I still remember the time I was snared by an article written by Carey Nieuwhof, “How Pastoral Care Stunts the Growth of Most Churches.” Carey writes, “If pastors could better handle the issue of pastoral care, many more churches would grow. Caring for 30 people personally is possible. Caring for 230 is not. Many pastors burn out trying.”
In my 43 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve served in small churches and mega churches, and I’m convinced that how we structure care in our churches matters. A church’s care model can be shaped by many things. Beliefs as to who is responsible for care, the beliefs of the congregation, the pastor, or a mix of both can influence a care model.
The size of a church can significantly drive its care model. There are always a number of congregants who determine how good a pastor you are by how available you are to care for them. They want a pastor who will personally visit or contact them every time a need arises. What’s a pastor, especially in a larger church, to do?
Must he be driven by a zeal to please the people and personally care for everyone? If so, burnout is inevitable. I don’t believe this is what Paul had in mind for the church. In Ephesians 4:11-13 (NIV) he writes, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
Our responsibility as pastors is to ensure that our body is actively participating as ministers to one another. If we can build a care model where everyone is being cared for but no one is caring for too many, caring for people will not contribute to pastoral burnout.
I would like to suggest a model that builds around the involvement of care throughout the entire congregation, a model that starts in the hallways and builds through the congregation, church staff, and beyond.
At Lancaster Evangelical Free Church, we are calling this model the “Spinal Cord of Care.” The spine is the central support column of the body and its primary role is to protect the spinal cord. You could say it is like the foundational frame of a house which holds everything together. If the frame becomes dysfunctional, cracks begin to show. If care is not being done well throughout the church, the cracks will show somewhere.
Building a Spinal Cord of Care begins with helping everyone embrace the concept that care is everyone’s responsibility, from the congregant and staff to the pastors.
At LEFC, we use the term Informal Care to describe the first level of care. This is when anyone personally extends care of any kind to someone else, either family, friends, neighbors, or co-workers. The next level of care within the church family, Formal Care, is provided through communities – small groups, Adult Bible Fellowships, men’s/women’s ministries. Mid to larger sized churches could even develop sectional communities in their worship space. By designating section leaders, those who are not connected to formal groups could at least be personally known by someone who would ensure that they are cared for.
Focused Care is a more specialized care. At LEFC, we have a Care Wheel that identifies four specific areas of care:
- personal care for crisis or health related issues
- physical care which is provide through our helps ministry
- recovery care for those struggling with mental health issues or trauma
- relational care for those struggling in relationships and ministry for special needs individuals.
The Care wheel then points to a ministry or group within the church that can provide the specific type of care needed.
Extended Care is provided through a team of Navigators. When someone enters a season of ongoing care, a Navigator is assigned to each individual to ensure that there is follow through with ongoing care. In other words, we are trying to avoid the “out-of-sight out-of-mind” effect that can easily occur when someone is in an extended season of care.
Staff/Elder Care begins when there is a crisis or when a situation occurs that requires a higher level of intervention and staff involvement. At this point, an Elder or church staff member will begin to provide care. This may or may not be the senior pastor or pastor of congregational care, but regardless, the pastor is made aware of the care need at this level.
With the spinal cord of care functioning properly and care needs being met within the body, the pastor is freed from the pressure of meeting every need personally. Imagine the joy we can experience as pastors when we are not expected to be the only one providing care for the congregation!
Sometimes needs do arise that the church is not prepared to meet, even within a fully functioning care model. Helping your congregants find professional counselors or other critical care assistance will help your church family feel cared for, even when help comes from outside the church. At LEFC, we call this Referred Care.
This is a brief introduction to the care model we use, but I hope you can see the possibility of a model where care is provided throughout your church without your constant involvement; the possibility of everyone being cared for with no one caring for too many; the possibility that a church can provide care without the pastor burning himself out!
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