In one of the first sermons he preached after his 2013 installation, Pope Francis called upon all Catholic priests to be “shepherds with the smell of the sheep.”1 They should be so close to the people who need their ministry that some of the odor of poverty, disease and squalor stays with them. 

What do sheep smell like? Well, people who have first-hand experience describe their natural odor as unique, but not overwhelming or unpleasant. As a young man, I worked in a lumber yard alongside a man who sheared sheep as a backup profession. I could tell it was shearing season when I got a whiff of the lingering sheep smell on his work clothes. The fresh sheep smell apparently is caused by the natural lanolin produced by the animal’s skin to preserve and waterproof its wool. Some describe it as kind of like the smell of vanilla.2 

Of course, there’s some irony in the Pope’s use of this simile. One of the major challenges he faced in taking on his role as leader of the largest religious organization in the world was that some of his shepherds had become too close to their sheep in an unhealthy way. There were multiple reports of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Not only were there many proven incidents throughout the Roman Catholic world, but there was also a pattern of cover-up by Church hierarchy.  

You see, the sheep smell itself may be vanilla-like, but in reality it’s usually mixed with some other nasty odors. Sheep have no outhouses, so they use the field as their toilet — the same field in which they graze for food. When a shepherd stays close to the sheep, he risks getting too close, so that he becomes contaminated with the sheepy-toilet smell! That’s what the Pope had to deal with. To his credit, he’s still using the smell-of-the-sheep simile.3 He believes that pastoral ministry is so important that it’s worth the risk. 

Leaders in Protestant churches face the same issues. In 1997, sixteen years before Pope Francis took office, Dr. Lynn Anderson wrote a book titled They Smell Like Sheep.4 In it he challenged the trend toward elder leadership, which is the “corporate” model followed in most modern megachurches. He believed we should back away from that sort of hierarchy toward the more traditional pastoral, shepherding model, where leaders are closer to the church members in their care. 

In either of these types of leadership, it’s possible for shepherds to smell good like sheep —or to smell bad like sheep. Though pastors and other church leaders should always strive to be positive examples in their own lives, they also have to remind themselves that they’re not perfect, and that staying close to the sheep puts them at risk of stepping into something smelly. I think it’s pretty clear from some very recent examples that shepherds in modern megachurches are at least as likely to smell up the place as smaller church pastor/shepherds, and they appear to be even more likely to try to cover up the smell with the perfume of hypocrisy. 

Bottom line: I agree with Pope Francis and Dr. Anderson that, risky as it is, it’s still important for shepherds called to ministry to stay close enough to have “the smell of the sheep.” The Good Shepherd himself entered human flesh and even took on the stink of my sin.

 – – Pastor George Van Alstine 


 2One sheep shearer, when asked about the subtle smell that always seemed to be noticeable around him, responded: “To me, it smells like money.”