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Can We Handle the Truth?

Learning from the Good Shepherd about leading the sheep and telling the truth
Christian leadership requires leaders to tell the truth—and followers to hear the truth.

are apprenticed to this peculiar way of speaking and being in the world. Leaders may from time to time be those who have to make the hard decisions, but more important than the decisions they make is the language that has shaped the decision.

I should like to think such an understanding of leadership is important for helping us understand the work of theology and how that work is central for the mission of seminaries. What we teach in seminary is speech. And we learn speech by listening. To return to the parable of the Good Shepherd, in John’s Gospel Jesus explains:

The one who enters the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gate keeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,
and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him
because they do not know the voice of strangers.
(John 10: 2–5)

The primary task of seminary education is to train pastors as those who will lead the church, which means our primary task in seminary education is to train pastors who will recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd so that they may train the rest of the fold to do the same. And we learn the voice of the Good Shepherd by listening and observing how his voice has shaped the hard-won speech of the church through the ages. By tending to the church’s speech—how she prays, admonishes, laments, argues—we learn to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and we learn to test the voice of strangers. Leadership requires both attentive listening and careful speech, both wisdom and judgment. If either is avoided, the fold, including the pastor, is at risk.

I have been in the business of teaching those called to the ministry for many years. I confess I remain unsure how best to train those going into the ministry, those who will be called upon to be leaders, to be people of wisdom and judgment. How do you train someone to be wise? It is a difficult question that I still seek to answer. But in the very least, those called to occupy the office of theologian for the church must attempt to instill in our students a love of the language of the gospel, that is, the voice of the Good Shepherd. For if those called to lead the people of God have confidence and trust in the words we have been given, we can hope that the church will be an alternative to the politics of manipulation that so dominates our world.