Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Herding the Congregation
distributed 5/25/18 - ©2018

In the United States, we're headed into a three day holiday weekend. Thoughts turn to picnics, parades and back yard barbeque. It is hardly the occasion for me to expound on complicated theology or edgy social commentary.

For an appropriately light and quirky theme, I turn to advice on livestock management for insights on social change in churches and communities. What can cowboys and cowgirls teach us about moving our folk to a different place?

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Dealing with a diverse group of independent-minded people is often compared to herding cats. (So, take a minute and see the famous commercial about cowboys herding cats.) That's not what I'm talking about though.

Cattle are herd animals. So are sheep -- which is the usual biblical analogy for people who need care. It was just a month ago that I dealt with the notion of "the good shepherd" who faces danger for the sake of the flock.

Being compared to sheep and cattle is not very flattering. They're not real smart, they tend to go along with the herd, and they don't always behave very well -- which actually does sound like the way people behave a lot of the time. So maybe it is not surprising that there are lessons to be learned from enlightened experts in herding livestock.

I came to this realization by looking through the recent issue of Drovers magazine. (There's a long story about why I get that magazine every month ...) To expand your vocabulary, a drover is "a person who moves groups of animals (such as cattle or sheep) from one place to another." This month's magazine has a guest editorial on "How to Gather Cattle" from one pasture to another, which turns out to be a quite slow and gentle process. There are no cowhands on galloping horses chasing after stampeding bovines. As one expert says, "If you hurry, it will be slow due to problems you created."

The authors give four guidelines for low stress gathering. With a bit of intuition, it is not hard to find parallels for guiding a congregation or community toward different thoughts and behaviors. Imagine a church "green team" trying to guide the congregation toward zero-waste practices.

  • "First, approach the animals properly so we're not a threat." Get to know the folk, and let them know that you care about the church. Don't confront them with guilt and blame about disposable coffee cups! Don't hit them suddenly with a batch of demands for new behaviors. Do some studies and education about how much the church is sending to the dump. Take the time to explain why reducing waste is a good idea, practically as well as morally.

  • Second, "start the animals slowly ... This gives the animals time to decide to move, which is the all-important mind change. The worst thing to do is force them to move off, which will immediately get them in an uncooperative mood." Start with some easy steps like recycling. Notice the respected members who are starting to do the right thing, and affirm them -- that will help get the stragglers moving, too. Take it step-by-step in adding new and more challenging behaviors.

  • "Third, don't drive them too fast. They need to move at a pace that's comfortable for them." This isn't an excuse for a church setting where a "comfortable pace" might be no change at all! Remember that the drovers are working at moving the cattle toward a different place, and our church projects need to have real motion toward the goal. It is true that moving a congregation at a deliberate pace will probably get more done and be more sustainable than trying to meet all of the goals right away.

  • "Fourth, don't do anything to stop movement." Keep up the pressure and the encouragement so that they'll keep moving. Once some progress is being made, don't launch another major campaign that will be a distraction. Get them settled into the "zero waste pasture" before starting the divestment project.

These four guidelines are good to bear in mind when we're trying to move the herd. Thinking about the congregation as cattle or sheep reminds us that the group isn't always thinking real hard about what to do. If we're intentional and respectful, we can provide guidance to move the whole group in new directions. Play with this image as you're planning the next project. (It is important, though, not to tell the congregation the images of sheep and cattle that you're using to shape your plans!)

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The notion of low stress livestock management is probably very old, but it is a new thing in modern forms of agriculture. Ranches and feedlots used force and fear to move cattle, with lots of bad results.

A few decades ago, a shift in perspective came from Temple Grandin, now a professor at Colorado State University, who is autistic. Her distinctive way of experiencing the world led her to insights about livestock. As she told an interviewer:

It was easy for me to figure out how animals think and how animals would react because I think visually. Animals don't think in language. They think in pictures. It's very easy for me to imagine what would it be like to go through a system if you really were a cow, not a person in a cow costume but really were a cow, and autistic senses and emotions are more like the senses of an animal.

In 2010, HBO released an award winning "biopic" about Grandin that is a good and enjoyable education about both autism and modern animal science.

Grandin's perspectives have brought revolutionary changes to some livestock operations. New equipment and gentler practices are both more humane and more efficient. (There are, of course, big ethical questions about whether livestock operations should exist at all. But, if we are going to raise cattle, these certainly are better ways to do it.)

Livestock management based on insights from Temple Grandin and others actually is very respectful of the animals. It is not a practice of domination and control, but of guidance and encouragement.

When we're trying to herd our congregations into new thoughts and new behaviors, it makes sense to be respectful in our guidance and encouragement, too.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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