Carey Nieuwhof: How Pastoral Care Stunts Church Growth

smallgroupsI’m quickly becoming a fan of the writings of Carey Nieuwhof on church leadership. He writes very much in the manner of Thom Rainer, but he writes as the pastor of a megachurch (Connexus Church, north of Toronto Canada).

He recently explained why so many churches have trouble growing beyond 200 members:

The pastoral care model most seminaries teach and most congregations embrace creates false and unsustainable expectations.

Consequently, almost everyone gets hurt in the process.

The pastor is frustrated that he or she can’t keep up. And the congregation is frustrated over the same thing.

Eventually the pastor burns out or leaves and the church shrinks back to a smaller number. If a new pastor arrives who also happens to be good at pastoral care, the pattern simply repeats itself: growth, frustration, burnout, exit.

It’s ironic. They very thing you’re great at (pastoral care) eventually causes your exit when you can no longer keep up.

Or, if you stay for a long time, your church settles down to around 100 people and you simply can’t grow it beyond that.

Sound familiar? The church won’t outgrow the ability of the preacher to provide pastoral care to the members.

Ask most members in a Church of Christ for a solution, and they’ll propose that the elders take on the load. And I think this also fails because —

  • Most of the elders have jobs and families. They just can’t keep up.
  • Most churches don’t have enough men qualified as elders who can provide sufficient pastoral care. In fact, sometimes the need for pastoral care pushes elders to abdicate their other responsibilities, such as teaching and overseeing the staff, deacons, and other leaders. Or some churches ordain men unqualified as elders just to meet the need. Good intentions lead to valiant efforts, which fail, and which lead to returning to what they actually have time to do.
  • Contrary to a popular meme, the Bible does not charge elders with providing all the care and comfort needed by the members. This conclusion does not change just because you call them “shepherds” rather than “elders.” The Bible emphasizes elders’ teaching much more than pastoral care. In fact, the duty to provide pastoral care is given by the Bible to the entire congregation.



(Jas. 5:16 ESV)  16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

(2 Cor. 13:11 ESV)  11 Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.

(Phil. 2:1-4 NAS) If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion,  2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.  3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself;  4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

(1 Thess. 4:18-5:1 ESV)  18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.  

(1 Thess. 5:14 ESV)  14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.

It’s much easier to find verses about loving, encouraging, comforting, and consoling each other than instructing elders to do this for the rest of the church. I’m still waiting to find the verse that says, “Elders are to be the primary comforters and consolers in the church.” They should certainly lead in that area, but there’s is nothing in the Bible making them comforters in chief, not that I can find.

Therefore, I’m not surprised that Nieuwhof recommends providing pastoral care through a small group ministry. When a member is in the hospital, friends from her small group can providing babysitting, stay up the night watching over her, drive her home, bring clothes and such from her house, bring her food, fill in for her at church for her volunteer duties … the list is endless. One elder can’t provide nearly the care that a small group does naturally. There’s strength in numbers.

And what would you rather have: an elder who visits you in the hospital or 20 friends who support you throughout your illness and recovery. I’ve been in the hospital several times. I know the answer.

The scriptural model, I’m persuaded, is mutual comfort and care. And in a church of 200 or more, if you don’t organize it, people will be overlooked. And if you over-organize it, then no one will be visited unless the church secretary calls and tells someone what to do.

Small groups have the advantage of working naturally. The group grows to know each other, knows each others’ needs, and because they love each other, they provide care for each other. And when the needs are too much for the group, they have the elders and ministerial staff and the rest of the church available to help. And so …

98% of pastoral care is having someone who cares. It doesn’t have to be the pastor.

2% of the time you’ll have situations where the need of a member exceeds the ability of the group to help. That’s what trained Christian counsellors are for. The tool kit of a trained Christian counsellor is deeper and better than the counselling ability of the vast majority of pastors.

We grow by becoming smaller. Small groups become sub-congregations that fulfill the “one another” commands of the Bible without needing a large, expensive staff, burned out elders, and a staff that constantly turns over.

And when the church leadership has struggles (and it will), the small groups will help hold things together.

Oh … and it’s very Restorationist. It’ll be remarkably like the First Century church — even if you don’t greet one another with the holy kiss.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Church Growth, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Carey Nieuwhof: How Pastoral Care Stunts Church Growth

  1. Ray Downen says:

    Perhaps we’ve thought that the primary task of new Christians is to provide financial support so others will be won and taught by pastors. I like the suggestion that the church as a whole should support every member, and that small groups are an effective way in which this can be done.

  2. Mark says:

    I read this on Thom Rainer’s blog. I disagree with some of it. That said, Some people get too dependent on the minister/elder/pastor. Others like the younger people (and me) have never seen real clergy except at a distance or to shake hands. This is much like a politician in that the more you give, the closer you get. There is such a thing as too little pastoral care. I have never really seen it even at a family member’s funeral. I only saw it when I was at the hospital visiting a (grand)parent when a minister or rabbi came to see the patient, not me. If a pastor/minister is struggling to do it all, why does he/she not train some lay people? For all the committee meetings and time consuming nonsense, there needs to be some care about the ordinary people. While small groups can and do offer babysitting, meals, visits, etc. some people still want to see the real minister do it. Part of the reason is to see how he/she does it and if the minister will lower him/herself to the level of talking to the undesirable people. Meanwhile, let women provide pastoral care. Nuns have done and still do some of the finest.

    One verse was left out Isaiah 40:1 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. KJV This is a command, not a recommendation.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Mark wrote,

    While small groups can and do offer babysitting, meals, visits, etc. some people still want to see the real minister do it.

    I was once in an elders meeting dealing with a family’s complaint. A family member had been in the hospital and the preacher had not visited. We went around the table. Of six elders, five had been to visit this person in the hospital. But they complained because the preacher didn’t make the visit — in a church of over 500 members at the time.

    So it’s not always about actual support and encouragement. For some, it’s about feeling important enough to warrant the preacher’s time – as though his time and presence is better and higher than the elders’. This strikes me as very odd thinking — which should not be encouraged.

    Church members are beloved and should be prayed for and encouraged by the church leadership. But if they’re going to all insist that the preacher visit every hospital room — in addition to the elders — well, in a large church, we’ll not do anything but visit hospital rooms. (Some churches actually hire a minister of visitation to visit the hospitals and nursing homes. Not always, but this often marks a very inwardly directed church. I mean, people complain when the elders don’t visit and when the elders do visit.)

    When I’m in the hospital (far too often), I usually ask the elders and staff to visit someone else. I’m well supported by my family, friends, and small group. And my feelings aren’t going to be hurt because I didn’t measure up for an actual preacher visit. (Besides, when I’m stoned on narcotics for kidney stones or whatever, who knows what I’ll say? There are stories, all of which I categorically deny. Especially the true ones.)

    In fact, isn’t it a little crazy that the pulpit guy is, in our minds, “the real minister.” Your best friend who spends the night with you while you’re ill isn’t a real minister? Your small group leader isn’t a real minister? I mean, what is it about preaching a weekly sermon that makes the preacher’s attention more valuable than the other members?

    It has to be about feeling important and valued by the hired church staff. And I just don’t get it. Aren’t we making the pulpit guy into a bishop? The center of the congregation? And how is that scriptural? Why do I care more that I was visited by the guy hired to visit than the people who have to take off work to visit?

Comments are closed.