Shepherd’s Care: The Ministry of Small Talk

With this post, I resume the “Shepherd’s Care” category, with occasional posts meant especially for clergy.  The post below re-opens the series, providing an indication of the vantage point from which I will be writing this time around.  Previous posts are archived, and you can check them out as you like.


Eugene Peterson came to the seminary in 2010 to teach a one-week intensive course.  Jeannie and I had the privilege of hosting him and spending time with him over meals.He had recently retired, and I was within sight of doing so myself, so I asked him if there was anything he would commend to me when my time for retirement rolled around.

In his usual manner, he thought about the question, and then quietly replied, “Practice the ministry of small talk.”  Seeing that he needed to say a bit more about that he continued down two paths.  First, it was his way of saying, ” Pass the baton to the new generation of clergy.  You’ve had your turn; it’s their turn now.” [1]  And second, he meant to become an elder–that is, one who moves from productivity to presence, “sitting at the gate” to observe and converse with the younger clergy as they come and go doing their work. [2]

Eugene (as he likes to be called) told me he had found great joy in this new expression of ministry, and thought I would too.  He illustrated the joy in relation to email/ letter correspondence, phone calls, occasional meal visits, and writing. [3] Almost immediately, his words struck a note in me, and I knew I had genuinely received “a word from the Lord.” I resolved to take his counsel to heart.

It will soon be six years since I retired, and the wisdom of his counsel means more to me now than the evening when he first offered it.  Honestly, it has taken a while to live into his advice, and I have made a few exceptions to the rule to conduct some public ministry.  But generally speaking, the way he described “the ministry of small talk” (emails, phone calls, meals, and writing) has been the way I have chosen to live at this stage of life.  The resumption of occasional blogs under the “Shepherd’s Care” category is an expression of the writing aspect of that choice.

What I now see after six years in retirement (and what Eugene was seeing in 2010) is that the church is in the goid and capable hands of younger clergy, and that one of the joys of ministry in retirement is being an encourager more than a performer. [4]  And the fact of the matter is, the church is continuing to change (because it is a living Body) in ways I am not up-to-speed on; I have more to learn from younger clergy than I have to teach them, and it is fun and fulfilling to watch what they are doing.

As an elder, I am content to sit at the gate and practice the ministry of small talk.  Every now and then, I will share here on Oboedire what I am seeing and hearing from this location–a place that is also a place of thanksgiving and prayer for those of you who are still on the track running the race set before you.

[1] I now recognize that it was this sense of things that eventually moved me to write a book about retirement, ‘Stepping Aside, Moving Ahead’ (Abingdon, 2016).

[2] Exploring what it means to be an elder is an ongoing study in my retirement.  Ours is not a culture that values older adults as some do (e.g. Native American), and living abundantly in older adulthood is not something we are taught to do in our “idolization of youth” environment.

[3] Eugene’s “retirement” book is his memoir, ‘The Pastor’ (HarperOne, 2011).  It is not about being an older clergyperson, but rather it is his sense (after decades of experience) of who a good pastor is, and how pastors go about shepherding their flocks well.  His “Letter to a Young Pastor” at the end of the book is a treasure in and of itself.

[4] I have been blessed to have had some good role models for retirement.  One was Dr. Tom Carruth, whom I succeeded.  As he passed the baton to me, he often phoned to chat, and he almost always ended the call by saying, “Don’t forget, Brother Steve, I’m in your cheering section.” And indeed he was!  Dr. David McKenna has also been a model.  His books, ‘ The Leader’s Legacy’ (2006) and ‘Retirement Is Not for Sissies’ (2008) have been guiding lights too.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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