Shepherd’s Care: The Ministry of Absence

I had originally planned to give only one post to the idea of the “pace of grace.”  But I’ve felt a prompting to write about it one more time—and from a different angle.

Henri Nouwen is my source for this blog, but I cannot remember which of his books contains the idea I am going to share with you—the idea of “the ministry of absence.”  When I first read his counsel, it resonated with me in a deep place, and I have since come to connect it to Luke 5:15-16.

Jesus’ withdrawal was an illustration of the ministry of absence.  A lot was going on (Luke 5:15), but he “was withdrawing” (literal Greek) to practice restorative solitude.

But he was also doing something else.  He was withdrawing as a sign that he believed others could do the work in his absence.  This was not a “one-man show.”  It was ministry taking place through the commitment of others, not just Jesus.

When I moved into my administrative role at the seminary, I told my team that when I traveled, I would not call back to the office.  People could call me, and I invited them to do so.  But I also made it clear that I was confident they could deal with anything that might happen.  I had chosen them, and I believed in them.

Consequently, some trips would take place, and I would never hear a word from “back home.”  The team rose to the occasion.  Their ministry was not dependent on me.

This is the ministry of absence.  It is allowing others to be “present” with the exercise of their gifts and graces.  It’s the establishment of a ministry “system” that does not require the involvement of any single person to make it work.

It is also a witness to the primacy of God’s grace, rather than to the necessity of a clergy’s involvement.  In stepping out, we allow people to have a direct vision of the glory of God.  We give them time and space to say “Thanks” to someone other than us.

For the record, I know there are exceptions to what I’ve just written about.  But I am not writing about exceptions.  I’m writing about patterns—patterns which sustain us and which sustain ministry for the long-haul.  And the pattern is one of “absence,” not simply one of presence.

Sometimes “getting away” means “getting out of the way,” so others can “get in the Way.”

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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1 Response to Shepherd’s Care: The Ministry of Absence

  1. In other words, Jesus was not a “micro manager.” Thank God for that!

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