I caught up with a fair amount of reading over Christmas and the New Year. One book I haven’t commented on was Adam Harbinson’s Savage Shepherds.
Adam unexpectedly joined a church fellowship in the 1980s. He refers to it as “The River of Life Fellowship”, though that wasn’t its real name. Part of the shepherding movement that came out of the charismatic church in the US, and had quite a following around Belfast and Bangor.
Members of fellowships were accountable to a shepherd (an elder or suchlike) who was their point of accountability. Except that it was a very structured and all encompassing accountability. Sheep were discouraged from having their own original thought about the Bible and about God. Instead, their revelation was to come through their shepherd.
The relationships within The River of Life Fellowship also involved the sheep putting the needs of their shepherd above their own. You’d be expected to cancel your evening’s dinner plans to come across and baby-sit for your shepherd and allow him (always a him) to go out. Gardening, painting, lots of work to go around. And your 10% tithe was funnelled through your shepherd.
God’s amazing love funnelled into weak human structures and constraints.
While there were positive aspects to the shepherding movement, there were also abusive relationships and corruption. Some of the original US leaders (two of the Fort Lauderville Five) apologised and publicly distanced themselves from shepherding.
Despite having reservations about the way the fellowship ran, Adam remained attached to the fellowship for quite a long time. When he tried to leave, the ranks closed and he was hounded. Rather than leaving things in the hands of God, personal criticism and human intervention seemed to rule. His business was wrecked by allegations of financial irregularities, his family was put under immense strain, and his health suffered.
As well as telling Adam’s story, this book highlights the dangers of life that can lie in a close-knit fellowship, and discusses some of the tell-tale signs that point to spiritual abuse and unhealthy power structures. Adam remains surprisingly balanced as he recounts his experiences and describes the problem. His grace and forgiveness make the warning so much more powerful.