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Learning the language of compassion

Lauris and Rhonda Shepherd (Handout)


Learning the language of compassion

Lauris Shepherd dedicated his life to discipling men, but compassionately leading his family was a different challenge (Fifth in a series on long marriages)

Lauris Shepherd was serving in the Army and stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia when he first discovered the Navigators, an interdenominational Christian discipleship ministry. Later he reconnected with the group after moving to San Diego to teach math at Point Loma Nazarene University. He realized, “Even though I’d grown up in the church and had a great foundation, it was the Navigators that really helped me get on a steady growth.” He decided he wanted to be involved in men’s ministry and began to work as an administrative assistant to the Navigators’ area director to get some training.

Around the same time, Rhonda came to the church Lauris attended. Though they’d met previously, Rhonda started noticing Lauris’ spiritual maturity and “handsome features.” They spent time together through the church’s singles group: “I would come up with suggestions on how to get the group together so I could be around her,” Lauris says. One night in September 1976, Lauris’ car pulled up next to Rhonda’s at a stoplight (“answer to prayer,” Lauris jokes), and he motioned for her to pull into the nearby McDonald’s. The couple dubbed that night their first date.

Lauris was 28 when he and Rhonda began dating. Previously, his parents and friends had expressed concern at his singleness, but he was content focusing on the Navigators ministry he led at the University of California, San Diego. In November, Lauris told Rhonda that she was the one for him—if he was supposed to get married. He asked if she was OK with that, and she replied that she didn’t know but thought she could trust God. Lauris’ decision came quickly: He proposed soon after, and they married in April 1977.

Eight years and four daughters later, the Shepherds moved to Japan with the Navigators to disciple members of the U.S. Navy. Not knowing the language, they faced culture shock and medical scares: They planned to have a baby at home with a Japanese midwife, but complications forced them to rush to a hospital to save the baby’s life. In their marriage, tension arose over money. The Shepherds raised financial support as missionaries but were underfunded when they arrived in Japan. Rhonda worked to stay within their limited income, but sometimes her purchases upset the extremely frugal Lauris. Eventually, they created a budget, and their communication about finances became smoother.

Lauris loved ministry but now admits he did not “know the language of compassion.” The Shepherds had eight kids, and he wondered why their six daughters told him their problems if he couldn’t fix them. Once, Lauris decided their oldest girl should attend an eight-week piano camp. The daughter pleaded not to go, but Lauris did not listen. The night before she left, Rhonda asked him if he was sufficiently sure of the decision to risk his daughter resenting him. Her words made him think. A week into the camp, he spoke with their daughter on the phone to repair their relationship.

Over time, his lack of compassion convicted him, and he thought, “Wow, that’s nothing like Jesus.” He apologized to each of his daughters for ways he might have hurt them. In parenting, he says, he’s relied heavily on Rhonda to understand the girls. 

His efforts seem to be paying off: Recently, Lauris took the StrengthsFinder personal assessment test and was surprised to see “empathy” as one of his top strengths. He says, “I just think that’s been learned, because God’s really working on me.”