Pastoral Care in the Church (2)

We do not know all of the ways that the early church cared for God’s sheep (Acts 20:28). But we do catch a glimpse of some of their methods. In the first decades after Pentecost, pastoral care had to evolve with the expansion of the church. With the explosion of growth on Pentecost, a pattern of care and sharing emerged. Along with their mutual worship, learning and fellowship, they also shared resources so that everyone’s needs were met (Acts 2:42-47, Acts 4:32-37). When a concern was raised about the Greek widows being overlooked, the apostles put in place a “care team” of qualified disciples to look after the food distribution (Acts 6:1-6). The church leaders were urged to teach and equip disciples in the Jesus Way, and also to discipline those who were straying away from Jesus (1 Corinthians 5). The churches took up benevolence offerings to help other churches (2 Corinthians 8:1-7,18-20).

From this we see that the apostles and elders saw the need for organizing and managing the church’s care ministry in an effective and efficient way. Their goal was that everyone’s spiritual and physical needs would be met. “And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.” (Acts 4:33-34)

Over time the early church model of leadership shifted from disciples equipping disciples to clergy ruling over laity. The church leaders devolved into a hierarchical sacred class who were ‘ordained’ to run the church. They held the keys of life and death, of forgiveness and grace. They protected the church from the uneducated and unholy commoners (laity). Collections from the churches became ways of funding the hierarchy and the architecture (indulgences). Charity and compassion always had some place in the church’s ministry, but over time the church’s structure took precedence over the church’s ministry.

There were Reform movements within the church that sought to correct this imbalance, but one thing that was not challenged and corrected for many centuries was the clergy/laity divide. Even the Reformation, for all of its good steps towards restoring the early church model, still retained the clergy/laity distinction. The ministers of the word, the elders and the deacons were set apart and ordained for their special tasks. The ‘priesthood of all believers’ was communicated, but not implemented.

Since the Reformation, the idea that the ‘pastor’ (minister of the word) takes the lead in pastoral care has remained strong in most churches. The elders (originally called pastors in the early church) had limited roles in that care. In the CRC tradition their primary role was an annual check up (home visit) that provided minimal care. Whenever a pastoral situation required more attention, the pastor was called upon to take over. The pastor became so central to the church’s care that many people did not consider a visit from anyone else a real visit. In recent years the practice of home visitation has gradually declined among CRC churches. Some churches have experimented with alternative models of care, but many/most have fallen back to expecting the paid pastor(s) to do the bulk of pastoral care.

In recent decades there has been an attempt to restore God’s people to their role in pastoral care. Some churches have tried to strengthen fellowship and care in their districts, or developed a new model of “faith families”. Some churches have turned to small groups and small group leaders as their vehicle for providing care for their members. Some churches have partnered with mental health groups (like Shalem) to provide professional counselling for their members. Some churches have experimented with ‘lay pastoral care workers’ (while still retaining the unbiblical clergy/laity distinction). Some churches refuse to change their model, and insist the models developed in the 16th century are still the best for today.

For me the issue is which model best accomplishes Jesus’ disciples equipping disciples method? For me it is not about ordination or office, clergy and laity. I do not want a ‘minister’ or an ‘elder’ to visit me, I want someone who cares, whoever they are. I want someone who walks alongside of me in my journey, who loves me and listens to me and speaking humbly and graciously into my life. Someone I can respect, someone I can trust. Someone who knows AND shows God and Jesus in a sincere, genuine way. I suspect I am not the only one that wants this.

This is the question we need to wrestle with as Elders. We look to the scriptures for guiding principles and possible practices. We look to church history and the church order for examples of what has and has not worked in the past. Armed with these insights, and equipped with the Spirit of Jesus, the Elders are free to experiment and explore to discover which model and method of care works best in their community, in their context.

You will not find me insisting on the tradition of home visiting. In fact, you will find me resisting this model of care. As I said earlier, it may offer minimal benefits at best, but it is not the best way of providing care, and can even be a harmful model of care.

In my next post I will look closely at the home visit model of pastoral care.

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