The Dismissive Shepherd: Leaving the One for the Ninety and Nine


The Good Shepherd [credit]

One of the most memorable office Christmas parties I attended featured our boss sharing his management philosophy. While conceding that management problems are possible, at least in principle, he emphasized that “If you’re the only one with a problem, it’s your problem,” punctuating the air with his index finger as he spoke.

I’m not sure what prompted this burst of holiday cheer—probably the stress of a high pressure job—but it left us looking like sheep with a secret sorrow that evening, and in the months to come we came to learn he meant it—concerns were routinely dismissed on the grounds that the employee was alone in his or her concerns.

Well, in a world where the ground is cursed and we are doomed to eat bread by the sweat of our faces until we return unto the ground, it goes without saying that time is short and resources are scarce. And when you consider that problems are like a gas—at least they have a way of filling the available volume regardless of how significant they are in the overall scheme of things—I can understand the pragmatic inclination to tamp down on individual complaints in order to focus on the big picture, even if I think the approach reveals less than heroic leadership qualities.

But when an acquaintance related an experience with her ecclesiastical leaders in which they deployed the same line of reasoning to dismiss her concerns—she was the only one raising a particular issue out of all the people under their stewardship, so it must not really be their problem but hers—it grated in a way my boss’s Christmas speech didn’t.

Now, I hesitate to assume the role of Statler and Waldorf and offer commentary from the peanut gallery about those who have answered the Savior’s call to serve; after all, I sit with honorable women and men and witness their desire to be good shepherds and the sacrifices they make in the line of duty—skipping meals, foregoing family time, using vacation time for church activities and so on. And as long as we are subject to temporal and spatial constraints, there’s no question that even the best of us will have to make tough calls about the use of time and talents.

And yet the notion that a problem isn’t a problem for leadership unless an arbitrary critical mass is reached reveals a utilitarian approach to pastoral care that I believe is incompatible with the heavenly calculus regarding the individual worth of souls and the price paid to redeem them, which suggests that an infinite cost to save the one is not too high a price to pay.[1]

Unlike middle managers, would-be disciples of Christ are called upon to demonstrate heroic leadership qualities, improbably navigating the thinnest of lines between the scarcity of mortality and the promise of the bounty of the eternities. Though the saint’s day is no longer than the sinner’s, the former is called on to pay particular attention to the exceptions—to leave the ninety and nine, and go after that which is lost.

This is not to say that individual voices should not be weighed against the overall well-being of the group; but the fact that only one of the flock is bleating—or perhaps more accurately: that we perceive only a single call—shouldn’t disqualify a voice from being heard at all. Dismissing it out of hand on the grounds that it doesn’t reflect widespread views simply won’t do as a general rule for pastoral care.

On the one hand, there’s plenty of precedent for non-representative voices speaking truth to those who would hear—the one crying in the wilderness and children come to mind. On the other, members of the top-down hierarchy of the church, which considers even policies and practices to have divine origins and draws on a long tradition of looking askance at even well-intended individual initiative, members will not always be free to solve their problems themselves, this guidance notwithstanding.

But what do you think—is listening to everyone with their idiosyncratic issues an unrealistic expectation given the time available to fulfill a leadership calling? Is the church as we live and experience it more utilitarian with more room for individual initiative than I’ve given it credit for? How have you managed the balancing act between hearing out individuals while ensuring that the group prospers?

[1] Then again, we also have 1 Nephi 4:13 which does suggest a strand of utilitarian thought according to which the individual is less important than the collective.


  1. Anne Chovies says:

    There is also Moroni 7:36 to consider, which suggests that even the one is important, even just one merits the “whole show”, if you will.

  2. “But what do you think—is listening to everyone with their idiosyncratic issues an unrealistic expectation given the time available to fulfill a leadership calling?”

    It depends on what the complaint/problem is you need to listen too. Do you take time to listen to repeated complaints that the bishopric sits in different seats than the previous one did? Or that the pattern of passing sacrament was changed? Or if someone doesn’t want such-n-such person to give sacrament meeting sermons anymore? These are probably more likely to be ignored than if only one person complains that a teacher is abusing their child, or is only one is having thoughts of suicide. The seriousness of the issue affects the actions.

    I think it only natural that every leader handles the complaints and concerns differently, just as every shepherd varies in how far the sheep can roam or how long they can be unseen until they need to be sought out. You need to listen at least once, or you won’t know if the issues are real or imagined, personal or systemic. I think everyone tries to listen to the issue, but the threshold for action would be different.

  3. The seriousness of the issue affects the actions.

    Indeed, it’s inevitable that some criteria will have to be considered; mostly I just hope that “you’re the only one bringing this up” won’t be the only one.

    There is also Moroni 7:36 to consider

    Ah yes, thank you for that.

  4. Loursat says:

    Every bishop I’ve ever known who was any good at the job spent most of his time working with people who had individual problems that were difficult, and often quirky or eccentric. The typical trajectory for a bishop who’s learning his job is to spend less and less time on administrative matters as he learns to let his counselors and others in the ward handle those things. For most bishops I’ve known, this change in the way they spend their time happens as a result of a change in their hearts. As they are exposed to the personal needs and pain of those who seek their counsel, bishops tend to become more humble and more tolerant, and so they spend their time with the suffering ones who need them most. At least, that’s what happens to the good bishops. The same is true for good stake presidents and mission presidents.

  5. Having served as a bishop, I admit that this is easier said than done. Those that suffer from mental illness or quirky or eccentric behavior often require much time and attention. Sometimes the eccentric got the attention and at other times the overall well-being of the group did. I don’t know if I ever learned how to strike the balance effectively. This is a challenge in all our interactions, isn’t it?

    “David O McKay gave [people] the same undivided attention he bestowed on visitors of more distinguished rank. Indeed, this was one of DOM’s most notable qualities—the quality of focusing his full concentration walling out all external distractions. One talking with DOM never felt he was intruding or that the apostle would rather be somewhere else or talking with another person, or, perhaps even worse, that he was a mere blip in the great man’s consciousness, flitting there among matters and personalities of more monumental importance. So President McKay would never interrupt his conversation with someone to nod or wave to another, or to shake hands with a passerby, or to pardon himself while he spoke just a word to someone else who had approached. Instead he focused only on the person with whom he was speaking.” (DOM Apostle to the World, Gibbons, 194-95).

    This focus on the one come across loud and clear in President Monson’s bio as well. However, even though Pres Hinckley focused more on administration (building chapels and temples), no one would argue that his time and focus were misplaced. Ecc 3:1:1; 1 Cor 12:26 and D&C 46:12

  6. Everything should be done in wisdom and order. If a passenger on an airplane is in distress, I expect the steward or stewardess to attend to them. I don’t want the pilot and copilot to leave their seats to do so.

  7. “You’re the only one who is upset by X, so X isn’t a problem” is gaslighting. I do believe we deserve not to be gaslit by our ecclesiastical leaders.

    I’m sure that’s the reason we (or at least I) an so frequently discouraged from visiting the Bloggernacle, discussion forums, etc. So much easier to dismiss my concerns by saying no one else shares them if I don’t know for a fact that other people do.

  8. “Indeed, it’s inevitable that some criteria will have to be considered; mostly I just hope that “you’re the only one bringing this up” won’t be the only one.”

    My point was that sometimes that WOULD be a perfectly legit reason. It would be fine in cases like…”You’re the only one who wants the deacons to collect fast offerings before church instead of after” or “Nobody else has a problem with the new sacrament passing pattern.”

    It would not be okay if it were something more serious like “You’re the only one who thinks the nursery leader is abusing kids”

  9. Exceptional post!

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