The Shepherding Movement is a controversial method of church leadership that grew out of the Charismatic movement in the 1970s. It is also called the “Discipleship Movement” and is related to heavy shepherding. The Shepherding Movement, which began as “Christian Growth Ministries” in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, reached its peak in the 1980s, but its impact has since lessened. The Shepherding Movement has received well-deserved criticism for its cult-like manipulation and intimidation tactics and its emphasis on the non-biblical idea of a “spiritual covering.”
The basic idea of the Shepherding Movement is one of submission to authority. The Shepherding Movement called for five leaders at the top of a global leadership pyramid. These men were responsible for one another’s spiritual health and keeping each other on track by “covenant relationships” and mutual accountability. Beneath each of those five “shepherds” were five other people, responsible for one another but submitted to the authority of their shepherd. And so on, down the line. Each of these groups of five was called a “submission,” and their devotion to their shepherds was absolute. No major decisions were made without first consulting with one’s shepherd—marriage and career choices included.
The Shepherding Movement set up an alternate structure for the church that does not exist in Scripture. By creating a hierarchy of submission and authority, the five original “shepherds” promoted a legalistic paradigm in which the Holy Spirit was hindered and believers suffered spiritual abuse under authoritarian supervisors. Christ is the head of the church, and all the parts of the body are to look to Him for guidance, provision, and protection (Ephesians 5:23). The Shepherding Movement put roadblocks between Christ and His church, creating an unnecessary and harmful chain of command. People in the movement had to choose between the authority of their shepherd and the authority of the Great Shepherd.
Many of the original leaders of the Shepherding Movement or Discipleship Movement have admitted that the movement was a mistake and have disassociated themselves with it. But how much damage was done? The church must be wary of those who would take advantage of them. As Paul warned the Ephesians, “Savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Acts 20:29–31).