Confession: I was drawn into ministry initially with a desire to be people’s pastor during the best and worst seasons of their lives. After 5 quarters of Clinic Pastor Education, the pastoral care model of ministry was deeply etched into my professional identity. Christ broadened and deepened my understanding of ministry through the years, thankfully, but I still love visiting in hospitals, being asked to talk about a family issue, and praying with people in moments of personal crisis. There is something deeply rewarding and unquestionably significant about the incarnational ministry of caring.
And yet, there came a point in my ministry when doing pastoral care was getting in the way of other matters for which I was also responsible: worship planning, leadership development, staff supervision and community involvement. What’s more, I couldn’t keep up with the needs for pastoral care among my existing congregation – much less those of future persons I hoped Christ would bring our way. I had a tough choice to make.
Doug Anderson, of the Bishop Rueben Job Institute for Leadership Development, says that one of the fundamental missional decisions congregations make is: “Who cares for our congregation?” The answer significantly determines how large the congregation can become. If the answer is that the pastor cares for everyone, then the congregation will probably never grow much past 125 in average worship. The reality is that one pastor can’t really do a good job of caring for 125 persons, but she or he can do a good enough job – not disappointing or overlooking too many people – so as to maintain about 125 in worship. Answering the question, “Who cares for our congregation?” this way acts like a thermostat that sets the congregation’s around 125.
An answer which can set the thermostat a bit higher is: the pastor and staff care for everyone. Here the number of care givers is multiplied. There may be a retired visiting pastor, an associate pastor or any number of other staff members (paid or unpaid) who have sufficient mercy gifts to participate in caring for people. Often, of course, people don’t feel they have really been cared for by the church unless it’s the pastor who cares for them. This is a significant issue in some congregations which must be addressed repeatedly and regularly from the pulpit, both by teaching and by sharing stories of others providing excellent care.
The person that often has the largest shift to make, however, is the pastor who has felt rewarded for doing pastoral care well through the years. Some pastors are never able to give up this warm connection with their members and essentially set the size thermostat for the number of people they can effectively care for – no matter how hard they work in other areas. Jesus said that people “will know you are my disciples by the love you have for one another.” At no point in Scripture does it imply that all the caring has to be provided by the pastor. Rather, the assumption seems to be that caring characterizes the congregation as a whole.
The best answer to the question, “Who cares for our congregation?” is: the congregation does and the pastor(s) makes sure systems are in place so that hurting people don’t fall through the cracks. Paul in Ephesians 4 talks about church leaders equipping the people to do the work of ministry. Here the pastor is not responsible for personally seeing everyone one-on-one, but rather for seeing that everyone is cared for appropriately. This is a significant shift for a congregation to make when they have been used to seeing the pastor and staff responsible for caring for them. But not making this shift puts a glass ceiling on the congregation’s size.
Here are seven ways that I’ve seen pastors live into this answer. None of these ideas matures in reality over night. Each takes vision casting and development.
1. Preach your congregation into a new way of understanding pastoral care. Sometimes, we pastors forget the power of the pulpit. For laity to have the spiritual gifts of mercy or helps and the church not provide opportunities to use them is poor stewardship. Should the pastor be exhausted while gifted laity watch idly?
2. Expand the number of persons responsible for making hospital visits. Identifying persons with mercy gifts and then have the pastor mentor them in making hospital visits, initially with the pastor and then alone. Be sure to endorse these persons regularly from the pulpit.
3. Pastors, provide care strategically. Pastors personally need to follow up on the pastoral concerns of key leaders. A phone call, instead of a visit, often suffices in today’s world.
4. Develop a shut-in and nursing home visitation team. Ask for persons who are willing to adopt a shut-in and to make at least one visit and one phone call a month to them. After communion services, provide “consecrated communion kits” to the care givers so they can personally extend the communion service to shut-ins that afternoon. Leadership for this caring ministry (and others) can be delegated to someone other than the pastor.
5. Create a prayer and phone ministry. The larger the congregation becomes, the easier it needs to be to share pastoral concerns. A multi-use sheet in the bulletin that is filled out and turned in every week by everyone is one way of doing this. The prayer concerns can be edited and then shared with a team of people that meets weekly. The concerns can be divided among the groups for follow-up phone calls.
6. Cultivate small groups as caregivers for the people in their group. Begin to train your small group leaders not only to be teachers and spiritual mentors, but also to oversee the care of members in their group. Talk about this from the pulpit and tell stories of when small group members responded so well that the pastor really wasn’t needed.
7. Track and contact persons who do not attend worship for 3 weeks. The larger the congregation, the bigger the back door. Find ways to track attendance and check up on people when they have missed 2 or 3 weeks. Often people quit coming to worship when they experience a personal crisis. For the church not to notice just reinforces the fear that they don’t belong or that they aren’t worthy of being cared for.
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence