Are UBF Shepherds Unobtrusive?

What does “unobtrusive” mean? Last week when I was praying with a friend who is a UBF leader, I prayed for him to be unobtrusive. The word “unobtrusive” just popped into my mind as I was praying for him. It was unplanned. It was as though the Holy Spirit put that word in my mind while I prayed for him. After we prayed, he asked me what “unobtrusive” meant. I said, “To not be in the way of other people.” Then I apologized to him, because he was not really an obtrusive leader. In fact, while apologizing to him for implying that he was obtrusive, I realized that it should be my prayer for myself, because by nature, I am an obtrusive sort of person. My wife lovingly calls me “highly annoying,” which I often regard as a compliment of the highest order. Since then, the word “unobtrusive” has been on my heart and mind. I began asking myself a question, “Should a Christian leader, pastor, Bible teacher, shepherd be obtrusive or unobtrusive?” I thought that the answer is quite obvious. But are those of us who are in positions of Christian influence unobtrusive?

Was I unobtrusive? For over 2 decades, I averaged 10 1:1 Bible studies a week and I took responsibility for my Bible students in all ways possible. In addition to teaching them the Bible week after week, I took responsibility for their marriage (who they marry, when they are ready to marry), their marriage guest list, their marriage offering, their attire at church, their attitude before senior Christian leaders, their tithe, changing and correcting their testimonies and messages at several conferences a year, etc. Yes, I was most responsible. But was I unobtrusive? Should I have done what I did? Would I do anything differently today after 3 decades of being a “shepherd”?

My answer is both Yes and No. Yes, because I am called to be responsible as a Christian and an overseer over the people of God entrusted to my stewardship. No, because I am not God nor the Holy Spirit. So how does this Yes and No answer play out in practical Christian leadership?

Balance and Nuance. My seeming “obtrusiveness” in shepherding sheep for 25 years arose from what I believed I needed to do to in order to be a responsible good shepherd. But I no longer wish to do what I have done in the way that I did them, while still taking full responsibility of those entrusted to my stewardship. I would rather be unobtrusive, even if that is not my natural disposition. I want to allow the Holy Spirit (NOT ME) to spell out the details in the lives of those I influence. In order to let the Holy Spirit work in others, I pray to learn how to be unobtrusive.

Too Laissez Faire? But if I don’t spell out the details for my “sheep,” am I being too laissez faire in shepherding them? I heard it said that I now no longer “train my sheep” and simply “let them do whatever they want.” Yes, I am indeed wishing to give my sheep one of the most unique distinctives of Christianity, which is freedom (Gal 5:1; 2 Cor 3:17; Jn 8:32). I want those who come to know me to find the freedom they never knew outside of Christ. Yes, I want them to do whatever they want, which is to truly delight in the Lord (Ps 37:4) when they hear me proclaim Christ and the gospel of God’s grace clearly (Acts 20:24). If and when they see the beauty of Christ through the gospel (Ps 27:4; Isa 33:17), then what they will want to do more than anything else is to love Jesus and to serve and worship Him alone.

Do I Let the Holy Spirit Work in Others? My wife sometimes jokingly says to me, “I was not like this before marriage. But after marriage, I became annoying like you!” Yes, I want the Holy Spirit to work. Yes, I want to be unobtrusive. But yes, I am still a major work in progress because I am still under construction. Thank God who is ever patient with us (Rom 2:4).

Should Christian leaders be unobtrusive? Do your Christian leaders insist on obedience to them (as I did for 2 decades), or do they trust the Holy Spirit to work in you?


  1. Ben, you asked “Are UBF Shepherds Unobtrusive?”

    I can’t stop laughing. To ask such a question is like asking “Is the world flat?” Of course not!

    UBF shepherds are THE most obtrusive people I have ever met. Some are “passive-obtrusive”. I failed to be a UBF missionary because I am not pushy enough, not ambitious enough to convert other people to UBFism.

    After a few years, your UBF shepherd’s voice is the only voice you hear… it drowns out God’s voice, your wife’s voice, your friends voice, your parents voice, and even your own voice. I am still unbinding my mind from all this.

    I am at peace now though because only my voice is in my mind. Now I can start to learn what it means to quiet my soul and daily devotion that opens my mind and heart to listen to God’s voice. And I can for the first time start to hear my wife and other’s voices.

  2. Thanks, Brian, for sharing. An explanation (not justification) for UBF shepherds being obtrusive is that we (the shepherds, missionary, Bible teacher, pastor) put ourselves in the place of Christ.

    We, the shepherds, must lay down our life for the sheep (Jn 10:11); we must give our lives (Mk 10:45). Thus, our sheep must listen to us!!! Disobeying us is equivalent to disobeying God. This functionally puts the leaders as being Christ. So for virtually all practical purposes, the leader/senior/older/missionary/shepherd is always right, and the sheep is always wrong. If the leader is wrong, then the sheep should just pray for him but not bring it up to him.

    This is purely and simply just bad theology.

    This may not help the past much, but I believe that we are gradually changing from being anthropocentric to being more Christocentric.

  3. Wonderful treatise on Me(God) and God(me) and unobtrusiveness.

    I know your heart and what you are trying to say, and I agree. But and a big but, is that there is an impression that you were a dictator, (and implicitly all others in your position were too) and that all your sheep, young and old were automatons who danced to every one of your directions and whims. When… it was not all like that at all.

    More realistically, you WANTED to be a dictator, and tried to govern all aspects of their lives, but they DIDN’T always let you. There were conflicts and struggles involved where they opposed you, and fought against being told what you wanted them to do, while others submitted because they genuinely received a godly advice and knew of your love for them. No matter how dictatorial you were or wanted to be, those whom were under your care were human beings who actually knew Jesus well, and whom God worked in and through in the power of the Holy Spirit.

    So it was not always all dictatorship on your part, but more like the Holy Spirit working in you and in them to fulfill the will of God. (We have to give more credit to God working even in obtrusive incidents.)

    It is a wonder that you came to realize your “obtrusiveness” late in life, as did I, but it does not mean that the work of 25 years was all “your” and “my” work and only a small percentage was “God’s” work. God in neither lame nor standoffish when it comes to his children. He is fiercely loyal to those he calls his own.

    Yes, we falter and we fail, but he never fails. Considering the sovereignty of God, the past 20 some obtrusiveness years have brought us to where we are now– closer to the truth about the God-me percentage.

    Sorry to say this, but your article, lovely and humble as it may be, lacks a more realistic view. We were obtrusive, but still under the watchful eyes of God who led us thus far.

    • Your words sound like, “Yes, we have been selling our brother Joseph for the decades, but that’s ok for it was God’s will. We are good and even perfect if we watch ourselves in a more realistic way. And though we are cult-like leaders we may hope that the Holy Spirit has made His way through and we have come closer to God’s truth, under God’s sovereignty we were good shepherds and our sheep were blessed. Hallelujah!”. I think that because of such people like you UBF will never become a healthy Christian church. And hopefully such people like Ben will leave you as well for they are not like you anymore. The UBF system of shepherding is really bad and cult-like. You say, “We were obtrusive, but still under the watchful eyes of God who led us thus far”. These words can not be words of a Christian from a healthy church, but they are usual for cult leaders. By the way your first passage about the meaning of Ben’s article is the exact description of my former chapter, Yekaterinburg UBF, and I suppose of many others. “there is an impression that you were a dictator, (and implicitly all others in your position were too) and that all your sheep, young and old were automatons who danced to every one of your directions and whims”.

  4. Sharon Schafer

    Anon, I’m really glad to hear your point of view. I think you are trying to balance what appears to be an overly pessimistic view of our overbearing ways. I am sure that God did indeed work in and through even our mistakes. However, I cannot agree that you have a more realistic point of view. By taking this more rosy view of the past, I think you are misusing the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. In my opinion you are using it to minimize the sin, genuine wounds and broken relationships that trail behind us and remain sore spots in our own hearts. They are a direct result of our practices and our theology. They are sins which call for a greater level of brokenness, honesty, repentance and sincere effort at reconciliation than you are expressing.

    I was under Ben’s care. Actually, I felt more love that I had ever experienced in my life. However, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I also learned a great deal of unhealthy fear, guilt and shame that I believe could have been avoided. What’s the use, you might say, of talking about this stuff, of rehashing the past? In my case, it was absolutely essential for me to take the time to recognize it for what it was (unhealthy obtrusiveness is just one part) and to stop playing mental games of many kinds which minimized it’s ongoing effect in my life and ministry. Self-knowledge is so important and it is hard work. This awkward, painful and time-consuming discussion of our past is so necessary. I’m so glad that Ben is sharing it with us.

  5. Anon, I think you point of view is inacceptable.

    First, I want to say that I don’t believe that people like Ben or Joe *wanted* to be dictators. And I think there are only very few UBF leaders who have such an evil and oppressive mindset. The point is that the UBF system makes them believe they can only be good leaders if they manipulate people in obtrusive ways. Samuel Lee was the primary proponent of this “theology of obtrusiveness”, and he even tried to justify it using Bible passages like John 4, where Jesus allegedly was obtrusive towards the Samaritan woman, and Samuel Lee even went so far that he openly showed disrespect of ideas like human rights and human dignity – cheap shots at human dignity were sometimes even part of the message on John 4. So, if UBF was obtrusive in the past, it was not because of people like Ben and Joe, but because of the system itself and it’s moral system that was invented mainly by the top leader. What we want people to see and understand is that this old UBF system with its practice of obtrusiveness is just wrong, and that it is a very serious issue, so this should be openly admitted, and there should be some kind of apology or repentance for following this system in the last 50 years.

    Second, you seem to agree that it was wrong, which is good, but you are downplaying the issue with the words that UBF was “under the watchful eyes of God” so it didn’t matter much how much wrong they did. Do you mean it didn’t matter in the past, and it doesn’t matter now, i.e. UBF should not apologize and make a clear cut and repent? What do you really mean with the statement that UBF was “under the watchful eyes of God”? Do you think that other groups like the ICoC (International Churches of Christ), or more extreme, the Moon cult, or even more extreme, the Ku Klux Klan, were also “under the watchful eyes of God”? If no, what makes UBF special in that regard, e.g. different from the ICoC? If yes, what meaning has your statement if it’s universally valid? Should we belittle or overlook the atrocities that such groups have committed because they have been done “under the watchful eyes of God”?

  6. Yesterday, I watched the movie “Inception”. I didn’t really like it because of the too much shooting, explosions, car chases etc. but it had one relevant idea in this context: In the movie, a person tried to “plant an idea” into the mind of another person by entering into his dreams. Quote: “An idea is like a virus, resilient, highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.” To some extent, I think this is what happens in cults. They don’t plant their ideas into their members by hacking into their dreams, but by means of indoctrination, endless repetition, group pressure, sleep deprivation etc. Sometimes the real ideas are planted into people in very subtle ways, often spoken out between the lines only, but they grow and become very powerful. The point is that these are the ideas of the cult (leader), these are not really the ideas of the cult members. But the cult members start to believe in these ideas, and even start to believe they are their own ideas. By being obtrusive, you can in fact accomplish such an “inception” in the minds of people. That’s not what we want.

  7. Hello anon, and thank you for commenting! I commend your willingness to share here. We don’t filter responses here, as you can see already :)

    I have two initial reactions to your words:

    “It is a wonder that you came to realize your “obtrusiveness” late in life, as did I, but it does not mean that the work of 25 years was all “your” and “my” work and only a small percentage was “God’s” work.”
    > I see two valid points here. First, I am glad you realized your obtrusiveness! This is HUGE. Many don’t come to this point of realization. Second, I think you are trying to explain something that my wife and I also discussed. There were some valid events in UBF that were God’s working and leading, even the working of the Holy Spirit. For example, my wife and I went through the arranged marriage process, but we count our marriage as valid. This does NOT validate the arranged marriage process, but it DOES validate our commitment to each other.

    “There were conflicts and struggles involved where they opposed you, and fought against being told what you wanted them to do, while others submitted because they genuinely received a godly advice and knew of your love for them.”
    > Like Sharon, Vitaly and Chris, my mind is disturbed a bit by some of your words, especially the quote above. Your implication, whether you intended it our not, comes across very hurtful to me. Here is how I hear your words: “Some people opposed your dictatorship. These people were just troublemakers inducing conflict and struggle. But other people submitted humbly and were genuine in their faith.” Maybe you could explain your thoughts further? Did you mean to imply this? Am I hearing you incorrectly? In my mind it is those who oppose dictatorship and oppression who are “genuine”.

  8. Thanks for the article, Ben. And thanks commentors. One of the things that I’ve been perplexed about with regarding the obtrusiveness of many UBFers is the seemingly contradictory theology it shows. I understand that UBF historically is strongly reformed (stemming from its Reformed Presbyterian roots) and so has a strong doctrinal root in the providence, decree, and sovereignty of God. But the “shepherding” methods and/or mentality displayed by many is that it is up to me to help a person “grow”, and if I don’t (obtrusively) help them enough in the various areas of their life, they won’t grow. That always struck me as something like Orwellian doublethink–theologically ascribing to God’s sovereignty while practically emphasizing my efforts towards “shepherding” a person. I feel that–despite whatever doctrinal statements were made–this type of behaviour actually displayed a practical lack of faith in God’s sovereignty or decree.

    • I agree. And such lack of faith results in supression of the kingdom of God in the souls of “sheep”. (Though there is a prayer in UBF: your kingdom come; practical behavior of leaders shows their prayer: my kingdom come in every sphere of sheep’s life). And usually a UBF leader is a korean missionary. This doubles the leaders’ lack of faith. “And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified”. There is no such thing in UBF. “The fruit of thy land, and all thy labours, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up; and thou shalt be only oppressed and crushed alway:
      So that thou shalt be mad for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see. The stranger that is within thee shall get up above thee very high; and thou shalt come down very low.
      He shall lend to thee, and thou shalt not lend to him: he shall be the head, and thou shalt be the tail”. This is UBF reality.

    • Philippians2Five

      Joshua, I strongly and passionately agree with your comment. Most “shepherds” in UBF seem to have “shepherding” backwards. What do I mean? We, God’s servants, ought to lead, direct, people to the Good Shepherd who can lead them according to God’s will and purpose. I think we can all agree that Jesus is a supremely far better Bible teacher than all of us combined! It often seems as though we put to much emphasis on a “shepherd.” Often they (sheeps/Bible students) are told to speak to their Bible teachers (and nothing wrong with that) in regards to their struggles, career choice, marriage, etc… However, often that Bible teacher becomes the authority and whatever they say ought to be obeyed and not challenged or questioned otherwise that is seen as an act of immaturity. I wish it stopped there! Not only are they regarded as immature but also “in need of some more training.”

      There should be honest open discussions regarding this within UBF leadership, otherwise UBF is going to suffocate! This is not a threat but a fact! UBF ministries all around are suffocating.

    • Phil2:5, you’re right when you say Jesus is a supremely far better Bible teacher. Also, the Holy Spirit is a far better counselor. The problems arise when shepherds believe to play the role of the Spirit for other people. The way how many UBF shepherds operate they seem to deny the existence of the Holy Spirit.

      I can also relate to your observation that UBF is suffocating, but I believe it has been in this state for decades already. The one thing that keeps them alive is that old, burned-out, frustrated, disappointed hurt people are leaving all the time, but they get replaced by new, young people who are invited all the time, and children who grow up (2nd gens). So there is always “fresh blood” which keeps UBF somewhat alive and gives them the illusion it’s a vivid community and makes them forget their “casualties”. If you listen to the sogams of the newbies, in the beginnign they are original, individual, interesting, but after some months or years they become boring, conformant, hypocritical, when their “ungodly individualism” has been squeezed out of them. Then they will become dry bone hardcore members who deny and refuse to look at even obvious problems, or they will leave, disappointed and hurt, like so many before. That has at least been the reality for the last 5 decades.

  9. Joshua, you pinpoint it very well when you speak about “double-think”. This is a deep problem with UBF theology, because it makes it self-contradictory. I saw it first clearly when our leader tried to prohibit my marriage in the last moment. It is all man-made interference and manipulation; the leader believed *he* must be in control of *my* life. That’s also the fundamental assumption in “raising up disciples”. It all must be accomplished by the missionaries (and they also expect recognition and appreciation of their hard work of manipulating people). On the other hand, when it’s about leaders, then suddenly God is in control, and nobody needs to correct them or question their actions; they do not need any man-made training and interference. This “theology” simply does not sum up. Maybe in their minds it sums up, because for them leaders and ordinary people are totally different theological entities, which are subject to completely different theological principles? Their deep obsession with human hierarchies just undermines their whole theology.

    Concerning being obtrusive or not, I think it’s important to understand to what extend even small things like being together and singing songs is already obtrusive to your mind, and puts you in a mood where you are very susceptible for interference by others. For instance, we used to sing a German song with a text like “Jesus asks you today: Do you want to understand him? Who will go? Give your whole life as an offering. Come on, confess him.” And the refrain “Jesus I will go, send me! I want to live with you, use me! Jesus I want to go …” I still have it in my ears even after more than 10 years. It was a very intense song, with a pledge in the refrain which we repeated thousands of times. That way, this thought was planted very deep in our minds, down to our subconscious minds. Of course, wanting to live with Jesus is not a bad thing, but the problem is that expressions like “live with Jesus” have no concrete meaning in themselves, neither does “I want to go”. They need to be filled up with concrete meaning. That’s where obtrusive group like UBF jump in; they told me exactly what “living with Jesus” meant and where I should go, so I could fulfill my sung pledge and I could feel happy and less guilty for not doing what Jesus so urgently wanted of me. This is one of the mechanisms how “inception” happens in groups like UBF, and this is why being obtrusive is so harmful in an environment like a Christian church where the souls of people are so open and susceptible. In such a situation, a small word suffices to manipulate people.

  10. Thanks, Chris, Vitaly, Sharon, and Anon.

    As some of you allude to it, we in UBF often just practice BAD THEOLOGY. I mentioned in an earlier comment where the shepherd or missionary just puts himself as if he is Jesus, or Paul, or Moses, and his/her sheep are the unrepentant rich young man, or the foolish Galatians, or the unruly Corinthians, or the rebellious Israelites, etc. Therefore, the sheep is always the one in trouble, while the shepherd has a free pass. I still maintain that this is a MAJOR problem that needs MAJOR addressing.

    Another more subtle THEOLOGICAL misapplication is goes like this: Because God blessed UBF with a world wide ministry in 80 countries, therefore the abuses and obtrusiveness can be “excused” or “justified” or minimized or glossed over, rather than specifically addressed, just as we would specifically address sheep’s sins. But as it is, the leader and the leader’s sins become “untouchable!”

    So, every time a leader’s sin is being addressed (abusive, authoritarian, obtrusive, controlling, manipulative, etc), UBF loyalists become extremely defensive and irritated. Why?

    The explanation is actually quite simple: UBF has become our predominant idol and our practical functional savior and source of our very meaning, value, worth, and identity. So some become excessively upset and angry and very defensive about any criticism about UBF, as you would if someone just called your own son evil and stupid!

    So, some people were upset with my prior article “Are UBF Leaders Cult Leaders?” My answer was and still is NO. But some were upset because I said that UBF had cult like practices. Can we even look at our own selves in the mirror and be honest and humble about what we see? Maybe not, because today I do not like looking in the mirror and see that I clearly no longer look like the young stud I once was!!!

    • Philippians2Five

      Hello everyone! Very interesting topic and discussions! As I read the discussions, I came to have a genuine concern. Do we really want this (John 3:30) to happen? Do UBF leaders really want and desire to become less and Jesus greater? John the baptist himself said that Jesus must become greater and he must become less? We aren’t great people! We are wretched sinners forgiven by a merciful God! The goal in a Christian’s life is how to become less and less. Isn’t it? Jesus himself demonstrated that for us (Philippians 2:5-8). I’m not at all suggesting that or generalizing that all UBF leaders want to make a name for themselves. However based upon what I see, it sure sometimes seems that way! Please correct me if I’m wrong. Jesus led with humility and that’s why people followed him!

  11. Welcome Phil 2:5. Love the verse btw, even if I fail daily, especially regarding loving those who are highly annoying like myself!

    Yes, I believe that many UBF leaders truly want to be humble, or they believe that they are humbly serving their sheep or their chapter or their fellowship or their campus.

    But as others have commented, they may not see the “line” between shepherding sheep and being obtrusive. They obviously think they have the right to “prohibit Chris’ marriage” as his shepherd. They obviously do not see this as being obtrusive, or as lording over their sheep just like the rulers of the Gentiles do (Mt 20:25; Mk 10:42; 1 Pet 5:3).

    So, are such UBF leaders obtrusive and not humble? I know or at least have met many of them face to face over the years. I may even like them because in “non-shepherding scenarios” they are really nice friendly people.

    Do they suddenly become someone else when they have to exercise their leadership over others? Does the 50 year UBF culture of hierarchy suddenly come into play when they have to demonstrate their “higher” authority or seniority over their juniors or sheep? These are tough questions to answer. Any takers?

    • Philippians2Five

      “Do they suddenly become someone else when they have to exercise their leadership over others? Does the 50 year UBF culture of hierarchy suddenly come into play when they have to demonstrate their “higher” authority or seniority over their juniors or sheep?”
      > I always felt not so much as though they (some UBF leaders) are two-faced, but rather fearful–either fearful of losing control over the ministry or fearful that their ‘sheep’ wont grow. In either case it’s not any ‘man’ that works in someone’s life or in a church! God is the one who sustains the church as well as the believers life (Hebrews 1:2-4). Certainly we are not responsible for sustaining other’s spiritual life. However, not to mention that I do believe God works through people to help people and God’s people are responsible for God’s flock (1 Peter 5:1-4). Here’s a Phillips translation of that same verse…”Now may I who am myself an elder say a word to you my fellow-elders? I speak as one who actually saw Christ suffer, and as one who will share with you the glories that are to be unfolded to us. I urge you then to see that your “flock of God” is properly fed and cared for. Accept the responsibility of looking after them willingly and not because you feel you can’t get out of it, doing your work not for what you can make, but because you are really concerned for their well-being. You should aim not at being “little tin gods” but as examples of Christian living in the eyes of the flock committed to your charge. And then, when the chief shepherd reveals himself, you will receive that crown of glory which cannot fade.” The Bible describes it better!

  12. Joe Schafer

    Hi Phil 2:5.

    Your comment reminded me of something I read in a book on leadership by Dan Allender. The title of the book is Leading With a Limp. I don’t recall the exact quote, but it can be paraphrased like this:

    The primary job of a leader is to replace himself as quickly as possible with someone who can do the job better than he.

    • Philippians2Five

      “The primary job of a leader is to replace himself as quickly as possible with someone who can do the job better than he.”

      > Absolutely!

      Why is it you think a leader (more specifically a UBF leader) finds it difficult to step down so that someone else can step up? Is it ego? Is it they desire to remain in constant control? Do they possibly believe that the other person is not adequate or sufficient to lead? Any reasons?

    • This book might have some interesting answers…

      The Gospel is the solution to each one of those questions.

    • John, Do you have the book? Read it? Should I buy it for 1 cent used? + $3.99 shipping?

    • Philippians2Five

      I recently read an article on leadership and here’s a quote from John MacArthur:
      “Under the plan God has ordained for the church, leadership is a position of humble, loving service. Church leadership is ministry, not management. Those whom God designates as leaders are called not to be governing monarchs, but humble slaves; not slick celebrities, but laboring servants. Those who would lead God’s people must above all exemplify sacrifice, devotion, submission, and lowliness. Jesus Himself gave us the pattern when He stooped to wash His disciples’ feet, a task that was customarily done by the lowest of slaves (John 13). If the Lord of the universe would do that, no church leader has a right to think of himself as a bigwig.” I also lack in Jesus’ style of leadership! Often I see leaders bragging about how much the “shepherd” does for the “sheep.” Great! The shepherd/leaders job is to lay down his life for the sheep–to lead, feed, comfort, protect, etc…However, the sacrifice of the shepherd is often used to justify phrases such as: “just obey.” If that was questioned…then the next step to justify “just obey” is Abraham’s obedience in (Genesis 12). He didn’t know where he was going so learn from him!

  13. Philippians2Five

    Thank you John for the book suggestion…I’ll check it out!

    • I’m reading the book now. I went to a Christian leadership seminar that was based on this book. It was pretty convicting and enlightening.

  14. Joe Schafer

    The Amazon address that John Y provided is a link to the old edition. There is a newer edition from 2007:

    I’ll be excited to read this book and take the assessment to find out how dysfunctional I am.

    • Joe, your comment struck me as something I can related to: “I’ll be excited to read this book and take the assessment to find out how dysfunctional I am.”

      I am finding that I am VERY dysfunctional, especially as a leader. Almost everything my wife and I learn from our current VantagePoint cohort contradicts what I was taught/preached in UBF:

    • Wow! What would 1 significant or outstanding teaching be?

    • Ben, I could fill volumes with quotes from the material, which I don’t have with me. I’ll share more late tonight.

      The most mind-blowing thing I’ve learned so far? Cohort members are asked to choose a mentor! In UBF-speak: Sheep CHOOSE their shepherds.

    • Now that I think about it, that would be my one request for change in UBF. Make one rule change: Let sheep choose their shepherd. …and be free to not have a shepherd.

  15. Just browsing the Table of Contents, I love the titles of the last 5 chapters, which I believe is crucial for every church to do, if we want to thrive going forward, especially the first 3 which should be basic and foundational:

    1) Acknowledge Your Dark Side

    2) Examine the Past

    3) Resist the Poison of Expectations

    4) Practice Progressive Self-Knowledge

    5) Understand Your Identity in Christ

    Each of these 5 points could be an entire blog, or even a series of blogs. Do we adequately address these?

  16. Hi Phil 2:5…

    You asked some questions. Here are my answers as a former leader in UBF for 24 years:

    “Why is it you think a leader (more specifically a UBF leader) finds it difficult to step down so that someone else can step up?”
    > The reason is because a UBF leader has bound his leadership role with salvation. In UBF ideology, salvation is not simply justification, but includes sanctification and glorification. Stepping down is seen as a failure. It is seen as an un-glorious move.

    “Is it ego?”
    > Not usually, but of course some may have large egos.

    “Is it they desire to remain in constant control?”
    > Yes, for many directors in UBF control is paramount. As was said above, UBF ideology combines an imagined sovereignty of God with practical human authority as an expression of that sovereignty.

    “Do they possibly believe that the other person is not adequate or sufficient to lead?”
    > I think it is the opposite. They will certainly make the other person feel inadequate and talk about them behind their backs to ensure their weaknesses are exposed. But the reality is that the UBF directors see the good qualities in those around them, and know that many are better than they are. And that frightens them.


    • Philippians2Five

      Thanks Brian!
      In regards to your statement earlier: “Now that I think about it, that would be my one request for change in UBF. Make one rule change: Let sheep choose their shepherd. …and be free to not have a shepherd.”
      > I used to think that a shepherd was like a mentor who would mentor you and direct you towards God. However, now I’m beginning to see “sheeps” dependance on the shepherd. We are all Jesus’ sheep and Jesus is our Good Shepherd. Sometimes those shepherds, whether consciously or subconsciously, become proud and arrogant and start to dictate “sheeps” life! All believers have God’s Holy Spirit within them, to guide, protect, correct, and ultimately lead them to the Good Shepherd. Again it’s good to have a mentor (shepherd) but I believe that’s also very dangerous, since I see many depending on their shepherds leading and words rather than the God’s or more reliance on the shepherds leading rather than the leading of the Holy Spirit.

    • Great point, Phil 2:5! I coined the phrase “unhealthy dependency” of the sheep depending on the shepherd’s direction and permission.

      This “unhealthy dependency” also goes the other way: the shepherd expects to be consulted by the sheep for his approval and blessing. Otherwise, he gets quite upset, and feels disrespected and dishonored.

    • Philippians2Five, I agree with you. I think 1:1 sessions and personal mentors are not bad in themselves, and can actually be very good. Group sesions can never fully replace 1:1 sessions.

      However, 1:1 settings and personal mentors become dangerous and unhealthy when the personal mentor starts to see himself as a “personal shepherd”, when any kind of hierarchy comes into play, when obedience is demanded, when the whole 1:1 setting is part of a larger setting where e.g. the personal shepherd reports to the chapter director and/or the fellowship leader (i.e. what is talked is not kept private, and the personal shepherd is pressured to bring “results” regarding “his” sheep), when it is accompanied with other problematic practices like sogam sharing, where sheep have to confess their “guilt” every week, but leaders never do, when you cannot freely choose or change your mentor, and when the 1:1 settings start to become mandatory and you are not allowed to skip or pause the weekly sessions.

      Having either a personal mentor or a personal spiritual friend is a great thing. 1:1 Bible study in itself can also be a great thing. I don’t think it need or should be abandoned completely to make UBF a healthy group. It’s only in the combination with the mentioned attitudes and additional components when it gets dangerous. Unfortunately, in UBF it’s combined not with only one of these dangerous add-ons and amplifiers, but all of these and more.

      Fyodor Dostoyevsky described the problem we’re talking about in a passage in the famous book “The Brothers Karamazov”. There was a tradition of “personal” elders in the Russian orthodoxy which showed exactly the same problems. Note that these problems appeared even though the followers were able to *choose* their elder. So I think freedom to choose your mentor is necessary, but not sufficient to avoid these problems. Here is the relevant quote from the Dostoyevsky:

      “What was such an elder? An elder was one who took your soul, your will, into his soul and his will. When you choose an elder, you renounce your own will and yield it to him in complete submission, complete self-abnegation. This novitiate, this terrible school of abnegation, is undertaken voluntarily, in the hope of self-conquest, of self-mastery, in order, after a life of obedience, to attain perfect freedom, that is, from self; to escape the lot of those who have lived their whole life without finding their true selves in themselves. This institution of elders is not founded on theory, but was established in the East from the practice of a thousand years. The obligations due to an elder are not the ordinary “obedience” which has always existed in our Russian monasteries. The obligation involves confession to the elder by all who have submitted themselves to him, and to the indissoluble bond between him and them. … In the end, however, the institution of elders has been retained and is becoming established in Russian monasteries. It is true, perhaps, that this instrument which had stood the test of a thousand years for the moral regeneration of a man from slavery to freedom and to moral perfectibility may be a two-edged weapon and it may lead some not to humility and complete self-control but to the most Satanic pride, that is, to bondage and not to freedom.”

  17. Thanks, Brian. A sad reality is that the senior leader in many UBF chapters feel threatened by anyone who is perceived to be better than they are in some way. In my opinion, that is why many good, able, gifted, critical thinkers leave.

    They are virtually “driven out” by the leader’s authoritarian domination, obtrusiveness, and by his controlling and manipulative techniques, even if the leader thinks he is doing so for the good of the person.

  18. Thanks, Brian. I actually attended a recent conference on “the art of spiritual conversation,” where the presenter said what you did, that disciples should seek out their own mentors.

    For some years now, I no longer ask people to study the Bible 1:1 with me. Of course, they still can if they want to. Nonetheless, I am always involved and engaged, but no longer necessarily in a 1:1 Bible study relationship, especially with those who have been Christians for over a decade.

    In fact I have found meeting in TRIADS or QUADS much more fulfilling and enriching, what Neil Cole calls an LTG: Life Transformation Group.

    A future blog post, if I do write it, would be titled: Why Triads and Quads may be Better than 1 to 1!

    • Triads and quads… awesome idea! We humans were not meant to have a “keeper” over us our entire lives. We were meant for community with fellow humans and for communion with God.

      Even Jesus only “shepherded” for 3 years max, and rarely on an individual basis. And Jesus never did 1>1 study.

  19. Thanks, Chris, for your great quote from Dostoyevsky!:

    Though this does not justify or excuse obtrusive UBF shepherds, I would have to say that it often arises from “honest ignorance” rather than malicious mendacity.

    My bone of contention is that UBF’s one big blind spot is our hierarchical authoritarianism, where some leaders or shepherds or missionary believes that they are the ultimate owners, stewards, gatekeepers and decision makers of UBF, while the rest should practically be subservient obedient acquiescing unquestioning subjects who should always “humbly accept God’s sovereignty.”

    Until and unless this changes more and more, we are stuck in the mud because the minority “power” oligarchy at the top will always rule over the majority “proletariat.”

  20. Sharon Schafer

    I’d like to respond to the comments by Anon and Joshua regarding the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, which is connected to our understanding of election. I think these lie at the root of many of our of problems.

    My views on God’s sovereignty and election were formed most by Newbigin in his book Open Secret. He writes, “It is here in this argument of Romans 9-11 that the inner consistency of the Biblical doctrine of election becomes most clear. There is not salvation except in the mutual relatedness that reflects that eternal relatedness-in-love which is the being of the triune God. Therefore salvation can only be the way of election: one must be chosen and caled and sent with the word of salvation to the other. But therefore also the elect can receive the gift of salvation only through those who are not elect. The purpose of God’s action for salvation in Christ is nothing other than the completing of his purpose of creation in Christ. It has in view not “the soul” conceived as independent monad detached from other souls and from the created world, but the human person knit together with other persons in a shared participation in and responsibility for God’s created world.”

    What does this mean? It means that election can never become a privileged status, it is not a contract that wins us favor from God, it does not allow us to make claims on God in any way. Rather it is a fearsome responsibility to live in such a way that I work out my OWN salvation in fear and trembling, applying the highest standard of love to myself and to no one else. The test or fruit of my election will be in the evidence of this love and nothing else. When Newbigin says that we receive the gift of salvation only through those who are not the elect, I think this is what he means. We have been called to this love for others. Our blessing is bound to theirs. We are truly “knit together” with others.

    So when Jesus says to treat those with whom you disagree, or have conflict with, as you would a tax collector, what does he mean? He means to treat them with the highest standard of love, as Jesus himself does, not with the privilege of shaking the dust off our feet, walking away and maintaining a sense of your own superiority over them.

    Not sure if this makes sense…Newbigin isn’t easy to understand.

  21. Sharon Schafer

    When I say my own salvation, I would add that by extension I am also responsible for the witness of my church….

  22. Sharon Schafer

    If election is taken as privilege or contract in any way, the result is a low standard of love in the church. We allow ourselves to break relationships easily, based on the boundaries we maintain in our positions of privilege. And the problem is complicated by the fact that we are convinced that we must do this to be faithful. What a mess!

  23. Dr. Ben, Brothers Karamazov was the first book that began to open my eyes to the spiritual reality, way before Christ embraced me and took me for his own. Especially the chapter on “The Grand Inquisitor” exposed the magnitude and magnificence of Jesus’ sacrifice and the enormity of the battle he fought with the devil on our behalf. Able to recognize the underlying corruption of all church systems, their flaws, and the depth of the human heart’s love affair with evil, I vowed to have nothing to do with any organized church system.

    When Christ finally took me into his life and kingdom and family, my heart longed for the simplicity and purity of the early church in the book of Acts. But it was no where to be found, and still nowhere in “human” sight. But as much as I shrink back from corrupt church systems, I cannot but often find myself in the place of that “grand inquisitor” who torments Christ, and that “elder” who torments his subordinates. What shall I do?

    I remember my origins, where He found me in the gutters of life, helpless and wretched and forsaken—it has a way of humbling me: “On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you. Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised. ‘Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, “Live!”’” [Eze 16:4-6]

    And what severely humbles me even more are these words: “I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct…” [Exe 36:32]

    And every day I thank God that indeed He did it for the sake of his Own Son, the Prince we all love and worship for what he has done for us.

    (You can post it if you want. I could not find a place to respond on the post.)

  24. Joe Schafer

    Dear Anon.,

    I think we all, at times, long for the simplicity of the early church as described in the initial chapters of the book of Acts. But that simplicity could not last. That early church consisted entirely of Hebraic Jews. Once the gospel began to spread and those worldly Grecian Jews and those darned, unruly Gentiles poured in, some very problematic aspects of the community’s beliefs were exposed. In fact, it was God’s will and plan for the early church to face their prejudice, and in doing so, the meaning of the gospel was further revealed and clarified.

    Isn’t that exactly what God is doing among us now?

    With all due respect — and I actually want to treat you with respect; it’s not just a throw-away line to soften the blow — it seems that you want to duck back into a narrative of personal salvation, claiming helplessness to say or do anything in regard to the community of believers. But you are not as helpless as you may feel. Will there ever come a point where the practices of a community or the actions of church leaders become so indefensible that you would be willing to call them out? Doesn’t faithfulness to the gospel sometimes require this?

    Your words sound humble. But humbleness does not equal helplessness.

  25. Hello all, coming in late, but I really appreciate this discussion as it is a core issue with our ministry. I simply wanted to address Phil2:5 and your question, “Do UBF leaders really want and desire to become less and Jesus greater?” As a current UBF leader, my personal answer to you is “yes”. The problem is that there is a lot of unlearning and re-education that needs to take place, beginning with me (19yrs in UBF ministry), so discussions such as this are truly ESSENTIAL. While I have recognized the unhealthy aspects of the shepherd-sheep relationship, namely the expectation of obedience to the “shepherd” (small “s”) instead of the “Shepherd” (Jesus)I recently found myself caught in this expectation during my interaction with another young leader. But God’s Spirit is moving, convicting hearts (beginning with mine)and drawing us to rediscover healthy mentoring relationships.

    • Phil 2 Five

      Thank you Mark for clarifying that! I do appreciate your honesty and heart for God and your service to Him. I agree with you on your point that there needs to be a lot of re-education done among UBF leaders. I don’t know everything! I’m willing to learn and listen to others. However, when someone tries to push their point through by taking passages out of context to get you to do something the way they want it to be done, I do not and cannot agree with that. Over the years I have seen only two passages really taught on marriage or preparation for courtship or “dating” for instance (Genesis 2:21-24; Genesis 24). Are there no other passages on Biblical courtship, dating, relationships, marriage? Why doesn’t UBF publish an article on marriage to help those who are utterly confused on what Biblical courtship is and what steps they ought to take as they prepare? Here’s an article by John Piper which I would love UBF leaders to read thoroughly and perhaps teach to person who is ready and willing to start a relationship!!

      Here’s the link:

      By the way, it’s not just marriage! If there’s a concern brought up by someone regarding the ministry, it’s taken as complain. “The Bible says obey your leaders” the ‘sheep’ are told! You all know very well, so there’s no need to bring it up again!

    • @MarkO: Good to “see” you here. I’m glad to hear that you think these discussions are “truly essential”. It’s not often we hear that on this website… I’d love to hear more of your questions and I miss our conversations.

      @Phil2Five: You raise an interesting point regarding marriage. I think, perhaps, marriage “preparation” time is when ubf shepherds are the most obtrusive.

      You asked, “Why doesn’t UBF publish an article on marriage to help those who are utterly confused on what Biblical courtship is and what steps they ought to take as they prepare?” ubf has in fact published material about marriage. They usually consider the lectures from Isaac and Rebekah as marriage preparation material. We have a marriage binder actually also, with various materials. But you are right, Piper’s material and non-ubf input would be so very helpful.

      I have found though, that even though ubf shepherds are overly obtrusive during marriage, ubf does hit on a good aspect of marriage that much of Christianity has lost– the “suitable helper” teaching. As I venture out into the Christian world, I find that a major problem is that Christians tend to make idols out of both sex and marriage. While I do not support the marriage-by-faith ideology of ubf at all, there is something to be said for the Genesis accounts and the suitable helper teachings. If only they didn’t choose who that suitable helper is, and be far more transparent, they might have something to contribute to the body of Christ in that regard.

    • Phil 2 Five

      @Brian, totally agree with you on this: “I have found though, that even though ubf shepherds are overly obtrusive during marriage, ubf does hit on a good aspect of marriage that much of Christianity has lost– the “suitable helper” teaching.”

  26. Hi Mark. Welcome! Thanks for being forthright in your comments. For sure, like yourself, I do want to become less, so that Jesus may become greater (Jn 3:30).

    And yup, it’s so easy to notice and call out some other leader who is expecting obedience to him, while I find that exact same strong inclination in my own heart toward younger leaders. Indeed, may God have mercy on us so that we might have healthy mentoring relationships going forward.

    Thank God who called you to lead, serve and mentor young leaders in your midst. Whenever you are so inclined, do share with us how things are going.