Shepherds or Sheep: Who Sacrifices More?

A while back, one of our readers asked for an article that explores the relationship between UBF shepherds and sheep. Many volumes could be written about that subject. In my limited experience as a blogger, I have learned that it is best to write pieces that are narrowly focused. So today I will raise just one question.

In a shepherd-sheep relationship, who sacrifices more: the shepherd or the sheep?

For clarity, let’s define the terms. A shepherd, in our UBF lingo, is a believer who attempts to evangelize and disciple someone else in the Christian faith. A sheep is the target of his or her efforts, the one who is being actively evangelized and discipled. The main vehicle for this discipleship is one-to-one Bible study, so shepherd and sheep are sometimes called “Bible teacher” and “Bible student,” respectively.

When asked the question “Who sacrifices more?”, many would instinctively respond, “The shepherd.” UBF messages, testimonies and reports are filled with anecdotes of exemplary shepherds who go the extra mile to serve others at great personal cost. And our metaphorical language of shepherds and sheep is rooted in Bible verses that emphasize the sacrificial life and death of Christ: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Because Jesus, our Good Shepherd, gave himself so completely for us, we ought to follow his example and do the same for others.

This common understanding of the shepherd as the one who gives, and the sheep as the one who receives, influences our reactions when someone decides to leave our fellowship. When a person leaves, the one who shepherded him often feels betrayed. “How can he do that to me now, after all I’ve done for him?” Those feelings of hurt run especially deep if the person who is leaving criticizes us as he goes. The pain of rejection and broken relationship, combined with our dashed hopes and expectations, is almost unbearable. Many of you know that feeling. I know it too; I have experienced it multiple times. It may produce antipathy and hardness toward that person. It may lead to bitterness toward God who, despite our best efforts and intentions, did not answer our prayers to transform that sheep into someone who would pay back the love and service he received from us by doing the same for others.

But this conventional wisdom – the idea that the shepherd sacrifices more – deserves to be scrutinized. In many respects, I believe that we have underestimated what it truly costs for someone to become a sheep in a ministry like ours.

The shepherd-sheep relationship is asymmetric. Is there ever any doubt about who is in charge? The shepherd is the person who is considered older, wiser, more mature in his faith, or more committed to the UBF ministry. He is the one who initiates the relationship, proposes the agenda, and leads the Bible study. The sheep is the one who follows his lead. Outside of this discipleship process – in “real life,” as one might say – these same two persons might relate to each other in other ways. Perhaps they are friends or classmates. Perhaps they are husband and wife. Some UBF members have become Bible teachers to their own parents, a very interesting situation with unusual personal dynamics. Nevertheless, once that process of discipleship begins, the one being discipled very quickly figures out that within that context he is the passenger, not the driver, and the spiritual journey will continue only if he continues to yield control to the other person.

Thus, from the very beginning, the sheep has sacrificed something of immense value: He has swallowed his pride and allowed himself to be led and instructed by someone else.

And that’s not all. Here are some other sacrifices made by the sheep.

The sheep allows his worldview, spiritual practices, lifestyle, character and culture to be probed, questioned and challenged by the shepherd. To allow these aspects of his personal identity to be critiqued by someone else – by someone whom he may have just recently met and still barely knows – requires a remarkable combination of courage and humility.

Very early in the relationship, the sheep understands that the shepherd has hopes and expectations for him that he may not share. If the sheep is not yet a professing Christian, he realizes that the shepherd would like to convert him. If the sheep is a believer, he realizes that the shepherd wants him to join the UBF ministry and become a shepherd too. In many cases, those hopes and expectations are not openly discussed, but they are communicated implicitly through the shepherd’s actions and prayers. When the sheep realizes that the shepherd has an agenda for him that he does not yet agree with, he finds himself in a very awkward and uncomfortable position. Yet the sheep endures this discomfort and continues the relationship anyway.

And as the discipleship process continues, the sheep begins to expose to the shepherd his true self: his feelings, problems, inadequacies and sins. He makes himself vulnerable, providing information that could hurt him if the shepherd indiscriminately shares it with other people.

Now consider the sacrifices made by the shepherd. The shepherd spends considerable time, effort and resources to be with the sheep, to pray for him, to show him love and care through Bible study and sharing meals, conversation and recreational activities. These sacrifices are real and important. However, when we compare them to the sacrifices made by the sheep, they are of a completely different nature. These sacrifices made by the shepherd are not intensely personal. They do not place him in a position of weakness, undermine his beliefs and values, or threaten his sense of self. Rather, the sacrifices made by the shepherd tend to reinforce his own faith and values and strengthen his identity as a Christian worker and disciplemaker.

Consider the UBF shepherds and Bible teachers that you know, and ask yourself the following questions.

  1. Does the shepherd ever assume the role of the learner? Does he ever allow himself to be instructed by the sheep, to learn something of lasting value from the sheep, to the point where it may visibly change his own life?
  2. Does the shepherd ever allow his own beliefs about God, his church, his lifestyle, his character, or his culture to be probed and challenged by the sheep to the extent that it actually becomes uncomfortable and causes him to seriously wonder whether he is correct?
  3. Is the shepherd truly upfront and honest about the hopes and expectations that he has for the sheep? Does he make this agenda explicit, or does he keep it completely or partially hidden?
  4. Does the shepherd expose his true feelings, current problems, inadequacies or present-day struggles with the sheep? Does the shepherd openly reveal any weakness or doubt? Or does he merely wear a mask of joy, confidence and strength, sharing only good things about himself to be a “good influence” and uphold himself as a good example for the disciple to follow?
  5. Does the shepherd ever allow the sheep to serve him, to do something of value for him that he cannot do for himself? Does the shepherd give the sheep any opportunities to occupy the moral high ground by becoming the giver, allowing him to experience the joy of serving in real, non-symbolic or non-token ways?
  6. Does the shepherd ever entrust the sheep with confidential information about himself, information which makes him vulnerable and would hurt him if it became the subject of gossip?

If the answers to these questions are “Rarely,” “No,” or “Never!”, then how can we honestly claim that the shepherd sacrifices more?


  1. Brian Karcher
    Brian Karcher

    Excellent questions raised here! I think this applies to any leadership role. A good leader must be able to be a good follower. In our UBF ministry particularly, we will display Jesus’ love to a greater degree if we can ask such questions honestly and repent when needed.

  2. Joshua Brinkerhoff

    Romans 12:3 came to mind as I read this posting:

    “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”

    The posting made me realize that those who study the Bible with me are worthy of my respect, irregardless of what the outcome of our Bible study is. I should respect their willingness to sacrifice in the ways mentioned in the blog posting, and I should think more highly of them than I do of myself. Thanks for the thought-provoking posting, Joe. God bless!

    • Joe Schafer

      Thank you. This is precisely the message that I wanted to convey.

  3. Abraham Nial
    Abraham Nial

    Thank you Joe for honestly raising these questions in the shepherd and sheep relationship that are so real for all of us. This reminds me of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who chose to honestly show how he struggled at the Garden of Gethsemane to the inner circle of disciples. This alo reminds me of Paul who in his letter to his sheep called himself “the worst of sinners” in a present tense. Also on another occasion, Paul asked his sheep’s prayer support so that he could be “bold,” admitting that he was “not bold enough.”
    I think the problem in the shepherd-sheep relatioinship in UBF is that while it is expected to change & mature over time is not happening. What I mean by this is, a sheep is considered a sheep for ever from the shepherd’s perspective! Sheep is always the one who must be taught, trained, guided, given instructions, mentored and controlled. He is expected to come out with his problems, prayer topics and report them to the shepherd/leader. Just as you said, this relation is never symmetric.
    So the shepherd and sheep relationship need to undergo certain changes for the good. I see this change in the relationship of Jesus with the Twelve. When the Twelve began to follow Jesus, they started as shepherd and sheep in the typical sense. Jesus was their Rabbi and Lord, in the sense of Master. But toward the end of his life, Jesus made them known that they were no more servants but his friends, which introduced a covenant situation, a give and take relationship. However, Jesus earnest desire would be to see them as his mature bride in love with him, which introduces perfect trust, spiritual intimacy and unity.
    I surely believe that the shepherd and sheep relationship should mature to friendship (also partnership) and even spiritual unity.

  4. We are different people in different situations. We wear different masks. I’m the youngest in my family, not only in my immediate family but also among my cousins. Thus, in a family situation, I often find myself acting like a youngest would act–I listen more, make jokes, get attention. At work I teach. I have to lead discussions and facilitate graciously.

    However, when I am a shepherd I am also a sheep. I am Jesus’ sheep. I come before him as any other shepherd or sheep would come before him–humbly. In any Bible study context, I’m a sheep and you’re a sheep. All we can do is help each other follow the Good Shepherd.

  5. Jennifer Espinola

    Thank you, Joe, for asking this important question about the shepherd-sheep relationship. I don’t have a specific comment about who sacrifices more because in my current relationships with Bible students, i am honored to call them my friends as well. The women that God has blessed me to study with has been my instructors as well, helping me to know more about the Lord and understand his word from a new perspective. Granted, these are lovely Christian women themselves, and i think because they too have received the Lord and His Spirit that we can have a relationship that is more mutually edifying. But even among our non-believing Bible students, i think the friendship model in bringing them to the Lord is crucial to building trusting relationships.

  6. Astute observations and very pertinent questions, Joe. As Abraham Nial mentioned, a junior or sheep in UBF is a junior and sheep forever, or at least until the senior or leader goes to heaven. Because of our cultural climate, it seems to be very hard, if not impossible, for the senior to really “sacrifice himself” by exposing his own authentic weakness and vulnerability, or by allowing himself to genuinely learn something fresh and new and even spiritual from the junior. The apostle Paul was truly a great shepherd, because he came to the Corinthians, not in his brilliant leadership and scholarship, but “in weakness and fear, and with much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3).

    Also, unless we as shepherds and leaders realize that our Bible students and juniors have to sacrifice themselves to put up with our quirks and annonying idiosyncrasies (unless we are sinless!), we end up with unaddressed “blind spots” that everyone else can see except ourselves. More than that, we can also never really be friends and brothers and sisters in Christ, and only have a sterile business-like relationship like that between a boss and his employee.

    But perhaps the most damaging aspect of thinking that shepherds sacrifice more than sheep, is that we’ll never overcome our own comfort zone to contextualize the gospel for them. Since we think we sacrifice so much, then we inadvertently communicate that the sheep or junior should just appreciate everything the leader does and sacrifices for them.

  7. Joshua Yoon

    Thanks Joe for coming up with another good question. Thanks for identifying some of the sacrifices “sheep” make. Many people are not aware of the “sacrifices” other people including “sheep”. We tend to think that we “shepherds” sacrifice a lot more than “sheep” do and feel a sense of loss or hurt and discouraged when they leave or do not seem to grow as we expect, failing to recognize how they would feel. Our hurt feelings are often derived from our own ignorance of others, self-centered ambition and unrealistic expectations. Sacrifice is substantial on both sides. The feelings we have after making sacrifice are real. It would be not until we deeply count our sacrifice as grace and honour and privilege that we don’t let these feelings interfere with our relationship. I believe it is applied to all human relationships including parent-children relationship. The more we discover the grace of God upon our own lives, the deeper becomes our recognition and appreciation of others’ sacrifice for us, whether they are Bible students or our own children or spouses or fellow workers.

  8. david bychkov

    Joe thanks, for an article. I would like to point at few issues that I see in this topic.
    First, I’m agree with Ben that one of the main problems is that sheep is always sheep and junior is always junior. I think that shepherd-sheep or mentoring relations which we so emphasizing in UBF in most or less forms are plasticized in many churches and organization. And it is ok, when 1 older believer are taking care about younger or even about not believer. And examples of such relations could be found in many places in Bible. But I’m sure that our shepherds should have very clear point in this relations – to produce independent believers, whose believes are rooted in the Bible and Holy Spirit guiding, not just on church discipline or his (shepherds) advices. So we have to raise independents adult Christians. Yes, they could leave us. Yes, they could have their own opinions and be disagree with us. This seems to be more dangerous for organization, and even for shepherd. But if we do believe that “Holy Spirit lives in each of Christians to lead him” we should do it. The problem is that shepherd, who used to taking care about his sheep for a while, could hardly recognize the moment when he or she is ready to be independent. He could not trust in it. And this taking care easily could be transformed into some egoistic and despotic human feelings.
    Second, I believe that these relations should be nature and even should not be the standard. In UBF we almost do not have other programs for education and growth of believers, this 1:1 is ruled. And this 1:1 including mentoring of one person under other and so on. I do believe that very often such relations especially for adult Christians are not necessary, could be not helpful for spiritual growth and even damaging.
    But I’m not just against it. As I said and as each of us knows this relations could be very helpful and are supported by Bible. And it was good idea of our founders, but our practices are far from ideal as everything in this world and even in church. But them at least should be corrected.

  9. I have always believed that Disciples are made and not born. Since they are made and not born as disciples then there must be sacrifice on the part of both shepherd and sheep. I don’t think it’s about who makes the most sacrifice but about relationships built on the word of God like the author asked questions that checkmates the shepherd’s role.  

    A true shepherd will always be concerned about his sheep and pray for them instead of just trying to shove his ideas and opinions down the sheep’s throat in order to meet statistic expectations. He carefully helps his sheep to avoid the mistakes he made and hope that they will always do better than himself.  

    Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. John 14:12

  10. random post, but for some reason, this episode of Undercover Boss taught me volumes about Shepherding in the workplace

  11. Who sacrifices more?  That’s easy: during college years, the shepherd. After that and for the rest of their life, the sheep.

  12. Brian, that last comment strikes me as unnecessarily cynical and a bit unfair. I think I see where it is coming from but again let us not sweep up every possible shepherding relationship in UBF into the circle of your own unfortunate experience. It may be true that you are sacrificing or suffering more as “sheep” in your particular unfortunate experience–and for that you need to be truly supported and I hope you get that support. But to imply as a sweeping generalization that every “shepherd” in UBF  is therefore doing the same thing to their “sheep” is just really not fair.

  13. My observation may indeed be cynical.  But it is not based on my individual situation. It is based on observing over 100 people the past 24 years.

  14. Me too. My home computer needs to go.

  15. Sorry to butt in, but I also agree with Brian here. There has clearly been a systemic problem within UBF that is NOT the fault of the ‘sheep.’ And it is not simply an issue of a few dissatisfied people, there are literally hundreds if not many more who have felt the terrible weight of pharisaically ordered sacrifice by the sheep. The fact that this is not felt by every single person in the ministry does not mean that it is not a severe enough issue, that had UBF existed in the first century it probably would have gotten a verbal smack down by the Apostle Paul! Indeed, I know about things that are specifically condemned in Galatians which have occured as seemingly regular practice! This is not cynical, this is fact. And until the acknowledgment is made by everyone that this is the case, it will continue to be perpetuated.

  16. As alluded to many times previously, there is a “sense of inequality” because of the implicit perceived, as well as communicated superior elevated elite status of the “older,” “senior,” “shepherd,” “missionary.”

    This is clearly against the Trinity, where the Father, Son, Holy Spirit are Perfectly Equal (2 Cor 13:14). Since we are created in the image of the Triune God (Gen 1:26-27), we are also perfectly equal, regardless of whether we are a shepherd or sheep, older or younger, senior or junior, parent or child, king or subject.

    Surely, everyone will agree with this. We Christians say we are servants (Mk 10:45). But practically and functionally, this may unfortunately often not be the case (Mark 10:42-44). For instance, a “senior” may critique a “junior’s” message or testimony. Try to seriously critique a senior’s message or report or testimony, and see what happens. Is it really a sin or disrespectful or a “No No” to critique the message and life of an older Christian leader, either dead or alive?

    I am not at all advocating disrespect or rudeness, retaliation or revenge, chaos or anarchy. I am simply addressing what David L, Brian and others have repeatedly brought up in this blog.