It is often believed that clergy has the ministry of working with people. Clergy functions — facilitating worship services, performing church rituals, counseling, proclaiming and stewarding the stories of those embedded within the local church — are familiar to those of us who attend local congregations. But all of us — whether we consider ourselves called to professional ministry or not — are surrounded by people daily and have opportunities to be ministers of the gospel to our own domains, professions and neighbors.
The history of The Wesleyan Church (TWC) is rooted in the core conviction that God is making all things new — that whole-life transformation is possible, and that God will use people from every vocation to approach their life as a space God can transform.
One of my favorite analogies about this transforming, sanctifying work is drawn from a sermon by Rev. Steve DeNeff. “The church is like a front-load washing machine,” he said. “The clothes bump up against each other, cleaning each other from dirt by agitating one another.”
Most of us have no shortage of opportunities to be “agitated” by our neighbors. People are notoriously difficult. Every interaction has the potential to knock out something that is clinging to me, and I am not always ready to let it go.
As I write this article, I feel so convicted because I fail daily and do not want to seek agitation. And yet I remain committed to approaching my work, my neighborhood, my friendships and my family as though they were places God has called me to represent him.
Here are a few practices drawn from the best of TWC’s tradition that help us (as laity in the church) be shepherds for those God’s called us to serve:
- Identify where God’s planted you: You don’t need a tremendous amount of positional power to be a shepherd; you just need to identify who God’s placed in your life and how God might be calling you to work for their well-being. This could be your home, your workplace, a friend community or a small group. Wherever it is, imagine how God might be calling you to work toward the good of others.
- Cultivate disciplines of community: Most of us need a place where we can be received — in messy seasons and in neater ones. John Wesley recognized our need for intentional opportunities to grow and be with other believers, and he began the model of the small group in the 18th He recognized there were personal and communal aspects to holiness. He called believers to join small groups, coming together to intentionally encourage, learn with, confess to and love one another in the good and the messy. Your practices for this may change depending on your context. But in every space the disciplines of intercession, curiosity, presence, lament and celebration are vital and necessary.
- Honor your limitations (and receive grace): Perhaps one of our greatest challenges in living out a shepherding call is a keen awareness of our own limitations. The call to be “shepherds” in our domains does not require us to be perfect. My best moments of shepherding have come when I am reminded that I do not have to be in the position only to give grace but also to receive it. As I work alongside others — seeking to identify how God might work in their lives — I can also receive God’s grace in pointing out my own needs, desires and limitations, and be grateful when God sends others to minister to me.
- Savor the ordinary: John Wesley taught that the grace of God was like a seed that is planted in the believer’s heart at the inception of Jesus. As we receive that grace, it then continues to grow and seek further expression. The natural fruit of that grace is continued grace in everyday interactions with each person we encounter. If everyone is an image bearer of Christ, then as C. S. Lewis wrote in “The Weight of Glory,” “You have never talked to a mere mortal … Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” Your neighbor is an opportunity to participate in the transformative sanctification process in community.
This shared commitment feels like a redemptive way forward — a vision that helps the church look to the interests of our communities, even as we care for each other faithfully. In a cultural time when the evangelical church is hemorrhaging believers, this holiness vision — a gathering of shepherds, committed to the wholeness of our neighbors — fosters a vision of church that models truth, acknowledges imperfections and seeks to do better together.
This vision of a vulnerable community can often feel hard; but at the same time, Jesus never called us to be safe. Rather than hide out in our safe havens, our shepherding contexts can be places of safety that ripple out into the ecosystems of our cities, organizations and institutions — and when those come together, we have a chance to recover a vision of church that’s worth sharing.
As the seeds of Christ’s sacrificial gift of grace take root in our lives, the organic process of growing in vulnerable community should draw more people in. With that comes more agitation. When I am most grounded, I can see that agitation as my brokenness and their brokenness bumping up against each other, and it is in that moment that transformation happens. Once we have created something good, the gracious thing is to learn how to share it, shepherding others toward God’s transformative and sanctifying grace in and through community. If you choose to do that, the process will get hard and messy again, but I have faith that God will multiply that goodness in time.
Nuk Kongkaw-Oden is a licensed mental health counselor and full-time faculty in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Gannon University.