Shepherd’s Care 2.0: Context

In this season when many clergy are moving, or deciding to stay put, it’s good not only to have confidence that God is at work, it’s also good to remember the context in which God works: here and now. Years ago, Charlie Shedd captured this reality when he looked at his ministry and wrote, “I am where I should be—I have been brought to this place at this moment for this work.” [1] Shedd’s words are words to live by. They create “good soil” for the seeds of our ministry.


First, it is the soil of contentment: “I am where I should be.” Notice the word ‘should.’ Shedd used it rather than the word ‘could.’ Should is a vocational word; could is a career word. We ‘could’ be other places in the system. There’s always a “somewhere else.” But when we believe we are where we ‘should’ be, we are saved from eroding restlessness that can easily breed envy.


An old story from early Christianity illustrates the peril. The devil went to the desert to tempt a hermit. As with Jesus, he exerted three temptations. In the first one the devil said, “Hermit, at night you can hear people in the city laughing and talking, and here you are all alone.” But the hermit had made peace with his solitude. The devil was rebuffed. But he returned a second time and said, “Hermit, when the wind is right, you can smell the sumptuous food others are eating, and here you are living on breadcrumbs.” But the hermit had made peace with his simplicity. The devil was turned away. Knowing he had to change his tactics, the devil returned the third time. All he said was, “Your brother has become a bishop!” The hermit was defeated.


We too are defeated by the ‘could have been’s” or the “could yet be’s.’ But when we live by “I am where I should be,” we can (as Paul described himself) be content in any situation in which we find ourselves.


Second, it is the soil of place. This is the sacredness of locality, the place where all ground is holy. We are not asked to take a soil sample; we are called to take off our shoes—to make direct contact with our place of service and to recognize it as holy. There is only one question, “Can I use my gifts and graces?” If we have eyes to see, the answer is always, “Yes.”


Place is the playing field which makes ministry tangible. It is the location where our theology of ministry turns into the practice of it. Place is where we become pastors, where the Word becomes flesh. The specificity of place requires flexibility and the rejection of a one-size-fits-all approach. But place is also the crucible for creativity. It is where we have the opportunity to see the unique and unrepeatable ways God works in individuals, congregations, and communities.


Eugene Peterson used what he called the pastor’s question to cultivate a sense of place, “Who are these particular people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” [2] In a few words he captured the ingredient of place: particularity, with its ensuing elements of people, association, process, and formation.


Third, it is the soil of time. No matter where we serve, we step into a flowing stream—a place with a past and a future. We serve in the present, and only “at this moment” in the larger scheme of things. We must discern the moment and how we are to fit into it.


We intersect the place of ministry at a particular time in its lifecycle. Ministering contextually means discerning “the signs of the times.” Every person is in some age/stage of life; each congregation is somewhere between its beginning and end. [3]


Fourth, it is the soil of work—the work of ministry. When Charlie Shedd asked himself what “this work” was, he was surprised. He expected it to be the work described by his many duties, but it turned out to be the work defined by his singular devotion. He wrote, “We are here on holy assignment. Life’s true effectiveness does not result from getting God to help us. Our lives assume their maximum worth when we turn our wills over to God and ask that we might be of assistance.” [4]


This understanding of work makes each moment a sacrament, and the work of ministry is transformed from striving to “do great things for God” into (as Jean Pierre de Caussade put it) doing the next thing you have to do, and doing it for God. The work of ministry is rooted in simplicity, not the spectacular—rooted in ordinary holiness, “doing little things with great love” as St. Teresa of Calcutta described it.


This is what Saint Francis sought for when he prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” In the twentieth century, it is what Frank Laubach was asking for each morning when he prayed, “Lord, what are you doing in the world today that I can help you with?” It is a wonderful day in ministry when we understand that we are under shepherds appointed to serve the Good Shepherd. Ministry bears nourishing fruit when we can say, “I am where I should be.”

[1] Charlie Shedd, ‘Time For All things” (Abingdon Press, 1962), 29).


[2] Eugene Peterson, ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ (Word Publishing, 1989), 11. I consider this book to be one of the best books about pastoral ministry.


[3] In relation to people, I have found Parker Palmer’s book, ‘Let Your Life Speak’ and Bruce Demarest’s book, ‘Seasons of the Soul’ to be helpful. In relation to congregations, I have used Arlin Rothauge’s book, ‘The Life Cycle in Congregations’ to understand the sociological/institutional dynamics.


[4] ‘Time for All Things,’ 14.

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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