Feed my different sheep

Can a pastor provide spiritual food that meets the needs of each unique sheep?

Len McMillan, Ph.D., is the family life director at the Pacific Health Education Center in Bakersfield, California.

The laws of genetics suggest 300 billion possible chromosome combinations for human beings. For all practical purposes, that means that every person is truly one of a kind. Identical twin studies at the University of Minnesota suggest that our behavior is influenced more by our parents' genes than by their parental guidance. Considering the impact of both our genetic inheritance and learned behavior, it never ceases to amaze me that two people can agree on anything. Yet pastors are expected not only to shepherd a flock of such unique individuals but also to feed them. How does one feed such a widely divergent flock? Can a pastor provide spiritual food that meets the needs of each unique sheep?

Spirituality or seniority?

First of all, pastors should be careful not to confuse spirituality with seniority in the flock. Even though certain members have been in the flock longer, that does not mean that their chosen diet is appropriate for all the other sheep. Living longer does not necessarily make one spiritually superior. Seniority may qualify one for retirement or even a discount on a motel room, but it does not necessarily identify a spiritually mature person. Spiritually mature individuals are controlled by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18), manifest the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23), know the Word of God, and enjoy walking with God on a daily basis. Some Christians enjoy their walk with God only if it is on the same well-worn path that others refer to as a rut.

Studying different kinds of people

"We all need to study character and manner that we may know how to deal judiciously with different minds, that we may use our best endeavors to help them to a correct understanding of the Word of God and to a true Christian life. . . . The person must be shown his true character, understand his own peculiarities of disposition and temperament, and see his infirmities." 1

How do pastors apply the study of character and temperament to feeding sheep? Taking the time to become knowledgeable in the area of temperaments will appreciably increase the palatability of the "food" you are serving. Understanding how each member of your flock relates to God will determine not only the spiritual food you provide, but also the quantity and your feeding methods.


Sanguines, like the apostle Peter, are spontaneous, undisciplined people who really have to work at being consistent in their spiritual lives (or any other part of their lives, for that matter). Television can become a cruel slave master to sanguines, who crave external stimulation. A pastor must find ways to make spirituality fun and fulfilling. If it is immediately enjoyable, sanguines will feed often on the Word of God. However, most sanguines find feeding upon a prescribed (and often predigested) Scripture lesson boring and will soon look elsewhere for stimulation.

Sanguines typically wake up in a happy mood and usually come to church whistling and cheerful. It is important for them to leave the church at least as joyful as when they arrived. Their favorite Bible verse is often "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17), which they interpret as conversing with God at random throughout the day. Consequently, their prayer lives can be rather shallow and unfulfilling. They especially do not like spending time talking to God in solitude when there are so many interesting people just waiting to be discovered elsewhere. Sanguines expect church functions to be joyful occasions when Christians come together to rejoice in the Lord.

To borrow an expression from the Gospel writer Mark, sanguines do everything immediately. They are the most likely to try to walk on water when spiritually motivated. Unfortunately, they are also the most likely to walk out the back door of the church when the Spirit no longer moves them. If sanguines do not find rejoicing in the church, they will find it elsewhere.

Suggestion: Challenge your sanguines to find answers to current problems in the Bible. Offer them the opportunity to share their findings with the rest of the group. Sanguines and their group will both be enriched by this experience. Encourage them to linger and visit with friends before and after church services. Teach them during the church service that Jesus is also their friend. Spend time rejoicing in worship and actually smile when you sing about salvation. Finally, involve them in soul winning to keep their spiritual lives fully charged.


Cholerics, like the strong-willed Paul, are self-disciplined people whose daily routine may become too full for consistent Bible study. It took a Damascus road experience to get Paul's attention; therefore, we should not be surprised if some cholerics in our churches have an agenda different from our own. They respond positively to the eye-salve of new insights developed into proven spiritual truths. For their sakes, keep the spiritual food on the church plate fresh but identifiable.

Like Martha, cholerics would rather spend time serving their Lord than talking with Him. Their spirit of self-sufficiency does not allow them to discuss everything with God. They can handle most of life's problems alone at least that is what they think'. Only big-ticket items make it on their daily prayer lists namely, projects or subjects they cannot figure out themselves.

Visionary cholerics are project-oriented and can either build or destroy a church with their self-confidence. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether their faith is in God or in themselves. Seldom troubled by theoretical doubts, the take-charge cholerics find it easy to step out in faith (or presumption).

Suggestion: Involve the cholerics in the planning and implementing of all activities in the church. If you do not plan to use them, they will use their own plan. Share with cholerics the value of keeping a pad and pencil handy at all times including prayer time to record ideas God brings to their minds. If some business items come to mind while praying, suggest that they pause only long enough to write them down, then get back to their conversation with God. Finally, put each one of your cholerics in charge of a different project and watch the activity begin!


Melancholies, like the great leader Moses, are the most apt to be consistent in their study, reading, and even memorization of God's Word. They are usually interested in anything that is good for them and, once convinced that they need God, will work tirelessly to become better acquainted with His will. However, because they tend to major in minors, melancholies sometimes become spiritual stumbling blocks to others if they pause in their spiritual journey to pick at some obscure point of view.

Of all the temperaments, melancholies have the most consistent, active, and extensive prayer life. They pray about everything! They truly enjoy communion with God. Like the prophets, melancholies are most likely to schedule a specific time each day with God and truly look forward to that appointment. Solitude and serious contemplation are natural for the inward-looking melancholies. However, such introspection can cause difficulty in their social lives and relationships within the church family. Criticism and backbiting over real or imagined hurts often become habitual for negative-thinking melancholies. Their critical attitudes sometimes impair their prayer lives, as they choose to recall past hurts rather than experiencing true communion with God. Paul's advice "In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:18) could have been written specifically for melancholies.

Spirit-filled melancholies are unstoppable, but self-conscious melancholies are unstartable. Naturally endowed with analytical skills, perfectionistic melancholies often become the depressed church members you are called upon to encourage. Not able to live up to their own expectations, melancholies find it difficult to believe that God can love them with their imperfections. Feeling unworthy, pessimistic melancholies often plead "Why me?" The optimistic cry of sanguines and cholerics tends to be "Why not me?"

Suggestion: Ask each of your melancholies to keep a spiritual diary of prayers answered and victories achieved in the Lord. This diary will be a constant source of encouragement to the naturally negative melancholy. Encourage them to focus on positive prayer requests rather than attempting to use God like a magical genie to get even with their enemies. Melancholies seldom feel fully forgiven, so they often stagnate in their prayer life, asking God to forgive them for the umpteenth time. Your messages from the pulpit about the certainty of salvation in Christ are truly "meat in due season" for the melancholies. Use the vivid imagination of melancholies to visualize Jesus taking them by the hand and saying, "Well done, My good and faithful servant."


Phlegmatics, like father Abraham, are usually the nicest members of any flock. They make friends easily and are loved by everyone. However, they tend to procrastinate over almost everything, including Bible study and prayer. They believe it is important, but other things keep cluttering up their life until there isn't any time left for God. They would never think of attending church without their Bibles, but tend not to use them much during the week.

One enemy in the phlegmatics' prayer lives is drowsiness. Any time they strike a sedentary position sleep becomes an uninvited guest, disconnecting them from God's hot line. To counteract this tendency, some phlegmatics have learned to pray while pacing in order to stay awake.

Stepping out of the boat in order to walk on water is not expected behavior for phlegmatics. They would rather enjoy the boat ride, especially when someone else is rowing! Fear and worry are the two main destroyers of faith for phlegmatics. Consequently, when the call is made to get out of the boat, they are likely to find a myriad reasons to stay put. Phlegmatics find it convenient to point out that Peter ultimately sank during his attempt to walk on water, implying that it is safer to stay in the boat.

Suggestion: Get your phlegmatics involved with serving God and other people. They are so people-oriented that they need to teach a class, give Bible studies to new converts, or otherwise become involved in sharing themselves if their faith is to grow. Prayer lists are essential for everyone, but especially for compassionate phlegmatics. Unlike sanguines and cholerics, phlegmatics thrive on routine. Bible study and prayer often become lifelong habits that began during childhood. Of all the temperament blends, phlegmatics are the most likely to become men or women of prayer. You may need to push your phlegmatics gently out of the boat, much like a mother eagle pushes her young out of the nest. Just be there to lift them up if they begin to flounder. Offer spiritual resuscitation if they take in too much water.

Specific temperament blends in the Adventist Church

In a survey of more than 9,000 temperament inventories, personally scored by my wife in hundreds of SDA churches in the U.S.A., Canada, and South Africa, it is clear that the Adventist Church tends to attract (or retain) particular temperament blends. In every church surveyed (except one that was surveyed on Visitors' Day) the numerical totals of various temperament blends were in the following order: choleric, melancholy, phlegmatic, and sanguine.

Cholerics and melancholies convincingly dominated the SDA churches surveyed. Perhaps these two opposite temperaments actually attract each other in the church family, much like they would in a marriage. Outgoing, dominating cholerics enjoy making rules and being in charge. Introspective, perfectionistic melancholies enjoy obeying rules and feeling guilty. Both are workaholics, but for different reasons.

Phlegmatics made a less spectacular showing in third place, while the fun loving sanguines came in a distant fourth. Apparently there is little tolerance in our choleric-melancholy churches for the inconsistent, externally motivated, and easily distracted sanguine. Even though sanguines, like the apostle Peter, are usually the first to respond during an evangelistic call, they are often later put down or shunned by cholerics and melancholies, who consider them wishy-washy, undependable, and weak.

Keeping everyone on the path

Pastors are called upon to shepherd and feed the entire flock of God with a variety of spiritual food. Keeping such a divergent flock on the upward path is not an easy task. Perhaps inspired counsel given to a biological family will encourage pastors seeking to under stand and shepherd their church family: "Marked diversities of disposition and character frequently exist in the same family, for it is in the order of God that persons of varied temperament should associate together. When this is the case, each member of the household should sacredly regard the feelings and respect the right of the others. By this means mutual consideration and forbearance will be cultivated, prejudices will be softened, and rough points of character smoothed. Harmony may be secured, and the blending of the varied temperaments may be a benefit to each."2

1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1948), vol. 4, p. 69.

2 Ellen G. White, Child Guidance (Mountain View,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1954), p. 205.

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Len McMillan, Ph.D., is the family life director at the Pacific Health Education Center in Bakersfield, California.

January 1997

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