What Is A Sheep Attack?
“Sheep Attack” Defined A shepherd and his/her flock is often used as metaphors for congregational life. Research and literature about congregational conflict have identified a phenomenon occurring in congregations where an individual or a small group of the “sheep” attack the shepherd with the purpose of driving the pastor from the congregation. This phenomenon is referred to as “Sheep Attack” and the antagonists as “Attack Sheep”.
The common traits of “Attack Sheep” are a sense of spiritual superiority, reliance on feelings rather than facts, and a desire to grow around them a group who are similarly disgruntled. The reason for the attack can be a perceived loss of control, resistance to change, a personal agenda, or dislike of the pastor. The tactics of such attacks are personal attacks on the integrity of the pastor, rumors, gossip and withdrawal of financial support.
Sheep Attacks often take the form of gossip, rumors, and personal attacks aimed at undermining the pastor’s ministries. The occurrence of Sheep Attacks seemed less prevalent during the tenure of interim pastors. This may be because interim pastors are less inclined to try to institute change and were viewed as temporary shepherds, and not as a threat to the Attack Sheep.
The impact of the Sheep Attacks is enhanced by a congregational culture in which the lay leadership and flock or congregation do not support the pastors or resist the bullying behavior of the Attack Sheep group. When no one stands up against the “sheep attacks”, the pastor could feel ambushed, isolated, demoralized, frustrated, unsupported and discouraged.
A congregation suffering from Sheep Attack is often conflicted with unhealthy communication activities such as clandestine meetings” by some, parking lot discussions and telephone chains. Such congregations are often change resistant, uncertain about what it wants in a pastor, and split between the progressive and the traditional groups. Congregations suffering from Sheep Attack have been described as “toxic” and “dysfunctional”.
The face of “Attack Sheep”
While a person could be the face of the antagonistic to group, the lone sheep does not act alone. The Attack Sheep has a group of members who are disgruntled who would attack by withholding financial support, and carry out emotional and physical attacks against the pastor and the pastor’s family. Unwittingly, other congregants also play a part in the loss of pastors when they failed to resist or stand up to the bullying.
A congregation Suffering from Sheep Attack
A congregation stuck in Sheep Attack has pain and hurts that deepen with each Sheep Attack, resulting in the pastor leaving the congregation and even the demise of the congregation. The pain from each loss not addressed and not healed spirals the congregation into a sense of defeat, hopelessness and despair at many levels. When Sheep Attack is not directly addressed, the unresolved problem festers and the pattern of Sheep Attack repeats through out the life of the congregation. A new pastor would experience major difficulty bonding with a congregation embroiled in toxicity from Sheep Attack. Each time a slightest scab forms with the call of a new pastor to the congregation, the wound would break open when faced with conflict or each renewed Sheep Attack and the pastor leaving the congregation. Having suffered so many years of turmoil, given the cumulative trauma of pastors loss, with no opportunity to grief the compounded losses, a congregation stuck in complex grief becomes unable to resist the Sheep Attacks and unwittingly would even enable the Sheep Attacks.
Healing and Preventing Sheep Attacks
Healing from Sheep Attack is hard work that involves the entire congregation. The first step towards recovery is acknowledging that Sheep Attack has occurred in the congregation. Following Matthew 18, the congregation that seeks to bind its wounds learns to openly address the Sheep Attacks and stand up to bullying. To prevent future Sheep Attacks, the members of the congregation must intentionally modify its behavior and conduct toward each other, offering forgiveness to each other to heal the soul of the church.
A congregation recovering from Sheep Attack must harness resources to heal and prevent future Sheep Attacks. As any organization, a congregation must have rules of operation, which defines the chain of operation; resources for members to provide input to leadership and model Holy Manners; and recourse for destructive behavior toward the congregation.
A congregation needs a reservoir to respond to destructive behavior, including adopting a Congregational Behavior Covenant, also known as “Holy Manners”, to address inappropriate behavior when it occurs, holding members accountable for their misconduct.
One key element of the Behavior Covenant involves having a structured process or channel to direct helpful, constructive input to the Pastor, staff and lay leadership. This channel of open and direct communication would also serve to prevent the parking lot gossip or indirect forms of communication. The Mutual Ministry Committee serves as a system for members to directly address issues involving the pastor, staff or lay leadership.
Also, the congregation should have a committee of trained members to handle grievances, and address conflict or dispute resolution involving any member of the congregation.
Another key element of the Behavior Covenant is to have transparency in the decision making process.
In addition, the Behavior Covenant should include intentional respect and support for the pastor, staff and laity.
Congregations that go through intense conflict usually experience one of five potential outcomes:
• New vision, clear direction, and forward movement
• Some increased clarity of vision and direction, but only small gains forward
• Maintenance – after initial loss of further members, the congregation holds its own
• Further gradual decline, but reactivity is sporadic or goes underground
• Demoralization, ongoing decline, reactivity continues
The outcome that emerges will be dependent on the willingness of all parties to engage in the healing and problem-solving phases of the process in a spirit of reconciliation and grace and not a spirit of blame.
• This will require that all parties look at themselves and acknowledge ways they too have contributed to the anxiety and reactivity.
• Healing can only occur if all are willing to enter into a spirit of mutual confession that brings a sense of genuine revival of God’s Spirit at work.
• Healing is also dependent on a commitment to ongoing implementation of the agreements and learning that emerge from the problem solving phases.
• Healing is further dependent on the recognition that changing the culture and behavior of groups takes intentionality, time, and practicing new skills.
• Healing from Sheep Attack requires patience, encouragement, and the willingness to use new skills