Where do we “do” ministry, and how do we find those opportunities? As a college student I began working for and attending 2nd Street Community Church and stayed there for the next 5 years as I married and started a family. Ministry was easy to define and was the focus of each day. It was exciting to be a part of a team whose goals were to further the kingdom of God and strengthen and encourage its people.
When my family purchased Chapters Books and Coffee, I went to help manage the book side of things part time, staying home with my growing family the rest of the week. I worried that my opportunity to “do ministry” on a daily basis was ending and that I would need to look for opportunities to connect with people the way I had at the church. After all, how deep can you really go when you’re seeing people for a few minutes a day as they order their mocha?
I soon discovered that working at a local coffee shop/bookstore is a bit like being an old-fashioned postmaster . . . or a bartender. We have a pretty good grasp for what’s going on in our little community and in the individual lives of our customers, and with just a little extra effort we can be part of their experiences and minister to them in different ways.
Sometimes that’s really fun—when you get to watch a young couple announce a pregnancy with giddy excitement, see the ever-expanding belly and provide a sympathetic ear for the aches and pains, and then meet the new little one and exclaim over the tiny fingers and perfect toes.
Kids who first appeared in strollers can eventually press their noses against the pastry case glass, and soon start ordering their own $1 hot cocoa, paid for with their allowance. Teens order their favorite young adult books, explore new series that we suggest, and then go off to college, reappearing in the summers with new interests and different books to get excited about.
We get to share in the joy of new jobs, new houses, new love, old love, the first grandchild (or second or third . . .), downtown businesses opening and enriching our street, and lots of other great things. We also get to walk through some of those darker times with our customers.
We learn about struggles with spouses or children. We order books on relationships, on addictions, on depression and anxiety, and we talk about hard topics when the opportunity arises. Often they’re for someone else, purchased by a loving friend or family member who hopes they can offer some solace or advice through the printed words. Sometimes books say what we can’t articulate for ourselves or advice that we wish we’d followed or something truly meaningful to us at a hard time in our lives that we want to pass on.
We often order books on health issues and chat with those who are struggling to figure out a new diet or diagnosis. It’s a beautiful thing when they come in with a big smile to report great changes in mood, less pain, or remission. It’s a time to grieve with them when things don’t improve or get worse.
I love knowing our customers so well that we can order new books specifically because they’ll be interested in them. I love knowing what to ask about when they come in—or sometimes what not to ask about so they can have five minutes when their biggest concern is whether to get caramel in their latte or vanilla.
Connecting with people and walking with them through life can happen at so many levels, even in a retail setting. It just takes a moment to see them as a person rather than a customer—to remember that detail about their life and ask them about it next time they’re in. It opens up the opportunity for them to share their joys or struggles if they need to. I’m often surprised by how much people want to share.
I have been on the other end of this relationship as well, sharing my joy with customers when my daughter was born and when we brought our son home from Ethiopia. I’ve been the grateful recipient of their advice with parenting and adoption struggles and happily written down food-allergy-friendly recipes (and then passed them on to others!) I’ve met new friends, read new books, learned new ideas, and matured in my faith through the relationships forged among the bookshelves and café tables.
When I left my church position to work at a retail shop, I worried I would be losing my ministry opportunity or that I would have to seek out ways to connect with people at work the way I did before. I didn’t expect to broaden my definition of ministry and my opportunities for connecting with people in all walks of life, from all faith or cultural traditions, and enrich my own life through relationships with customers who originally just came in for their mocha fix.