We have a small flock of fifteen sheep. They are a mix of Herdwick, Suffolk, and Teeswater crosses, with a couple of longwool crosses thrown in for good measure. Most of them have names. There is Derek, who I rescued with Clive from slaughter. Hettie, who is blind and uses the electric fence to find her way around. Then we have Dave, who is ‘not quite all there’ and has absolutely no fear. Throw in Mr Woolensworth, Ewe Jackman, and Barbara Ann, and you begin to understand that we will never get rid of them in naming them.
They are trained to come to a feed bucket and will follow me around (even if I have no bucket); I can lead them down the lane to a different field quite easily. If you can get one sheep moving, the rest will likely follow. Sheep tend to follow someone they trust and know.
I am gradually picking up more knowledge, but when I first got Derek and Clive, I didn’t know much about sheep behaviour. As I am discovering, sheep have the most highly developed instinct for self-destruction of any creature in the animal kingdom. Show a sheep a gap in a roadside wall, and a sheep will end up on the road. Show it a cliff edge, and it will tumble over. Sheep may indeed walk beside ‘still waters’, but one of them is bound to fall in and drown at the earliest opportunity – it’s in the genes. Fortunately, only one of ours has died over the past four years of ownership; several have come very close on numerous occasions, mind you.
Sheep find safety in numbers, and sheep will keep at least 4-5 other sheep in view when grazing. They are very social and extroverted animals. They do not do well alone and value supporting each other by sticking together at all costs. They feel safer when they are gathered. Separating one from the rest of the flock is disturbing and frightening; a lost sheep is critical because they do not do well alone. Perhaps it offers us a fuller understanding of the parable of the lost sheep. Maybe the 99 were equally anxious about the loss of the one?
Sheep will stay in maternal groups for life. We often see family groups grazing and sleeping together in the field. When we had separated a couple of the sheep for breeding, we took them to a different farm. After several months of separation, they immediately walked over and stood nose to nose for a while when we put them back in the same field as their siblings. They clearly knew each other and were glad to be back together again; perhaps they were catching up with the news? Apparently, sheep remember faces. They remember who treats them well— and even more, they remember who handles them harshly.
Fun fact: Sheep are mentioned more than 200 times in the Bible, in fact, more than any other animal. Sheep were important wool, milk, and meat sources and served as symbols for God’s people.
Recently, there has been some focus on the need to recognise the five-fold gifting as laid out in Ephesians 4: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Quite rightly encouraging people to embrace the gifting of prophets and apostles and then grappling with how these relate to those called to pioneer is important. However, I wonder if we may have inadvertently side-lined the possibility and potential of those called to serve as shepherds; perhaps even portraying them as ‘second class’ leaders?
If you ever spend any time with sheep, you’ll know that a pungent reminder will be lingering with you for quite a few hours. Pope Francis advised those leading churches back in 2021 to be so close to the people that they would have “the smell of sheep.” I found this helpful. You cannot lead people from a remote distance no matter how brilliant your ideas and initiatives are; you need to be amongst them.
Shepherds are the rough men of the Bible. They sleep out; they don’t get to worship regularly. They probably don’t have good hygiene or ritual cleansing observances. They innovated to find ways of protecting the flock in their care and were always looking for better places for the sheep to graze and drink. Rarely would they stay in one place. Nevertheless, they were viewed as the ‘also rans’ of society, operating at the foot of the social ladder. Ironic that they were amongst the first as a people group to learn of the incarnation.
I believe you can be a shepherd and pioneer. Looking back on my ministry, some of my best ideas only came about because a bunch of people were willing to follow, love me and keep me company. Like my current flock, more than one was a little damaged by life, none were perfect, and occasionally one would go off and do something quite foolish - yet I loved them and tried to care for them as best I could.
So, this week, I want to celebrate and thank those serving as shepherds. You are enabling others to have life-changing, transformative relationships with the Lord. I want to encourage you to persist in your pioneering, protecting the flock, and guiding them. I pray that you will continue to stink of sheep.
“Now it’s up to you. Be on your toes—both for yourselves and your congregation of sheep. The Holy Spirit has put you in charge of these people—God's people they are—to guard and protect them. God himself thought they were worth dying for.” Acts 20:28 The Message.
CEO, Rural Ministries