Speaking Softly and Carrying a Big Stick

A photo I took directly outside our home here in Mexico of a shepherd taking his flock up the road.

A photo I took directly outside our home here in Mexico of a shepherd taking his flock up the road.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick, was a phrase President Teddy Roosevelt used in a letter in 1900. It was in reference to a philosophy of foreign policy but has been used by many since then in all kinds of situations. From what I understand the meaning is that you should use as gentle and non-aggressive an approach as possible but also have available the power and authority to have your own way if the mild method doesn’t work.

I was a pastor in a Congregational church my entire pastoral career where the people have a major say in what happens, usually expressed by a vote, as to what they, or at least a majority of them, want for the church. I recall many a congregational meeting where I sat in the pew with most of the congregation, tense and anxiously waiting, as a few trusted souls were off in another room counting the paper ballots of the voting members on a crucial issue.

On such occasions, and others too, I found myself wishing I had more authority, more power, so that things would go the way I believed they should. Generally pastors can’t bark out orders; we’re supposed to use a softer, loving, gentler, what could be called a pastoral approach (an approach we know our congregation also is most comfortable with), but the fantasy of being able to carry a big stick (perhaps a cub?) was, nevertheless, often present for me. That’s the fantasy, but the fact is, I know that’s not the way to pastor!

Oh, we pastors are called to carry a big stick, but not a club, rather a staff, the shepherd’s crook. It’s not a stick to clobber people but one to care for people. Sure, sometimes the shepherd flipped it end for end and used the straight end for a club, a rod, but not on the sheep. Used as a rod it was a defensive weapon against the enemies of the flock under his care.

It seems to me that whenever we pastors start thinking about our power, how to guarantee that we have a significant amount of it or lament that we don’t have enough of it, we’re experiencing pastoral slippage, a drifting from our calling.

The people of the church don’t want to see their pastor as being manipulative. Besides, they can easily vote against being manipulated! The people of the church want to trust their pastor, and my experience is that they’re most open to change when the level of trust and a sense of safety is greater than the perceived risks of change. This level of trust and sense of safety ultimately comes from the pastor and, even more specifically, from the pastor’s heart.

That shepherd of sheep and greatest king of Israel, David, penned these poetic words, referring to the Lord as his shepherd, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The “stick” we carry as an under-shepherd of the Great Shepherd is to bring comfort.

As pastors we must guard our hearts from being power hungry. After all, we’re not manipulators but ministers. Yes, we’re to speak softly and carry a big stick, but that big stick is to be the shepherd’s staff!

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