Sheep, Wolves, and Fools

On the Perils of a Winsome Ministry


Pastors have a very difficult job. Besides the common burdens of preaching and soul-care, the cultural pressures of our day through which they are guiding others are confusing and seem to be shifting at breakneck speed. And many, both inside and outside of the church, place conflicting demands on them as to what their job entails.

I care so much about pastors, first of all, because I have been one for most of my adult life and, second, because I now teach undergraduate students in religion, many of whom consider entering vocational ministry.

Over the past few years, many pastors and Christian ministry leaders let a lot of people down. It is my contention that the winsome model was a major contributor to what led them astray.

For instance, as I mentioned in my previous American Reformer piece, I think this over-orientation to how Christians are perceived by the broader culture led many pastors to being a bit too accommodating of the media and public health officials surrounding COVID. Not only were they unduly trusting of these figures, but they also castigated reasonable voices of critique. But even worse than this, many of these Christian leaders mediated the messaging that any dissent from the COVID regime was a failure to love one’s neighbor, thus binding the consciences of Christians and stoking division in the church.

Fearing how Christians might appear to the outside world, many Christian leaders failed their congregations. Similar things could be discussed about race issues or LGBT issues (and the whole idea of “pronoun hospitality” or the Revoice affair). How does this winsome framework lead ministers astray? What concepts should we be more attuned to?

The Perils of Winsomeness

Before we get there, let me recap the critique. What I describe with this catchall label of “winsomeness” is the package approach of cultural engagement that seeks above all to minimize offense so as to maximize openness to the gospel. There are biblical imperatives related to winsomeness that we can never abandon. 

However, there are other aspects of the biblical vision that seem to get muted or downplayed by the winsome advocates. Too often winsomeness translates into “niceness.” This, I believe, is a sentimentalized reduction of the biblical vision.

Also, it sets up leaders and those they lead for naïveté in a world more hostile to Christian moral norms. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, truthful love will be met with hostility and be called unloving, “unwinsome.” If we are overly concerned with how we are received by others, then it will be tempting to think, no matter how nice we have been, that we are in the wrong, and thus doubt our convictions. Many will be ill-prepared to say no to things they need to be rejected and opposed.

Prodigal Politics

One more concept I would like to add for consideration is how the winsome framework inclines toward what I would like to call “prodigal politics.” This is obviously a play on Tim Keller’s “prodigal God” thesis, in which he provided a very helpful exposition of the gospel through a creative but faithful reading of the parable of the prodigal son. Keller rightly explains that we must avoid two ditches that lead away from the gospel, each represented by one of the sons in the story: relativistic immorality, represented by the younger son; moralistic religiosity, represented by the elder brother. Winsome-thirdway-ists tend to suggest that our harshest treatment should be directed at the older brothers. This often gets applied by the acolytes of winsomeness to the realm of politics and the culture wars as necessitating harshest criticism of those on the right. So, winsome-thirdway-ists, as is commonly known, “punch right, coddle left.” This plays out among pastors and other Christian leaders who regularly comment on contemporary issues, whether in the pulpit, newsletters, or on social media.

This, I argue, in our day, is a bit misguided—primarily because it fails to accurately recognize which group is disproportionately judgmental and authoritarian in our day. Nate Hochman, in a recent piece in the New York Times, explains that in a previous era Republicans were aggressively pushing a moral order, whereas the progressives were the rebels against the hegemonic pressures. Today, says Hochman, the reverse is true. It is the left which is the “schoolmarm of American public life, and the right is associated with the gleeful violation of convention.” Hochman goes on: “Contemporary social pieties are distinctly left wing, and progressives enforce them with at least as much moral ardor as the most zealous members of the religious right.” Having secured certain “rights,” forces on the left demand widespread, public affirmation and seek to punish those who hold traditional views—views that are now out of step with the new status quo.

The “sides” of the political spectrum don’t break neatly along “elder brother” and “younger brother” lines, at least as commonly understood. The group forcefully imposing an ideological orthodoxy on the populace is no longer the old “Moral Majority;” it is the secular progressive social justice movement.

Therefore, I think this approach of punch right, coddle left, is severely mistaken. This approach fails to respond proportionately to the particular discipleship needs of the day and misses unique evangelistic opportunities which are right in front of us.

What is to be done?

This leads me to my positive proposals. If winsomeness has limits and peculiar temptations, what is needed to counterbalance those? I have repeated across various platforms three key terms particularly required for ministry and public witness today: clarity, courage, and resilience.

I think these are essential for Christian leaders and pastors to focus on in our time. We need prophets who perceive the issues clearly and speak to them plainly. We need courageous shepherds who can help form resilient communities. These categories are behind and underneath the remainder of this essay, which focuses on three key terms: sheep, wolves, and fools.

Protecting Sheep

Throughout scripture, God’s people are referred to as sheep. This includes those who are already in the covenant community, but also those elected but not yet in the visible fold—the lost. I do not intend to develop a comprehensive theology of these categories, but rather to explicate how they help us understand what is needed in ministry today—what opportunities are before us if we pay attention.

In our time of postmodernism, social breakdown, ever-shifting mores, and an increasingly authoritarian left, many feel beat up and confused. We could call these the refugees of the sexual and woke revolutions. They are especially confused by the moral insanity and widespread nonsense that is wreaking havoc on the social order and they are wondering why no one is saying the sane thing, why too few are speaking out in order to make sense amidst of the chaos, to say “no” to insanity and clearly explain the good order to which we can and should conform.

Many Christians and Christian leaders refuse to do this. Often they nuance away clear biblical teachings about moral issues because they don’t want to rock the boat or to look narrow-minded. They assume that addressing these hot-button issues will hinder openness to the gospel message. But this nuance often appears to be overly generous to ideas and developments on the left.

A lot of the refugees are turned off by this. So I think we are missing opportunities here. There are tons of people in the middle of the cultural storms who are crying out for someone to speak clearly, to be a courageous voice of reason.

A recent piece at The Gospel Coalition was quite moving. It included snippets of a conversation between a pastor and an elderly man who had pursued transitioning. The latter was born male and eventually had multiple surgeries to help him present as a woman. His transition did not take away his depression, and he later regretted his decisions. The pastor asked him: “When you were in your 20s, what could I have said to you to get you on the right path?” The man said, “Nothing. But what I did need someone like you to continue telling me what was wrong and what was true. Keep telling people the truth.”

There are evangelistic opportunities here that we should not miss. And on top of this, avoiding clear teachings on the hot-button issues of our days is also foolish. If you mute hard teachings to get persons in the door, you set up a likelihood that you will mute them indefinitely. As A.W. Tozer said: “You win them to what you win them with.” People don’t like to feel that they have been had—that you pulled something on them, tricked them to get them in the door and then later bring up the offensive things in your pastoral shepherding.

This brings us to the second type of sheep: Christian disciples. Faithful Christians are also getting tossed in the cultural waves. They are disoriented, confused, and discouraged. They need encouragement to press on. They need to hear from leaders that they aren’t crazy, and that holding to biblical truths does not make them bigots. The embattled faithful need clear and courageous leadership. 

And there are also unfaithful Christians. Those who claim the name of Christ and have accommodated the logic of the world, not just in doctrinal matters, but also moral matters about fundamental issues of nature, sex, etc. There are certain moral matters, not just theological ones, that are out of bounds for Christians.

We need ministers to boldly practice church discipline, as instructed in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. Blatant, unrepentant, public sin demands strong rebuke, and if the one who claims the name of Christ persists in such sin, he should be excommunicated. In the Reformed tradition, this usually involves barring such unrepentant sinners from the Lord’s table.

One group that deserves special attention today are members in the church who are involved in government and push radical agendas on sex, gender, and abortion. As I said, there are certain moral positions that are out of bounds for Christians. Members who are living in blatant unrepentant public sin, and political figures who are promoting evil policies, need public discipline.

We can take inspiration from a famous instance in church history of courageous church discipline. In AD 390, emperor Theodosius, in a rage, slaughtered around 7000 people. Bishop Ambrose called him to repent, which Theodosius refused, in response to which Ambrose denied communion to the emperor. Eventually Theodosius did repent, accepting Ambrose’s terms for reconciliation, which included the promotion of a law which required a delay of 30 days before any death sentence passed could be enforced. In front of a crowded congregation, Theodosius took off his imperial robes and asked for forgiveness of his sins. Finally, at a church service on Christmas day, Ambrose administered the sacrament to Theodosius.

This was extremely dangerous for Ambrose. But he was faithful to the vocation, and bravely brought harsh love to the powerful church member. We need ministers to lead with this type of clarity, conviction, and courage.

A recent, high-profile example of what I am advocating is when Archbishop Cordileone instructed Nancy Pelosi to abstain from Holy Communion due to her continued advocacy for abortion. We need to remember, in the words of C.S. Lewis, that “the hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men.” Such actions are directed to bring these figures to repentance and bring about justice in our polities.

I don’t want to name names on this, but a current candidate for Congress is public about being shepherded by one of the famous winsome-thirdway pastors. It recently became known that this candidate has a 100% approval rating from Planned Parenthood. There could be many complicating factors to this story, but with these bare details, this looks like a profound failure of pastoral leadership.

So, pastors and Christian leaders need to be clear and bold to both comfort the faithful and to correct unfaithful disciples. And they need to protect the sheep from wolves.

Fighting Wolves

Throughout scripture, false teachers are identified as wolves, and harsh words are reserved for them. As Kevin DeYoung explains, a wolf is a false teacher who snatches up sheep (John 10:12), draws disciples away from the gospel (Acts 2:28), opposes the truth (2 Tim. 3:8), and leads people to make a shipwreck of the faith and to embrace ungodliness (1 Tim. 1:19-20; 2 Tim. 2:16-17).

Scripture is clear and consistent: false teachers are to be marked, rebuked, and avoided. If you do this, though, you will get called narrow-minded and un-winsome. You need to be more “nuanced,” you will be told. But what goes by “nuance” often looks like softness on wolves.

Gregory the Great (AD 540-604) wrote one of the most important works on pastoral ministry: The Book of Pastoral Rule. In it he provides a provocative metaphor related to this, focusing on nose sizes.1 A “small nose” represents the lack of discernment. Such a minister cannot deal with complexity, cannot take in sufficient relevant data. But there is also the problem of the “big nose.” Such a minister is overly impressed with his ability to nuance, to live in tensions and ambiguities. He can deceive himself by inflating his sense of his own wisdom and can deceive the flock by remaining in subtleties—thus failing to speak clearly about error and to deal firmly with wolves.

Wolves are not always easy to recognize at first. Jesus said they come in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15). Paul said that, just as Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, so his servants disguise themselves as servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:12ff). And Martin Luther (1483-1546) explained that wolves are tricky.2 They don’t come with the label “heretic” or “wolf.” Rather, through them, Satan “peddles his deadly poison as the doctrine of grace, the Word of God, and the Gospel of Christ. This is why Paul calls the doctrine of the false apostles and ministers of Satan a ‘gospel.’” And under the guise of proclaiming the Word of God, these false teachers work their damage. “Therefore,” says Luther, “let us learn that this is one of the devil’s specialties: If he cannot do his damage by persecuting and destroying, he will do it under the guise of correcting and edifying.” Wolves might not even be aware that they are undermining God’s Word and doing the devil’s work. “[S]uch perverters of the gospel [often] find it intolerable to hear that they are the devil’s apostles. In fact, they are prouder than anyone else of the name of Christ, and they claim to be the most sincere preachers of the gospel.”

These false teachers will come in purporting to correct the church for all of its backward teachings, presenting themselves as self-appointed prosecutors for the church’s moral failures. They will claim that they are being biblical and even more committed to the tenets of the gospel, but really they are apostles of worldly wisdom—leading people astray, dividing the church, undermining church authority and simple faithfulness. But their fruit eventually becomes evident.

And it is the job of wise shepherds to sniff them out earlier on. Pastors need to confront false teachers and limit their influence among the flock. This can include mockery (which I will explore in a future essay in more depth). Niceness to wolves is harmful to the sheep.

Gregory, mentioned above, explains that, yes, there is a danger in being incautious in our speech; but there is also a danger of keeping silence—for indiscreet silence can also leave others in error and allow others to be led in the same error. According to Gregory,

often improvident rulers, fearing to lose human favor, shrink timidly from speaking freely the things that are right; and, according to the voice of the Truth (John 10:12), serve unto the custody of the flock by no means with the zeal of the shepherds, but in the way of hirelings; since they fly when the wolf cometh if they hide themselves under silence. For hence it is that the Lord through the prophet upbraids them, saying …, ‘Ye have not gone up against the enemy, neither opposed a wall for the house of Israel, to stand in the battle in the day of the Lord’ (Ezekiel 13:5). Now to go up against the enemy is to go with free voice against the powers of this world for the defense of the flock; and to stand in the battle in the day of the Lord is out of love of justice to resist bad men when they contend against us. For, for a shepherd to have feared to say what is right, what else is it but to have turned his back in keeping silence? But surely, if he puts himself in front for the flock, he opposes a wall against the enemy for the house of Israel.3

According to Gregory, silence about false teaching is often driven by fear of losing favor. As a result, pastors shrink from the important battles and let the wolves devour the sheep.

In that passage just quoted, Gregory invokes Jesus’s language in John 10 in which Christ refers to such cowardly leaders as “hired hands.” A hired hand, in contrast to a good shepherd, sees the wolves coming and abandons the sheep, letting the wolves snatch and scatter them.

Why do such leaders abandon their duty to say no to false teachers? What does this say about them? Many simply don’t want to endure the hardship of saying “no.” They don’t want to be accused of being narrow-minded, unloving, and unwinsome.

Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-1691), who wrote one of the other most important works on pastoral ministry—The Reformed Pastor—and a masterful work of practical theology—A Christian Directory—is very helpful here, particularly in his discussions of the sins of hypocrisy and inordinate man-pleasing.[4] “What is it but hypocrisy,” says Baxter, “to shrink from sufferings, and to take up none but safe and easy works, and make ourselves believe that the rest are no duties?” “Indeed,” he goes on, “this is the common way of escaping suffering: to neglect the duty that would expose us to it.”4

Hired hands are cowards; they don’t want the hardship which would come from correcting, and thus they tolerate subtly destructive teachings. Jesus contrasts this with the good shepherd, who lays down his life.

It is interesting to consider the way in which many interpret Jesus’s call for shepherds to lay down their lives. Many today appear to think this means laying down Christian truth for the sake of niceness and cultural respectability.

Again, Baxter has a profound word for us—in his teachings about “scandal.”5 Acolytes of winsomeness will say it is important to avoid offending others so that we maximize their openness to the gospel; therefore, we must avoid any “scandal” that might turn them off. Baxter provides some clarification here.

According to Baxter, in scripture the word “scandal” means a stumbling block to another: “it is the tempting of another, or occasioning his fall, or ruin, or hurt, which is the nature of scandalizing.” But, Baxter explains, this is not mostly done through “committing open, disgraceful sins, and doing that which will make the doer evil spoken of; for by that means others are the more assisted against the temptation of imitating him.” Rather, argues Baxter, “scandal is most commonly found in those actions, which are under least reproach among men, or which have the most plausible appearance of good in them, when they are evil! For these are apter to deceive and overthrow another.” Therefore, scandalizing—tempting others or leading them into destructive error—most often comes under the appearance of doing good. He goes on, arguing that a certain type of silence can be scandalous: “If by silence you see to consent to false doctrine, or to wicked works, when you have the opportunity to control them, hereby you draw others to consent also to the sin.” Thus, failing to speak up and correct error and immoral behavior can scandalize. But this can be done in the name of avoiding scandal; and Baxter explains that this can be a cover for man-pleasing:

Mistake not (with the vulgar) the nature of scandal, as if it lay in that offending men, which is nothing but grieving or displeasing them; or in making yourselves to be of evil report; but remember that scandal is that offending men, which tempteth them into sin from God and godliness, and maketh them stumble and fall, or occasioneth them to think evil of a holy life. It is a pitiful thing to hear religious persons plead for the sin of man-pleasing, under the name of avoiding scandal; yea, to hear them set up a usurped dominion over the lives of other men, all by the advantage of the word scandal being misunderstood. So that all men must avoid whatever a censorious person will call scandalous, when he meaneth nothing else himself by scandal, than a thing that is of evil report, which such as he. Yea, pride itself is often pleaded for by this misunderstanding of scandal; and men are taught to overvalue their reputations, and to strain their consciences to keep up their esteem, and all under pretence of avoiding scandal; and in the mean time they are really scandalous, even in that action by which they think they are avoiding it.6

Ministers can scandalize, Baxter is arguing, even in their attempts to avoid the appearance of scandal—in their efforts to avoid offense. They do this by failing to speak against error. This is a form of man-pleasing, which is a real temptation for pastors, especially those who operate according to the winsome framework.

Resist the temptation to be in with the wolves. Don’t sell out the sheep for the approval of their enemies. A good shepherd takes the hits for his people. Those who shrink back because they are afraid of the hits are hired hands.

Correcting Fools

I would like to introduce another biblical category for leaders that fail: fools. Actually, this one has a couple subcategories. But before I get to those, let me say this: not all who fail here are wolves actively trying to bring in false teaching. Some are fools.

There are multiple Hebrew terms that can be translated in English as “fool.”There is the fool that is explicitly and obstinately opposed to the ways and truths of God. Such an enemy of the faith, if a teacher, is also a wolf.

But there is also what is often translated as the “simple.” This comes from the Hebrew word peti (related to pata, which means “to be open”). The peti is simpleminded, lacking discernment, ready to believe anything (Prov. 14:15). The fifteen instances in Proverbs denote those who are easily led astray.

The simple are a bit naive. They need gentle correction and clear instruction to protect them from false teaching and self-destruction. They are gullible.

And I would argue that there are simpleminded leaders. This is helpful for distinguishing them from wolves. These are those who are easily tricked by what Joe Rigney has described as the “apostles from the world.” In their apologetic attempts, winsome Christian leaders too readily accept the world’s negative propaganda against the church and her moral teachings. They are tricked into taking in the thinking of the world.

Christians who are obsessed with how they are perceived by the broader public will be particularly susceptible to this. This is evident with regard to the hot-button cultural issues of the day like race, gender, and sexuality. These leaders fail to speak up and curb the influence of the wolves they let in.  They call for a false peace and too easily accommodate the world’s wisdom being brought in by the wolves.

But I would say this: one of the reasons why it is important to recognize some as simple is that we recognize a chance that they can be awakened. This helps us leave open the opportunity for a John Mark situation. In Acts 15 Paul and Barnabas were split over whether to take John Mark with them. Paul didn’t want to because of the way that John Mark had abandoned them in a tough situation previously. But later (in 2 Tim. 4:11) we see Paul and John Mark working together again. Some repentance and restoration must have occurred.

But if it doesn’t, here is another category: the simple, if, after being confronted about the destructive teachings, they still let those teachings in, or are a bit too nuanced on them out of fear of being viewed negatively, they enter a new category. At this point, they slide from credulous to coward.

I think some of our prominent evangelical leaders follow this path. They go from ignorant about the errors of those they platform to ignobly afraid to correct them and curb their influence. They go from having a blind spot to being willfully blind guides. This takes them from simple to hired hand. Such ministers care more about how they are perceived and their own comfort than the welfare of the sheep.

We need bold shepherds and courageous reformers. We tend to look back at important reformers in history with a sentimentalist filter. Luther would never be confused as winsome; neither would John Knox (1505-1572). According to Martin Lloyd-Jones, God raised up Knox in his time for a special task. “A mild man would have been useless in the Scotland of the sixteenth century …. A strong man was needed, a stern man, a courageous man; and such a man was John Knox …. In those times an heroic rugged character was needed; and God produced the man.”7 A biographer of Knox said this: “a gentle flute or plaintive violin may have their place, but they will never awaken a slumbering church in [a] dark hour. Give us men [like Knox] with a trumpet to their lips, sounding their Master’s message, plainly and boldly, to the ears of all.”8

But we don’t tend to respond well to these types of figures when they show up. As Brandon Meeks has argued, we are only comfortable with reformers when they are far in the past, when they aren’t disturbing the peace anymore. “Everyone loves a good reformation until some rash soul takes a notion to actually reform something. The sons of the prophets much prefer it when their prophets are deceased.”

We see a pattern in scripture and church history: when God raises up prophets, they meet fierce opposition from religious establishment and those devoted to the idols they critique; but true prophets stand firm and soon many begin to follow.

Meeks goes on:

If the prophets of the Bible were to appear on the scene in our day they would be lectured on winsomeness and shipped off for a Dale Carnegie re-education course. The court prophets of Evangelicalism would write long-winded think pieces against such ‘troublers of Israel,’ in which they opine, ‘If only these Tishbites would stop destroying their evangelistic potential by cracking wise when Baal won’t come out of his bathroom.’

Conclusion: Stand Firm 

So, what do I propose for ministers today?

In the pulpit, preach the whole counsel of God and don’t flee from the acute points at which the clear teaching of scripture conflicts with the wisdom of the contemporary world. Preach the truth against its primary adversaries of the day. And as you do this, don’t worry so much about whether or not it sounds like you are more on one side or the other. Who cares about some arbitrary balancing expectation? Be balanced by the Word, not the sides of the world.

Practice church discipline—including over high profile politicians when they promote evil.

Protect the sheep from wolves. You are gonna ruffle feathers here. Wolves are not easy to identify. But you need to be much more guarded about the divisive voices you give runway to in your churches and ministries—especially if these voices are propagandists for the Current Thing™.

Finally, pastors should provide resources for resilience. What I mean by this is that pastors can prepare their people for pushback. Help them learn how to confront and disagree (as opposed to affirming sin or accommodating destructive lies) without quickly breaking off fellowship.

Here is one area I think churches should be thinking through much more: developing a theology of getting fired for faithfulness. We are going to have many more “greengrocer” scenarios in the near future. “Bake the cake bigot,” “castrate kids or lose your job as a surgeon,” etc. What is your church going to do when this happens? Help parishioners think through when getting fired might be necessary (or at least permissible). This is important so that there isn’t a complete aversion to certain stances required for faithfulness, and also so that their fellow believers don’t respond in sneering judgment toward them if they do get fired in such circumstances. It is also imperative to think through how your communities can rally around these persons when something like this happens.

We are going to need to be much more collectively resilient in the near future. Hear me clearly: I am not afraid, and neither should you be. This can be beautiful and refining. But that won’t happen if we ignore the real battles around us and just keep putting a smile on our face and burying our heads in the sand.

I grieve the influence of false prophets who preach “‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 8:11). These false prophets lull Christians to sleep with lies about the present dangers. They dilute the Word of God by making it ambiguous enough to reconcile it with the wisdom of the world, to make Christianity more attractive to our contemporaries. They sacrifice truth so as to avoid the difficulties of confronting the destructive lies and pervasive evils of the day. Such false prophets and hired hands render the sheep ill-prepared to face the hardships coming their way.

When I was more influenced by the winsome model, I remember taking a group of college students through a Bible study on Ephesians. I got called out by one of them for completely skipping over the end of the book: the second half of chapter 6. I was fine with that. At the time I found the whole talk of “spiritual warfare” just a little fundamentalistic and overwrought. I have come to realize I was wrong. I don’t want Christians to be anxious; but I want them to be able to “stand”—the key term that is repeated through those final verses (cf. 6:11, 13 [2x], 14).

Shepherds, speak the truth and stand firm. Help your people stand firm against the destructive lies and false accusations dominant in our day. Be a good shepherd. Take the hits from the wolves. Lay your life down for the sheep.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

Show 8 footnotes
  1. See Gregory, The Book of Pastoral Rule, part I, chapter XI.
  2. All the following quotations are from Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians: Chapters 1-4, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1963), 49-54.
  3. Gregory, The Book of Pastoral Rule, part II, chapter IV.
  4. See Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory, part I, chapter IV, parts III-IV.
  5. See Baxter, A Christian Directory, part IV, chapter XII.
  6. Baxter, A Christian Directory, part IV, chapter XII. Emphasis added.
  7. Martin Lloyd-Jones, “John Knox—The Founder of Puritanism,” in The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 279.
  8. Steven J. Lawson, John Knox: Fearless Faith (Edinburgh: Christian Focus, 2014), 126.
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James R. Wood

James R. Wood James R. Wood is an Associate Editor at First Things. This fall he will begin as an instructor at Redeemer University (Ancaster, ON).