I’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).
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.