by Cari Jenkins (as told to Bronwyn Lea)
On the night five meth labs got shut down on my block in one fell swoop, I poured out my heart to God. “Our neighborhood needs a new story,” I prayed. “What new story do you want us to have?” In the whirl of my thoughts, one word distilled: KINDNESS. Our neighborhood needed kindness.
So this was how I found myself staying up late, baking hundreds of cookies, writing a blessing on each, and then getting ready to deliver little packets of baked kindness to neighbors I hardly knew. A friend with me noticed some signs of stress, “Why are you so nervous?” she asked. “I’m about to give cookies to strangers because five meth labs shut down. It makes no sense. Of course I’m nervous, it’s ridiculous!” I explained. But I went anyway, making cookies not because it was logical but because it was all I had to offer right then. God said “kindness,” and sometimes kindness might just look like a fresh batch of snickerdoodles.
There have been times when serving God has felt so natural it was like breathing. In the seventeen years I worked as a youth pastor, it often felt like that. But there are times when using my gifts has felt remarkably hard and awkward, and the meth-lab-shutdown cookies was one of those.
But the night of the cookies was part of a longer journey God has been leading me on in rethinking what it means to be a pastor, to do ministry, and to serve his church. For the longest time, ‘Pastor’ was a title. An office. A profession. But after years of working in a pastoring job, God invited me to consider what it might look like to see pastoring—or shepherding, to use the Bible’s image—as a spiritual gift. What would it look like to pastor from my person (simply being who I was!) and my place (my home!), rather than from a paid position?
I didn’t know. But I was willing to learn, and I asked God to show me.
I started with my neighbors. I invited two women who lived in the duplex upstairs to dinner. To my delight, they said yes; and then wanted to do it again! So we did. I tried putting some of the things I did in youth ministry into practice in my neighborhood: I used to do prayer walks at church, so I started walking around my neighborhood, asking God to help me see what he was seeing. I used to host outreach events just to get to know people’s names, and I realized if I wanted to know my neighbor’s names to pray for them, I’d need to do some kind of outreach event there, too. I needed to host something, but I didn’t want to do it alone. That night, my upstairs neighbor proposed co-hosting a block party, and a week later 35 neighbors gathered in my transformed driveway for dinner.
I didn’t need to wait for my church to host an outreach event to reach out to people who were hurting, or who needed someone to celebrate them. As it turned out, I could do that in my driveway. God was inviting me to see—and love—the people right around me, and pastor in my own home.
So much of my professional life as a pastor had been tied up with organizing events and teaching. I did this as faithfully as I was able and yes, God used it for good. However, I’m learning to lean into the picture of pastoring I see God modeling in Psalm 23.
The Lord is my Shepherd, or my Pastor (the word is the same); and the things the Perfect Pastor does in this Psalm is to lead his people to green pastures, to quiet waters, and to places of refreshment. God our Pastor-Shepherd leads us in paths of righteousness, walks alongside us in dark times, and prepares a table for us to eat, even when there are enemies right nearby.
I am following in the Great Shepherd’s footsteps, then, whenever I am invited to walk with someone through the valley of the shadow of death and remind them that the Lord is with us. I am pastoring as Psalm 23 teaches me to whenever God invites me to help someone see that they lack no good thing. Pastoring is about accompanying someone to God, not shoving them in his direction. I am invited to bring something good, beautiful, and true to situations in this world that are not good, beautiful, and true. These are glimpses of God’s kingdom, and my hope is they will taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8)
On the night I went passing out cookies, I didn’t feel like an “official pastor”, but I did have a vivid picture of the goodness of the Lord chasing after people. Surely his goodness will follow me, writes the Psalmist (Psalm 23:6). The loving kindness of God has chased after me all the days of my life, and knocking on the doors of the strangers who would become my beloved neighbors, I felt the privilege of bearing a plate of his kindness to them, too. Even if they looked a lot like cookies.
Cari is the Executive Director of Urban Skye, an organization envisioning cities where every person has a pastor and every tribe a priest. She is the author of Listen and Live, a freelance writer, speaker, occasional blogger, and lover of the table. She gathers over 500 people around her own table in Colorado each year. Find Cari at online, and connect on Facebook and Instagram.