Small things make a difference

For all our fantasies that large-scale events make the lasting impressions in our ministry, the truth is something very different.

By Bill Wilson

Let’s eat grandpa.
Let’s eat, grandpa.

It’s true, correct punctuation can save a life.

A comma is so very small, just a smudge of ink between two words. That small smudge, however, can make a huge difference.

Same for a hyphen, or making a singular word into a plural word.

Take the new web site for The Center for Healthy Churches, for instance. Due to some unforeseen legal and technical issues, we have had to change our plans for a web site URL address. Rather than being at www.healthychurch.org, we will be found at www.healthy-churches.org. The only difference is that little hyphen and the plural rather than singular language. We may eventually get the other web address, and if we do, all web traffic will end up at the same place. For now, the hyphen and “es” are important if you are looking for the new Center. It makes a difference whether you include it or not.

Small things can make a big difference in a multitude of ways. I’m convinced that most ministers would do well to revisit their attention to details and small acts that have major impacts. For all our fantasies that large-scale events make the lasting impressions in our ministry, the truth is something very different. I may dream that my prophetic and life-changing sermons will be engraved in the memories of all who hear me, and that I will be regarded as a life-changer from the pulpit. However, my experience is that for all the good our high-visibility work accomplishes, it pales in comparison to the impact of our private, smaller and more discreet actions.

When a minister remembers names, ailments, significant anniversaries, sick relatives, scheduled surgeries, performances by children, major challenges at work and a host of other minor-yet-major facts, congregants are touched and grateful that their small concern somehow made it upon her or his screen. Such attention to detail often overshadows public pronouncements, sermons, writing and a host of more glamorous activity.

A habit I learned early on as a pastor was the wisdom of remembering the one-year anniversary of the death of a congregant’s loved one. On that day, for most of us, memories flood in and we revisit our grief in strong and often unsettling ways. I tried to send a handwritten note to surviving spouses, children or parents on such a day. It took some effort to set up a reminder system, and a little time to write the note, but the return on my small effort was immense. Most would tell me that my note was one of the very few they received. Our memories are short when it comes to the grief of others. My own sensitivity to the burdens we all carry just beneath our surface cheer was enhanced. When the tables were turned and the anniversary of my father’s death came around, I was deeply touched by the friend who remembered and wrote me.

It was Jesus who taught us that the little things matter. He noticed the little people and small dramas we overlook. A man born blind, a widow making a quiet sacrificial gift, a tax collector peering from a tree, a leper shoved to the side of the road, a woman touching his robe. He told stories about small things that had profound implications: a mustard seed, a pearl of great price, a wayward son, the advantages of sitting on the back row of the banquet hall.

Healthy churches and clergy pay attention to the not-so-obvious opportunities to embody the Kingdom. Despite the attractiveness of the highly visible and the lure of the limelight, we show our true selves when no one is watching and we do the Jesus-thing anyway.

I remember the day a staff colleague peeled off from our boisterous group lunch to engage an obnoxious, demanding and slightly disturbed parishioner that we usually carefully avoided. She visited with the woman for several minutes, and soon rejoined us without speaking of what had transpired. Later, I asked what that encounter was about.

“Oh, she just needed someone to listen to her and love her, and I decided to be that person today.”

I pray for that spirit of attentiveness to little things. Again and again the message comes to us: by being faithful in small ways, we build the capacity to remain faithful when the stakes grow larger. Those small acts of grace and kindness will someday be the standard by which we are measured.

Pay attention to the comma or the hyphen or the plural. Pay attention to details — they mean so much.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.