Yoked for life?

yokedA personal, life-long shepherd. Do you want one? In 1987 I happened by chance to meet ubf shepherds on my campus during my third week of college. I was 18 years old. That chance meeting was seen by these shepherds as God’s divine intervention into my life and God’s sign that I needed to be yoked permanently to a ubf shepherd. This was based on bible verses such as Matthew 11:29 and Philippians 4:3. I had no idea I was entering into a permanent relationship, a relationship that would soon supersede all other relationships.

Bound for life

The ubf culture encourages shepherds to become your new parents. They view young college students as their children. They intend to be bound for life. This is seen by the shepherds as more binding than mother/daughter, brother/sister or husband/wife. Your shepherd/sheep relationship is seen to be most binding.

Intense pursuit

The culture in ubf pushes shepherds to unceasingly pursue any young person who shows any kind of interest in ubf. When I was a ubf shepherd, I always longed for “the one”. I wanted to find the one student who would validate my efforts, the one student who would prove out the ubf heritage, the one student who would save me from all the rebukes for not having a disciple of my own.

Personal trainer

The shepherds in ubf are tasked with a primary purpose: train the “sheep” under you. The shepherds face a lot of pressure to control what behavior their “sheep” do. If your “sheep” strays and fails, the shepherd is in more trouble than the “sheep”. The shepherd is trained to be a trainer. The shepherd is held responsible for the moral improvement and outward conformance to the ubf heritage.

Is this what you want?
Is a personal. lifelong trainer justified?
Is there any biblical support for such a role?
Did Jesus intend His followers to be this kind of shepherd?



  1. If the shepherd is Jesus then yes it is okay.
    But, is the human shepherd always right? – certainly not!
    Note, that some small chapters maintain the right to keep personal Bible studies as they grow even though they could switch to a more dynamic group study. Be weary unless you need the personal counsel. Keeping individuals apart in the name of shepherding is another way from preventing them from exchanging notes. Also, beware of the leader who demands you to clear all activities with church members – it is again control. Do you want to ask your shepherd if you can go for coffee with your brother who you live with in common life?

    • Joe Schafer

      Based on what I have seen, the personal counsel offered by many shepherds/Bible teachers has been unwise. They aren’t qualified to counsel people on most matters and shouldn’t try. Friendship, yes. Counseling, no.

    • I would tend to agree Joe, but I see far more than counseling going on.

      Some decisions that I always had to get approval from my personal shepherd and/or the chapter director:

      – who, when, where, why, how to marry
      – naming of children
      – place of work (stay within 1 hour of your chapter)
      – living place (stay in the neighborhood of other ubf people)
      – daily schedule (must get up for early morning meeting)
      – weekly schedule (can’t visit family on Sundays)
      – yearly schedule (must attend at least one conference if not all)

      The list goes on and on, either by direct shepherd intervention or by indirect, but always the pressure and burden was ever-present.

    • Guys, that was basically my point. I agree with you. I added the counsel part because some people strangely prefer 1:1 settings – personally I don’t see the benefit.

  2. “If the shepherd is Jesus then yes it is okay.”

    That’s just it, gc. As a ubf shepherd I viewed myself as a “little Jesus”, so I justified such things as ok. Now I would say even for Jesus, it is not ok. Jesus did not do any of those things. Jesus does not lord His authority over our lives. He is the good Shepherd. So I say, no it is not okay.

    I was trained in ubf to read the bible as if I was Jesus in each passage. I now find it far more helpful to read the bible as if I am the Pharisees. It is highly insightful to listen to Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and consider whether Jesus is talking to me or not, instead of always supposing Jesus was talking to “other churches” or that “most Christians” are the Pharisees.

  3. Joe Schafer

    Brian, your last comment above (especially the last sentence) reminds me of a great article from last year that Peter Enns just reposted:

  4. Last week I talked to an American minister from Arcanzas. I won’t share what he said but I’d like to share the way he said something to me.

    Vitaly, I want to tell you something I have in my heart. After I leave Russia I will pray that if it is God’s will He may put it into your heart. So if God puts it into your heart (what I will tell you now) then you may know that it came from the Holy Spirit. And if God doesn’t put it into your heart then just forget our talk for it was from me, not from the Holy Spirit.

    Have you heard such “yoke-free” words from a ubf director? Again, when a minister is good he brings people to the Lord and His yoke, and if the minister is bad, he brings people under his own and his organization’s yoke.

  5. Here’s a question:

    If the shepherd is responsible for the moral improvement of the sheep, and any failure by the sheep is blamed on the shepherd, what responsibility does the shepherd bear when his sheep leave en masse? Is that their failure as well? If so, why the all-to-common tendency of blaming and shaming those who leave? Or does the yoked-for-life doctrine only apply when convenient?

    • Joe Schafer

      Behind closed doors, chapter directors have sometimes been harshly rebuked after their members left en masse. The rebukes have been
      * you didn’t train them properly
      * you didn’t pray for them enough
      * you didn’t watch them closely enough
      * you didn’t do enough to solve their practical problems
      and so on. Basically, they are rebuked for not having followed the ubf shepherding paradigm to its fullest. The paradigm itself has not been scrutinized.

    • I’m not surprised. After all, how could anything be wrong with “God’s best ways?”

      I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I could have stayed in UBF and withstood anything if only my chapter director would be willing to begin a real, mutual friendship as an equal brother in the Lord, and not merely as a shepherd and authority figure. Such artificial and one-sided relationships are real killers.

    • Mark Mederich

      EQUAL, surely u jest (who do you think u r?:)

    • Mark Mederich

      supposed to be yokefellows helping each other in the Lord but end up just yoked/held back

    • Good points everyone. In my observation however this reveals another big contradiction. When people leave a ubf chapter (like what happened in Toledo the last 2 years), it is not because shepherds failed to carry out the ubf heritage. I believe it is because the shepherds obeyed the ubf heritage so well.

      The ubf heritage has built-in contradictions. In other words, it is designed to fall apart and cause division after several years. Division is the main way to preserve the heritage. So in an ironic twisted sense, people’s leaving (even though they had to in many cases) actually works to preserve the heritage.

      So then someone like PH or PC does the heritage very well. He is an expert in carrying it out. Because of the inherent flaws in the system however, people end up being driven out or leaving. Then PC or PH is blamed for failing by higher ups. But their minds are confused because they thought they were succeeding. Yet they are being rebuked for failure and people seem so wounded. Then after a period of “taking their flogging”, they go right back to the heritage because they “know” it works, thinking it must have just been the wrong people in the system or that the people who left just failed to obey the heritage.

      Then people like PH and PC are promoted to higher positions of influence. Why? Because they succeeded in carrying out the ubf heritage! Top leaders above them never take the time to find out what went wrong and all they see is a successful preserving of ubf. And no one (except some former members) takes the time to figure out the contradictions in the ubf heritage. No one would dare say the system is flawed or if they do they say “just keep the wheat and the weeds together until Heaven”.

      How glorious did Toledo UBF look in 2010? How wonderful and marvelous it was for all “co-workers to be united and work together for God’s purpose” and finish the brand new church building? But it all fell apart 1 year later. It is not entirely because of the director or a few leaders. It fell apart also because of the system, and the fact that the leaders in Toledo know how to execute the ubf system very, very, very well. In fact we were the first to be successful at the ubf shepherding methods in America, were we not? (outside of Chicago) SL used to talk about us as the example of where ubf shepherding first took off in America. Was not THE ancestor of faith (BN name changed to AN) in all of USA from Toledo?

      I think some of these things answer your questions Joshua?

  6. As of Aug 18, 2013, 7:45 AM Central Time, there are 5 Likes and 1 Dislike for this article—but no comment about the Dislike.

    As expressed before, this is the sad unhealthy part about UBF: UBFers (or ExUBFers) do not know how to engage disagreements or dislike. They can only handle glowing positive flattering compliments (“It’s the best conference I ever attended.”), but not “negative” critical comment (“The messages sound rehearsed, scripted, formulaic, predictable, and unnatural.”).

    I think this is because some older UBF leaders have become so isolated and insulated “in the box of UBF with them as the unaccountable and untouchable senior leader(s).” As a result, they only love to hear positive press clippings about themselves, but “refuse” to hear any objective unflattering comments about their demerits.

    • Like/Dislike, let them remain silent readers if they must. I wish that they would:
      a) Write an article that expresses their imagination and point of view
      b) Comment openly about things they liked or disliked
      c) Answer where applicable when anyone posts something addressed to them (David W. was very conscious of answering everyone who posted on his article.)
      d) Be prepared to hear the bad with the good – it is the only way for a decent dialogue. All bad is not good and all good is not good, we need balance.

      I would hope that leaders would be willing to listen (read), and answer each comment carefully and thoughtfully, but I guess I am too naive and also asking for too much.

    • Mark Mederich

      ‘GRASSHOPPER’ you must learn to follow the leader:)

    • Mark Mederich

      ‘the UNTOUCHABLES…’

    • Sometimes I burst out laughing when you comment, Mark! Keep it up and thanks for the humor!

  7. @gc. I have heard some leaders express that they have far more important “work of God to do” than to waste their time reading UBFriends.

    • I know, I have heard that too. The trouble is many people read this senior and junior. We’ve discussed this many times but avoidance is not a particularly successful strategy. They can do what they like.

  8. sheepherd1

    “Is this what you want?”

    At the very beginning, I didn’t want one. But since it’s UBF you must have one. I thought a “shepherd” is just a person whom you can study the bible with. I didn’t know they can have such influence and control over a “sheep”. All I wanted was a person who can I study with and not someone who can dictate my life. Hearing the UBF shepherd and sheep jargon is annoying. “I have a new sheep.” “Hello shepherd (enter name here).” How does someone become a shepherd in UBF? I don’t think those people who think they’re shepherd are qualified to dictate one’s life and on one is. There is one shepherd, the good shepherd (psalm 23). There are those out there that want to help students “sheep” honestly, but please don’t step over the boundary. You are not the shepherd. You are to present the Gospel of Christ but not to control them.

    One last thing, when your “sheep” confesses sins, love them in truth and not shame them.

    • sheepherd1

      “But since it’s UBF you must have one.”

      Precisely. As I think back on my life narrative, your words actually describe why I resigned from ubf and can never return. I do not want a life-long shepherd overseeing my life any more. I never wanted this, and I denied that it was happening. But truth be told, I felt I always had to get approval for my decisions. I couldn’t be myself. I was disconnected from my real narrative, a narritive that included me already being a Christian before ever hearing about ubf.

      And that requirement to have a permanent shepherd who oversees your life is exactly my Demand #2 – “Release the bonds”. The gospel Jesus preached is not about binding people to a morality system. The gospel is about liberation and freedom and breaking the bonds. The gospel Jesus preached is not about overseeing people’s lives but about being tranparent so they can see the Overseer.

    • “How does someone become a shepherd in UBF?”

      There is no prescribed process. You have to impress your own shepherd first. When he/she deems you proved yourself (usually by demonstrating allegiance to ubf and how the heritage changed your life), then your shepherd will start calling you “shepherd”. It is sort of a Moses to Joshua type of passing the baton. I heard some chapters have a “shepherd declaration” meeting where “shepherd candidates” share their life testimonies. Then after that they are “shepherds” or “shepherdesses”, but almost all ubf chapters handle it an unofficial manner.

    • “How does someone become a shepherd in UBF?”

      Brian is right, there is no prescribed process. I don’t even rememember how I became shepherd and when I was addressed with the title “shepherd” for the first time. Maybe after I shared my life testimony in which I said I wanted to become a shepherd. So it was a sneaky process. In one case our chapter director made a small ceremony for the appointment of one shepherd (the shepherd who later commited suicide), but usually there was no ceremony and you just suddenly were considered a shepherd, without any education about theology, Bible interpretation, counseling etc.

    • Mark Mederich

      suicide ought to make systems care..

    • @Mark: “suicide ought to make systems care.” Yes, suicide should wake people up, but most are just numb.

      @Chris: “I don’t even rememember how I became shepherd and when I was addressed with the title “shepherd” for the first time. Maybe after I shared my life testimony in which I said I wanted to become a shepherd.”

      The key is selfish ambition and vain conceit. That is one thing I unpacked while in Detroit. I realized ubf is built on selfish ambition. Remove that ambition and conceit, and ubf starts falling apart rather quickly.

      Also your words remind me of how I climbed the ubf authority ladder. One day I moved into the brother’s common life house, unannounced. One day I shared a testimony saying I wanted to be a shepherd, so I was. One day I showed up a leader’s meeting and they told me: You are the fellowship leader now, so I accepted. One day I said I wanted to be a pioneer, so I did.

      I was either full of selfish ambition or vain conceit, and usually both. The great irony is that I thought I was making my own decisions, but the reality was that I was smothered under the constant oversight of having to present myself to my personal shepherd for his approval and was actually making his decisions, which were often dictated to me.

      Like with all things, this “being yoked for life” and “becoming a shepherd” is one big flustercuck. There are even shepherdless shepherds who somehow escaped the spiritual abuse of a personal overlord.

  9. Looking forward, the timing of this article is good. September is coming and that means new semester = new opportunities. I might add that August has almost seen an average of one article a day.

    Bound for life, at least until you leave or get kicked out, after that it seems like you never existed. Such intensity and focus on young people to commit to ubf certainly does turn love into hate or at least indifference.

    Intense pursuit to find the one student who can become your Abraham or Sarah of faith. What happens if they grow and then plateau? After a while you are encouraged to ignore them and focus on new students. Everyone hopes that they will become self motivated to take the call and feed their own Abraham’s and Sarah’s. Let me hear it, “I want to be somebody!”

    Personal trainer: What more can I say? Honestly, one size does not fit all. If a student is enthusiastic then you will look good if they are aloof then you will be reminded to invite them to meetings, share testimony, buy a daily bread book… How come you are a failure at being a salesman? Push, push, push, persistence is the key. Actually, understanding your human relationship is the most critical. If a shepherd places too much emphasis on the UBF corporate ladder it is eventually the downfall. Students will all leave and the trainer indeed will be blamed. So I guess the key to success is to make that ladder as transparent as possible.

    Maybe follow the lead of the Holy Spirit and allow Jesus to do all of the work – but you will be a failed trainer if that person leaves for a different calling.

    Trainers are helpful, but they should keep distance and play their role as…..trainers. Trainers should not be more important than family. (Double check your graduation, wedding or any other life cycle event photos!) Speaking of life cycles….who has been told about the hierarchy of wedding invitations? (I had no trouble, but I know some people have) Also, who do you tell first about the delivery of the baby? Be careful, you have to consider someone’s feelings, no make that authority.

    The trainer should let the Holy Spirit do the work through the word of God instead of bullying and guilt tripping others for all of their hard efforts. Maybe all ubf trainers should be nailed to the cross….not for sin so to say, but to reveal to others just how much we must appreciate their hard labours for……UBF.

    • Mark Mederich



      GUILT trip

      hard LABOR

    • Mark Mederich

      we’ve heard of getting “egg on our face” by saying something accidentally wrong or doing something unintentionally embarassing,
      but being ‘yoked for life’ sounds even scarier:)