Shepherd’s Care 2.0: Clarification

Every denominational system has a small-to-large ladder, with varying factors that enable every congregation to be placed on it. The intent is to move clergy “upward” as time goes by. The intent to “promote” pastors is a sign of institutional benevolence.


But in the context of ecclesiology, there are no “small” churches. The only people who think that way are those with “large” egos. They are like people who look through the wrong end of binoculars, making everything seem smaller than it really is. We need to turn our institutional binoculars around and look out of them correctly. When we do, several things happen to us…


First, we see that every church is “too big” for us. When I graduated from seminary, I was appointed to one of the smallest churches in the Annual Conference. But even there, the needs were greater than I could meet. People got sick, and some died. Parents were at odds with their children. Marriages dissolved. Poverty was within a stone’s throw of the church building. Members didn’t like each other, and some did not like me. We had fiscal needs and had to “blow the trumpet” to meet the budget.

But in the midst of these obstacles, we had opportunities: to walk with people in grief and loss, to help youth decide what to do with their lives, to counsel confused and troubled folk, and to join with other churches in making the little town a good place to live. Real ministry was “here and now”—not somewhere else later on. My need of Spirit enablement was as urgent there as it was anywhere else I have ever been.


Second, we see the value of each person. One of my favorite reminders of this comes from the writing of the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, in his little book, ‘The Christian Priest Today,’


“The glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child are of infinite worth to God. Let that be your inspiration. Consider the Lord himself. Amidst a vast world with its vast empires and vast events and tragedies, the Lord devoted himself to a small country, to small things, and to individual men and women, often giving hours of time to the very few….The infinite worth of the one is the key to the Christian understanding of the many. It is to a ministry like that of our Lord himself that you are called. The Gospel you preach affects the salvation of the world, and you may help your people to influence the world’s problems. But you will never be nearer to Christ than in caring for the one man, the one woman, the one child. His authority will be given to you as you do this, and his joy will be yours as well.”


Third, we see that servanthood is not on a sliding scale of size. Even one cup of cold water given in Jesus’ name is ministry. We can do that in any church. When we think like servants, “more” and “less” have no meaning. Servanthood is caring for whomever is before us in the moment.

This understanding of ministry brings joy into whatever we doing. Writing an email, making a phone call, visiting a parishoner—you name it. We find joy in all things because they have to do with people. A contemporary hymn sets this sentiment to music,


“Will you let me be your servant,
let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
we are trav’lers on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping;
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
till we’ve seen this journey through.

Will you let me be your servant,
let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant, too.” [1]

This vision is one which can be enacted in every congregation, no matter what size, in every relationship, no matter how routine. I am not at odds with a system that moves people “up” when it can. All I want to do is to encourage us clergy who are on the ladder to see clearly that bigger is not better, and that we can do ministry wherever we are.

[1] “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant?” Richard Gillard, 1977.

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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