The Fayette Citizen-Opinion Page

Friday, March 26, 2004

The risks of playing in the pasture


The Methodists were playing the Baptists in a Saturday softball game in Greene County, Tenn. I was 24 years old and a few months into my second pastorate.

I was at first base for the Methodist team as the game got underway. I should mention that both churches were small, rural congregations and the game was being played, not on a regulation softball field, but in someone’s pasture.

The game was uneventful for a few innings but, suddenly, as the Baptists were up to bat, the leadoff man hit a dandy low pop-up that dropped neatly between first base and right field. The Baptist batter would easily make first base but, as the right fielder scooped up the ball, the batter turned the corner and attempted to make second base. The right fielder threw the ball hard to the second baseman and the batter slid into second. Except it wasn’t second base.

To his great misfortune, the batter had landed, not on second base, but on one of the many fresh piles of cow manure that had been deposited in the pasture sometime that morning. It seemed that the Baptist batter slid forever. When he finally stopped, his jeans on the left side were covered from tennis shoe to back pocket in cow droppings. To add to his indignity, the second baseman ceremoniously tagged him out. The center fielder said, “Man, you gotta have a shovel to play on this field.” Little did I know how prophetic that word would turn out to be as I began my pastoral ministry.

One of the theological truths taught ministerial students is that the pastor is a “shepherd.” As such, he is to care for and nurture the “sheep” that make up the “flock” that constitutes the local congregation.

What ministerial students generally do not learn in school is that, occasionally, the sheep bite. Another truth that the teachers neglect to tell these young, idealistic seminarians is that “every shepherd needs a shovel.” Especially if he wants to play on the field that is the local church.

While sheep who bite can control their actions and need to conked over the head with the shepherd’s staff, sheep who leave messes, to either be cleaned up or avoided, are often in a different situation.

I once had lunch with a man who was having an affair. He had a beautiful wife and small daughter at home. The wife was devastated and heartbroken. I tried, in vain, to appeal to his sense of morality. Eventually, he left his family, leaving a mess that would take years to clean up. The wife and daughter weren’t responsible, but they were soiled, nevertheless.

Another time, I visited a man who had been laid off from his job. His wife called concerned that he was not handling the situation. Her husband was a recovering alcoholic and she was worried he would fall off the wagon.

When I got to his house, he was well past being drunk. We sat on the sofa and he talked and cried. After a few minutes, he leaned over, put his head on my shoulder, and promptly vomited all over my new suit. He apologized and passed out. For a while, I held him in my arms, then eased out from under him, and laid him on the sofa. I found a wash cloth and towel and cleaned him up before turning my attention to the soiled suit. He went back to A.A. the next day and, eventually, found another job. I never told his wife.

A few years ago, a church member stopped me as I came out of a supermarket. A downpour was on and I had left my umbrella in the car. Not to be deterred, the person spent a good five minutes berating my wife for not being a “good pastor’s wife” as the rain soaked me to the bone. I should share that “pastor’s wives” do not work for the church. My wife’s role, as far as I am concerned, is to be a good Christian and to be a good wife to me, which she is.

Why this sheep decided to soil the pasture in the middle of a storm, I do not know. But angry, gossipy, unhappy people tend not to care about the feelings of others and are prone to leave a lot of nastiness wherever they go.

Serving as a pastor, like playing ball in a cow pasture, involves the risk of getting into some messy stuff. Life is messy and all sheep, and their shepherds, sin and make a mess of things. Sometimes, it’s possible to avoid the messes that people leave in the field but, most times, some clean up is required.

Quite frequently, however, the game goes well and the sheep hit the ball out of the park and make it all the way home. When that happens, the entire flock celebrates the victory. Still, it’s a good rule for pastors to follow: Every shepherd needs a shovel!

[Father David Epps is rector of Christ the King Charismatic Episcopal Church on Ga. Highway 34 between Peachtree City and Newnan. The church offers Sunday services at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. He may be contacted at or at]

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