Levels of Ministry

In April, I wrote an article about serving the “working poor” and about some of the characteristics needed to carry out a servant ministry in general. I want to carry on the idea of that previous article with some comments from Richard Rohr, about three levels of social ministry, that I think applies here. In Richard’s writing, he references a quote with which you might be familiar. The quote has many sources, but is most often attributed to Desmond Tutu. Archbishop Tutu, said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.”

Rohr says then, “at the first level, we pick drowning people out of the river, and deal with the immediate social problems right in front of us. Perhaps someone comes to our door, saying they are hungry, and we offer a sandwich.” Perhaps we work in soup kitchens, helping out those struggling with food insecurity. These are hands on ministries; they will always be necessary, they will always need capable working hands, and they will always need prayer support from those who might not be physically capable of being there in person.

At the second level, “there are ministries that either help people not to fall into the river in the first place; or show them how to build their own canoe and paddle it well.” These tend to be ministries of education and healing. This is where we can help people who are about to fall into the river, by teaching the skills to prevent their falling in, or show them the survival skills needed, if they do. These ministries empower people and give new visions and possibilities for their well-being. If we do not have the skills to do this kind of teaching on our own, then our ministry becomes one of research and educating ourselves with information so that we can be the sources of knowledge that helps the people on the edge of the river, find the agencies, the social services and perhaps the professionals, who can keep them out of the water.

At the third level, “there are ministries that build and maintain the dam that will stop the river from drowning people in the first place.” This is a ministry of social advocacy, which means critiquing systems, and organizations. This will involve speaking out, letter writing, protesting, and resisting all forms of organized injustice and deceit. This kind of ministry will need us to know how systems work, and how to speak the language of those who need to be motivated to change the situations that are unjust. Just a note here, if we are working at this third level, we will not win a lot of friends, and we are likely going to have to deal with criticism. On the other hand, being a voice for the voiceless, is very satisfying work!

Each of us must discern to which level we are called, and to which level we feel we have the gifts. As we do that discernment, we need to look first to the God who empowers us and gives us exactly the gifts that we need to serve in this broken world. God does not expect us to be active in all these levels of ministry. God does expect each of us to do what we can with the individual and unique gifts with which we have been blessed.


  • Christine Ross

    The Venerable Christine Ross is Archdeacon of Kootenay Director of Deacons – Diocese of Kootenay BC

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