4 ministry lessons from one small-town saint


About two weeks ago, a dear lady at my church was laid to rest after battling aggressive cancer for over a year.

At the packed out memorial service, I heard person after person tell stories about Vera—her friendship and love for them, secret acts of service she had performed, and the gentle way she had spoken about her hope in Christ during the final months of her illness. Suddenly it seemed like everyone was coming out of the woodwork, remembering this quiet lady’s way of loving those around her with a steady, personal, behind-the-scenes kind of love.

And it’s true that when people get sick or pass away, other people can almost always find sweet things to say about them. Sometimes in the past I’ve attended funerals and wondered, Are we all talking about the same person I knew?

But that was not the case for this mother of five and grandmother of seven. The kinds of things I heard said about her at her funeral were the kinds of things I’d heard said about her before her death, before she was sick. She was a person that people felt loved by.

Then, a few nights ago, the ladies at my church had their monthly meeting, and a good portion of this meeting was spent on each of us sharing something the Lord had taught us through her life and death. Her three adult daughters were present, too—their memories were especially valuable.

One of them had already shared at the memorial service that Vera always said she’d wanted to go on the mission field, but as her life drew to a close, realized “it wasn’t meant to be.” She wished that she had been able to do more for the kingdom.

Everyone chuckled at this—chuckled and lost tears. This was a woman who raised five children in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord, who served in her small sphere of Hartsville, TN, who spent hours on the phone counseling out of state friends, who was a faithful, constant member of a local jail ministry, who showed up on your doorstep with soup when you’d been sick, and because of whose generosity, as another lady put it, “you’d have never known that money was tight.”

By the end of our ladies’ meeting, I was filled with conviction and dissatisfaction with the state of my own practices in service. I asked aloud, feeling foolish as I did so: knowing the natural self-centeredness of our hearts, how can we grow into people who, like Vera, love the person, see the need, and fill the need—out of love for the person? Is it effective to simply do the work, going through the motions of service until love follows? Or is something more needed to promote love? I was so filled with a need to know—and Vera is so far from being the only example in my church circle. I know at least a solid half dozen women there who exemplify this kind of sacrificial service-love.

A few days after this meeting, I am still asking this question.

How can I grow forward from where I am—a woman in her late twenties, raising a small child and carrying another, just trying to get in a good nights’ sleep, a little Bible reading, and a meal on the table every night? How can I begin to acquire the habits of personal interaction that will allow me to know other women well, to love them well, to serve them well?

Other questions: How should I be focusing my efforts? Should I zero in on a few things, or a few people? Should I focus on prayer ministry? On notes of encouragement? On meals and cleaning and hospitality? On remembering birthdays? On evangelism?

And the bottom line, in all of this—how can I begin to do these things and practice these services in a spirit of care for the whole person, such that the person will have no doubt of my love for them? How can I begin to act without a feeling that I am simply going through the motions of what I see other people doing?

I’m planning to spend some stolen moments interviewing other ladies at my church about their own development and growth in personal ministry. But in the meantime, I’m drawing a few key things that Vera has illustrated through her own well-lived life:

 

  1. Personal ministry begins in the family.

Vera’s daughters brought the most important testimony of Vera’s life. One said that everything she learned about a spiritual walk, she learned from her mother. Another said that Vera kept up a ‘best friend’ relationships with her adult daughters, and continued to know everything going on in their lives as they grew up and out of the home. Another told a story of recently—within a few weeks of Vera’s death—getting advice from her mother about a complex theological issue that she was wrestling with for the sake of a friend.

Each of them remembered Vera’s lifelong sacrifice of comforts for her children. Each remembered that although she never complained about her own discomfort, she was quicker than anybody to commiserate with her daughters’ efforts and exhaustion. They laughed that although she would work herself hard to get a meal ready for guests to come into her home, when they described their similar efforts to her over the phone, she said things like ‘Oh, that must be so exhausting, dear! Don’t work so hard!’

The bottom line: Vera’s ministry began in her home. She was faithful to her first sphere of ministry, to her husband and children.

 

  1. Personal ministry can’t be done mechanically.

Another recurring comment from friends was about Vera’s conversation. She spoke to you with an awareness of what you’d been going through, and with questions about your life. She would remember what you told her.

One woman told of her writing letters to a friend’s son in jail when no one else was writing, and of her seeking out ‘unloved’ people and spending time with them. Another told of her cleaning a woman’s house before the woman got home from the hospital, because she knew that the woman’s husband had been living there by himself for a week and it would be a mess. Another told of her shenanigans trying to give a shower to an elderly neighbor lady and ending up soaked, down to the shoes.

Every woman seemed to feel that Vera had been a special friend of hers. How could so many women feel that they had been personally loved by Vera? And yet, in 18 years of living in this little tiny town and attending this little church, Vera’s heart had managed to find room for each of the women who spoke.

You cannot meet people’s needs and show them that you care for their whole person without being fully engaged. In order to meet people on a whole-person level, you must bring your whole person to the business. This means that your heart, your mind, your creativity, your time, and your comforts will be tapped into. You can’t ‘phone in’ this kind of ministry.

 

  1. Personal ministry should be developed on a small, slow scale.

Before you start to get the idea that Vera was either a superhuman being or somebody that has been exaggerated and almost deified in her death—I’ll bring us back to reality. Vera was a small woman, an unassuming woman. She didn’t do all the things I’ve mentioned and build all the relationships she built in a day, a week, or a year.

Remember, she herself had frustrations about the smallness of her life and work. She had to deal with all the everyday problems that come with an old house, a big family, a small income, a long marriage, and a tight-knit church group. She was a saint, but only in the sense that all Christians are.

Still, she managed to touch lives, through all of those everyday moments and inconveniences. She wasn’t setting out to love all of the ladies at GBC. She wasn’t setting out to ‘have a great personal ministry.’ All she did was, one person at a time, see a person, love that person, and eventually get closer to that person. Then, when that person was in need, she opened her schedule up and met that need. Why? We already said why. She loved that person. This is what you do when you love somebody.

In seeking to grow your personal ministry from Here to There, start with a small and manageable goal. Pick two people who you aren’t normally drawn to, and make it your business to know them, pray for them, and connect with them every week. Make a goal of practicing hospitality twice a month. Write notes of encouragement once a month.

And no, I’m not necessarily even saying to start by adding all of these things to your life at once. Like any muscle, ministry muscle needs to be developed incrementally. Starting small isn’t inexcusable. Inexcusable would be spending the next five years not growing at all.

 

  1. Personal ministry can (and should) be limited to your giftings.

Remember what Peter wrote to the church in 1 Peter 4:

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”

Peter names love first—a part of your ministry that is not optional. You are gifted to love, whether you feel that this is your ‘gifting’ or not. It is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

But beyond love, beyond his simple directive about hospitality, he pulls back and reminds us of an obvious fact: You’ve each received gifts, and they are all different gifts. These gifts are to be used for service; that’s what they’re for.

Paul, also, treats this question of gifts in a similar way. The unspoken assumption here seems to be that most people get just one or two of these gifts:

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness (Rom. 12:6-8).

I don’t remember Vera doing much teaching. I don’t remember her throwing big parties, as some of the other ladies in the church are gifted to do. I don’t think I would have described her as ‘one who leads’. But she did what her giftings allowed her to do, and she did them wholeheartedly.

And in that way, she left a legacy of personal ministry that has blessed probably hundreds of people. The kingdom has been promoted, and God’s glory has been magnified—and all by a relatively small, unassuming life. And you better believe it—she’s reaping her reward already.

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