On our family farm in North Texas, we raised everything from cows to chickens, rabbits to turkeys. We stayed away from pigs and horses, but just about every other farm animal called our farm home at some point. The one species that seemed to impact our lives the most were the sheep. While we owned more cattle, the small flock of sheep were are part of our lives more than any other.
Unlike cattle, sheep require up-close-and-personal care. For instance, sheep lack the ability to regulate how much they eat. If food is out, they will eat it. And if they eat too much, they will die. In addition, they have very sensitive stomachs. Therefore a shepherd is required to feed them the right amounts of the right food.
Sheep have no ability to protect themselves. They are frail and slow, and they cannot kick, claw or bite. They are easily spooked. They will scatter easily in panic and then once cornered they will sit petrified while staring at their predator. Therefore a shepherd is required to protect them. This is why they must be penned at night and watched over by day. In our case the field in which they ran during the day was protected by good fences to keep out dogs and other predators, but we still penned them every evening.
Sheep give birth to little lambs, which are truly the cutest things in the world. However, the lambing season falls in the winter. When it was time for ewes to give birth, we had to watch them closely. I cannot count the late nights when my dad would put on his coat "one more time" and head out to the barn to check if any new lambs were about to enter the world. We knew that they often needed help getting up so that they could take their first milk. This was especially true on the cold days and nights.
Sheep are loud. They are intellectually challenged (scientific fact). They are prone to wonder off. They stink. Oh my do they stink. Just imagine four inches of wool at the end of a long rainy winter. Sheep are the only farm animal that requires annual sheering. In some ways this is good because it is a source of income, but in other ways it illustrates the kind of special care a shepherd provides that is not required of other animals. This one biological characteristic demonstrates how sheep cannot live on their own. If for some reason sheep got smarter and they developed an ability to protect themselves, they still could not survive in the wild. If the wool is not shorn, it will grow so long that they will get top heavy. Then when it gets wet, they will fall over and their legs will flail about. They will die helplessly waiting for a shepherd to come and turn them over.
One more thing, sheep cannot be driven. It is not easy to force them to go anywhere. If you drive them, they will scatter. In his book, They Smell Like Sheep, Lynn Anderson tells the story of a tour he was leading in Israel where he was teaching people on the ancient practices of shepherding. While talking, he looked out the window of the tour bus and saw a man driving sheep. He was irate and told the bus driver to stop. He walked over the the man and told him how shepherds were not supposed to drive the sheep. The man responded, "I'm not a shepherd. I'm a butcher."
What can this teach us about leading small groups, missional communities and other forms of group life?