just want to add that it is important, for the same reasons Cynthia articulates, to help keep the gate open as widely as possible for those who want to enter. We also tend to narrow the gate too much, ime.

  22. James L says:

    It’s a nice analogy, but presupposes that there are holes in the fence, which I take to mean the church and its practices, which require fixing or ‘solutions’.

    The practices and doctrine of the church will often be anathema or ‘holed’ to people who do not wish to subscribe to them: That it is so with some people, does not mean that there really are holes. It simply reflects what people are prepared to accept and believe.

    As someone who has wandered away in the past because of unbelief in some of the practices and doctrines, I know that my time away allowed me, when I returned, to realise just how good and secure the fences really were: I saw that it was a beam in my eye that led me away, rather than a mote in another’s. That I escaped was my choice and not a problem with the fence: it was (and is) designed to allow for free passage.

    People could have been kinder to me, nicer, more wiling to assist, explain etc, but that I left was entirely my choice, and principally because I chose what I was prepared to accept.

    I’m forever thankful that people did not try to win me back by agreeing that my imaginary holes really existed and that I was more ‘alert’ than the other sheep for identifying them, rather than inviting me to simply follow the spirit, the doctrines, the brethren and faith.

    I think, just like the prodigal son, that some people do need to walk away to realise what they had but could not see. When they do walk back, there should be arms wide open to receive them. For me, those arms were the ones that were outstretched for me as I walked away.

  23. When SB2 speaks, the thinking is done. As in, the issue at hand has been thoroughly thought through. This is solid stuff and a fine reflection of the pastoral nature of our religion. It demands much of us.

  24. Thank you, James L. Most insightful.

  25. A very nice thought, James, except I think we know there are holes in the fence. President Uchtdorf spoke recently on the ninth article of faith – and confirmed that there are many things yet to be revealed. While we may not know exactly what those things are, I think it’s more likely we will find out as we are observant and continue to ask questions. Until God has revealed everything, there will always be some gaps. By noticing possible gaps in the fence via their effect on the sheep, we will be in a better position to help fill them in.

  26. I would say, perhaps, that there are not holes in the ideal fence – but we don’t live in an ideal world, and, far too often, we cut holes in the ideal fence.

    Human practice rarely matches divine ideal, and “opposition in ALL things”, by default, must include the Church – and I think that is a core aspect of our theology and doctrine. Call them holes or faults or gaps or imperfections or anything else that makes sense to each person, but even to imply that the point of this post is outside of mainstream Mormon theology seems like a stretch to me.

    Exactly what constitutes a hole or fault or gap or imperfection certainly is open to individual interpretation and disagreement, but the concept itself . . .

  27. Cynthia, I saw this quote a while ago in another discussion, and I liked it so much I copied it. I think it fits this post quite well:

    “Seventy years ago this Church was organized with six members. We commenced, so to speak, as an infant. We had our prejudices to combat. Our ignorance troubled us in regard to what the Lord intended to do and what He wanted us to do … We advanced to boyhood, and still we undoubtedly made some mistakes, which … generally arise from a …lack of experience. We understand very well, when we reflect back upon our own lives, that we did many foolish things when we were boys … Yet as we advanced, the experience of the past materially assisted us to avoid such mistakes as we had made in our boyhood. It has been so with the Church. Our errors have generally arisen from a lack of comprehending what the Lord required of us to do. But now we are pretty well along to manhood … When we examine ourselves, however, we discover that we are still not doing exactly as we ought to do, notwithstanding all our experience. We discern that there are things which we fail to do that the Lord expects us to perform, some of which He requires us to do in our boyhood. … While we congratulate ourselves in this direction, we certainly ought to feel that we have not yet arrived at perfection. There are many things for us to do yet.” (Lorenzo Snow: April 6, 1900)

  28. Great post, Cynthia.

  29. melodynew says:

    Well done, sister. . . Blessed are the fence-menders for the Lord’s grace is in the work of their hands.

  30. Ray,

    Great quote and very relevant. Not to diss the quote at all which I find lovely and will add to my own archived list of useful quotes but here is something it makes me think about. How would this metaphore change/resonate if womanhood rather than manhood was the metaphor (given the growing pains we are now facing are related to consequences of structure, culture and theology that stubbornly adhere to male-centric frames)? In some ways, I would way that the church has grown into its manhood – quite literally – including passing into the period where women are mysteries to us, creatures that seem like they are from another planet. It wants to please them and be in relationships with them, but its is still soooo awkward. :) We have not yet really grasped that women aren’t really a largely undifferentiated, somewhat scary group but rather just individuals like us. In other words, the church is in late teen adolescence.

    Consequently, I would say that we have not nearly seen the same metaphorical development in the church around women. I am not sure if we are even really in our “girlhood” and definitely don’t think we have passed menarche in any meaningful way or have stalled stalled out pretty their severely at the dissolution of the relief society and our inability to get past our first “serious” boyfriend that is polygamy. Ok now I am pressing the metaphor a bit much, but you get the idea :)

  31. Wow! I so needed to hear this post today. Thank you.

  32. I highly value the spirit of this, but I’m frustrated by the analogy. As jl pointed out, there are no fences keeping us in. Sheep follow the Shepherd’s voice. That’s the repeated symbol in the scriptures.

    And I don’t think the difference is trivial. A fence implies staying in one place, but that’s not what happens. Like sheep, we are meant to *follow* the Shepherd where He leads us. During the journey, some of us get lost, but He always finds us if we’re willing to follow.

    I think this analogy would’ve resonated more with me if we were depicted as fellow shepherds who should always call on the sheep who leave, using the same loving, gentle, and guiding voice used by the Savior.

    The other thing is that fences and walls in the scriptures seem exclusively designed to keep people out (robbers, thieves, enemies), not to keep people in. Christ seems to use fences to protect us, not to keep us from wandering.

    I guess I just chafe at the idea that what’s keeping me in the Church is a fence, as though against my will.

  33. Aaron, but being called a sheep is hunky dory? Pick your battles, young fellow.

  34. Aaron, I think you’re mixing metaphors, in a way. On one hand, we are following on a journey, on the other hand, we are kept safe in a flock from which we might wander (whether or not the flock is the church, or a group within a the church, or a group that contains people both in and out of the church, is an interesting matter, to me), on yet a slightly different hand we are sheep instinctively responding to the Savior’s voice (or not, as the case may be).

    Back up to ji’s parable retelling. I agree completely that the prodigal son is not to be pursued. Not because of a lack of value, but because he is in a position where anything that is done for him will only serve to drive him further off. Any number of habitual prodigal sons, like myself, will tell you this. The thing to do is to wait him out, hope, and then, seeing him coming a far way off, prepare a party. We are here asked to consider his wishes. The lost coin is quite the opposite. Here, the motivations of the coin are not in question. The church (the woman) has lost the coin and the only consideration is its value. She tears the house apart looking for it.

    We aren’t meant to take any single parable as a full picture of any given reality.

  35. What if we aren’t fenced in completely and constantly? What if, instead, fences exist only to keep us from places of great danger (like railings on a mountain road) – or to keep predators away from us – or to guard us while we and/or the shepherd sleeps – or any other reason a fence might be good at a specific time or in a specific situation?

    After all, sheep aren’t confined to small, closed-in spaces all the time – and many (especially in remote areas of relative safety) graze on open range and rarely are confined. If we view fences as implements of safety in certain situations, fences that keep the sheep from “being lost” can have multiple meanings – none of which are negative in and of themselves.

    Overly-restrictive fences? Different story – but with the Mormon view of growth and progress, I think the definition of a proper fence probably isn’t completely confining.

  36. So much of the orthodoxy and cultural policing which seem so prevalent in the church brings to mind the need to maybe include a conspicuously missing figure from the biblical shepard analogy – the sheep dog. Apparently there is actually only one mention of sheep dogs in the bible (Job 30:1). Who knew? Anyway, it seems to me that we may not have so much a fencing issue as we may have a sheep dog issue – namely those that think it is their job to herd us all together and drive us to the master by nipping at our heels, walking on our backs and even projecting us from all those wolves they see behind ever bust. They mean well and they can be highly effective (I own a herding dog and he really likes herding our kids), but it is striking to me that Jesus used a different method of sheepherding for his parables. One based not in the active herding of the sheep dog but one of following the shepard, apparently a separate technique. So maybe my complaint isn’t so much about unmended holes in the fences its about the pesky self-appointed sheep dogs that seem as likely to drive sheep away in their effort to make sure we all stay herded together in exactly they way they see fit, whether the shepard cares or not. Heck, why not extend the metaphor further and note the danger that sheep kept too closely together and too static for too long will eat all the grass and be left with no healty pasture. Maybe we sheep need to be allowed to spread out a bit more on our own, find our our good pasture while keeping an eye on the shepard. Not things sheep dogs seem to like. :)

  37. Hedgehog says:

    I do like that sheep dog metaphor, rah.

  38. Rah, I love it! A perfect encapsulation:

    me: I love my patch of grass, over in the crowded area I wasn’t getting much nourishment. But over here I’m still nearby, in sight and sound of my Shepherd

    sheepdogs: You are leading all of us astray! That is nasty grass that will kill us all if you share it with anyone. Either join us or leave!

    me: but, but . . . I’m still following my shepherd and being nourished. I know others who could use this nourishment. Maybe if we put some fertilizer or aerated the common patch over there it could help us all, or make those who spread out able to remain?

    sheepdogs: How dare you judge our grass, our shepherd controls the grass and only that grass is what we all need!

    me: hmmm. . . that really didn’t work out for me. And I heard the Shepherd tell me personally it was okay for me over here . . .

    sheepdogs: You are wrong! Only the good sheep stay, obviously you are not a good sheep!

  39. Love the additions, rah and Kristine A.

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