How Pastoral Care Stunts The Growth Of Most Churches

stunted growth

It’s time we put some more practical articles up for parish priests, so we have a new category: Growing Your Parish. We’ll be offering more articles, and seeking more (!), of a useful nature to Orthodox parish clergy on removing growth barriers to making small missions and parishes larger, and sustaining growth past certain barriers.

By Carey Niewhoff

Of all the mysteries that shouldn’t be mysteries, why most churches remain small is perhaps the greatest.

I’m sure there are a few leaders who want to keep their churches small, or who don’t care about growth.

But most small church leaders and pastors I meet actually want to reach more people. They want to see their mission fully realized. They hope and pray for the day when they can reach as many people as possible in their community.

But that’s simply not reality.

The Barna group reports the average Protestant church size in America as 89 adults. 60% of protestant churches have less than 100 adults in attendance. Only 2% have over 1000 adults attending.

As a result, the dreams of pastors of most small and even mid-sized churches go unrealized. Why?

I outlined 8 reasons most churches never break the 200 attendance mark in this post, but today I want to drill down deeper on one that kills almost every church and pastor: pastoral care.

If pastors could figure out how to better tackle the issue of pastoral care, I’m convinced many more churches would grow.

Here’s why. And here’s how.

How Pastors Die Trying

When the pastor has to visit every sick person, do every wedding and funeral and make regular house calls, attend every meeting, and lead every bible study or group, he or she becomes incapable of doing almost anything else. Message preparation falls to the side, and providing organizational leadership for the future is almost out of the question. The pastoral care model of church leadership simply doesn’t scale.

It’s somewhat ironic, actually.

If you’re a good pastoral care person (and many pastors are), people will often love you so much that the church will grow to two hundred people, at which point the pastoral care expectations become crushing.

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Inevitably, pastoral leaders with larger churches can’t keep up and end up disappointing people when they can’t get to every event any more.

Caring for 30 people personally is possible. Caring for 230 is not.

Many pastors burn out trying.

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.

Why? Because, as I explain in some detail in my new book, Lasting Impact: Seven Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow, you haven’t structured bigger to grow bigger.

Complication 1: Pastors Who Won’t Let Go

Several other factors make pastoral care complicated.

Many pastors I know are people-pleasers by nature (if that’s you…read this). Wanting to not disappoint people fuels conflict within leaders: people want you to care for them, and you hate to disappoint them.

In some respect, pastoral care establishes classic co-dependency. The congregation relies on the pastor for all of its care needs, and the pastor relies on the congregation to provide their sense of worth and fulfilment: the pastor needs to be needed.

Complication 2: Congregations That Won’t Let Go

Many congregations define the success of their leader according to how available, likeable and friendly their pastor is.

It’s as though churches want a puppy, not a pastor.

Since when did that become the criteria for effective Christian leadership?

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By that standard, Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, the Apostle Paul and perhaps even Jesus failed the test.

The goal of Christian leadership is to lead, not to be liked.

That’s no excuse for being a jerk or insensitive, but still, leadership requires that at times, you need to do what’s best, not what people want.

If a church is going to grow, congregations have to let go of the expectation that their pastor will be available for every medical emergency, every twist and turn in their lives, every family celebration and every crisis.

That’s a tough sell for many congregations, but if a church is going to grow, it has to happen.

How To Break Through

So how do you deal with this? Have the courage to shift care to the congregation.

The best answer I know of for pastoral care in a larger church is to teach people to care for each other in groups.

Groups based care isn’t just practical. It’s biblical.

It’s thoroughly biblical: going back to Exodus 18, when Jethro confronted Moses about doing everything himself.

Even Jesus adopted the model of group care, moving his large group of hundreds of disciples into groups of seventy, twelve, three, and then one.

I have been the pastoral care giver in a small church. Some of those original people are now part of our much larger church where care happens in groups. In the process, both they and I have made the transition.

As a result, here’s what I’ve come to believe about pastoral care: 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.

I rarely if ever counsel people. Why? Because I care about people too much. Instead, I send them to people who can actually help them.

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If you’re wondering how to start the discussion, I started it with my elders and leaders when we were about 100 in attendance and told them my role would be changing. I used this book as a resource, and told them that we would never break 200 in attendance unless I stopped doing pastoral care.

It was a tough, but we made it. We now have a church of 2300 people with almost 1100 in attendance on weekends.

It’s tempting to say I’d be dead if I was still trying to do pastoral care personally, but that’s simply not true.

I’d be alive, very tired (it’s not my key gifting) and our church would be under 200 people. I also likely would have quit. We would never have grown. That’s the reality.

It’s simply impossible for a church to grow beyond 200 under one person’s direct care and leadership.

Too scared to have the conversation?

If you’re a people pleaser, do what you need to do to get over it. Go see a counselor. Get on your knees. Do whatever you need to do to get over the fear of disappointing people.

If you’re afraid to have the conversation, have it anyway. I actually designed my latest book, Lasting Impact, to facilitate 7 critical conversations like this directly with your board and leadership team.

Courageous leadership is like courageous parenting. Don’t do what your kids want you to do; do what you believe is best for them in the end.

Eventually, many of them will thank you.

And the rest? Honestly, they’ll probably go to another church that isn’t reaching a lot people either.

I’m convinced that if we changed how we do pastoral care, we’d reach more people. And in the process, we’d care for people much better than we do now.

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How Pastoral Care Stunts The Growth Of Most Churches

About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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