As a part of this current leadership series, we want to address the idea of pastoral care for our own benefit, self-examination, and so that we can know what the Biblical responsibilities of a pastor are regarding pastoral care.
I think the concept of pastoral care is often abused. Pastoral care in the church could easily turn a pastor’s focus entirely inward, turning the pastor into a chaplain rather than a shepherd. In rebuttal, the pastor can easily turn entirely outward, focussing only on evangelism and not on loving the people of the church at all. Pastoral care is necessary, but Scripture alone (the instruction that God has given) must be the authority on exactly what pastoral care is.
What is pastoral care?
There is no place in Scripture where pastoral care is prescribed, or even mentioned by the name that we have given it. I had one guy tell me that part of the requirement a church had of its pastor was that the pastor visit every member every week. Our church had almost doubled in size (from 30 attendees to 55 the last Sunday I was there). We had young people joining the church and serving. Our children’s ministry was growing. The irony is that I spent much time fishing with the particular person who offered this complaint on a regular basis. What if a pastor were to make it a priority to visit every member every week? Well, I did the math with just 30 people. 30 hours every week, plus ten minutes to travel between residences, is 35 hours weekly. Add in hospital visits, and counseling appointments and the pastor is working 50 hours weekly without even thinking about Christ, church direction, discipleship, or taking care of his own familial responsibilities. Forget studying and presenting God’s word on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and during any other teaching time. Practically, this type of expectation doesn’t make much sense. What does Scripture have to say? What exactly is pastoral care?
There are 3 main texts in Scripture that deal with the role of a pastor or elder:
“Shepherd God’s flock among you, not overseeing out of compulsion but freely, according to God’s will; not for the money but eagerly; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:2-4 HCSB).
“And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness” (Ephesians 4:11-13 HCSB).
“In those days, as the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. Then the Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to handle financial matters. Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry.” The proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch. They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
So the preaching about God flourished, the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:1-7 HCSB).
What pastoral care is not…
Pastoral care, first of all, cannot be strict visitation. I think there is some importance to the idea of a pastor visiting when there is a need. Strict visitation, though, is not prescribed or even described in the text of Scripture as part of a pastor’s or elder’s role in the church. In fact, when people were neglected, the apostles (Peter states in 1 Peter 5 that they filled the role of elders as pastors do) did not break their backs to visit. They appointed men as servants to fulfill that duty so they could focus on the ministry of the word. According to Acts 6, it would not be right for them to do otherwise. In the Greek text, the men chosen were chosen as those who deacon (or serve). The office of Deacon (or servant) became an office in the early church for this reason and purpose.
Secondly, pastoral care is not performing every wedding or funeral. I think there are advantages when pastors are available to do these things (because they involve the ministry of the word), but these things are not required and should not be the main focus of the pastor.
If the priority of the pastors of a church is to do the ministry of the word, and deacons were given by God to serve, then any other model is willful neglect of the text of Scripture. In Acts 6, we read that the God given model enabled church growth. Other models stifle church growth. When I think about this, I always have to ask the question: Am I causing the people of the church to rely more on me, or am I pointing them toward Jesus (the only one who can meet every need)? Better yet, am I teaching by example that the members of the church are the ends of the church’s existence, or am I teaching by my example that Christ is our all-in-all? If I force a sort of pastoral care (or if a congregation requires it) that is not biblical, I encourage idolatry in the local church. Christ is simply not presented as the preeminent one.
What pastoral care is…
Pastoral care, then, can be summed up in the definition of the word “shepherd.” What does it mean for a pastor to shepherd the people? In 1 Peter 5, the role of shepherd is described as setting an example to the flock. In Ephesians 4, Paul states that pastors are to build up the body of Christ and train the saints for ministry. In Acts 6, it is described as dedication to prayer and to the preaching ministry. This requires genuine discipleship. It may include visitation when there are needs. It requires much study. It requires the pastor to live and to budget his time like a Christ-follower. It requires that the pastor train the church body (every member in community) to do the work of ministry. Where visitation is needed, it gets done because all people are called to serve. The pastor is instructed in Scripture to do the preparing. He is also instructed not to take the whole work of ministry upon himself.
I do love visiting church members. I cannot, though, in ministry create a dependence on me. I desire that Christ be the centerpiece of the local church.
“My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and find clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing find clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong? If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:1-13).
Showing favoritism, to any degree and in any manner, is a sin according to this passage of Scripture (and indeed all of Scripture). As a pastor, then, I cannot by any measure or for any reason consider any group within the church to be more important than any other and I cannot, if I am to keep the Scriptures, treat any group with special interest. If I am asked to treat any group within the church, then, with special interest, favoritism, or as more important than the other groups in the church, I will have to politely decline.
Neglecting the Ministry of the Word
Considering favoritism, I must have the same visitation policy that applies to all members (else I am filling the role of pastor in a way that is contrary to Scripture).
Pastors (who fill the biblical role of elder, apostle, and overseer) have as their responsibility the ministry of the word (preaching and teaching). They are restricted to this responsibility. Anything that would keep them from this responsibility is “not right” according to Scripture. Any pastor, therefore, who neglects the ministry of the word in order to perform other tasks sins against God and fails to carry out his responsibilities as a pastor or elder. Consequently, this is why so many churches are so unhealthy; because their pastors are not dedicated to the ministry of the word.
According to this passage of Scripture, deacons were elected to perform other ministry needs so that pastors would not have to sin as they fulfilled the responsibilities of their ministry. Such is reflected in these personal convictions. While I like to visit when I can, there are many times when I simply cannot and remain faithful to the ministry of the word. At this point, I have to ask church members not to ask me to sin in this manner. I never want to be placed in a position where I have to choose between honoring God or pleasing people.
Issuance of Complaints
Since we cannot play favorites, we have to make sure the needs of every group are met. This does include visitation needs that are present, specifically concerning home-bound and hospitalized persons. When there is a group that is neglected, we take the procedures from Acts 6 so that we can operate on a biblical basis and set our expectations according to the text of Scripture and not our personal preferences. When there is neglect of one group, a person or persons in the church will be given the responsibility to address that neglect according to Scripture. If there is a complaint against any person in the church not fulfilling his or her responsibilities, then we should operate according to Matthew 18:15-19, which states that the matter ought to be brought to the person first in private. Publicly ridiculing anyone because we feel they have not met their responsibilities is always contrary to the text of Scripture, which is our authority for life and ministry.
There are times when visitation is needed to fulfill the ministry of the word. When someone is in immediate need, in the hospital, has lost a loved one, or is in need of biblical counseling; every effort will be made to make the appropriate visit at an appropriate time or to appoint another pastor/elder who can.
My Priorities in Ministry
1. Following Christ
2. Being a good husband
3. Being a good father
4. Fulfilling the biblical role of pastor
5. Extra ministry tasks
Many churches fall into decline (spiritually and sometimes numerically) because the church forces its pastor to operate in contradiction to the text of Scripture. I desire, though, to follow Christ and to lead others to do the same. I want to contribute, by Christ’s direction, to the building of ministries and churches that will outlast me, not being dependent on me.
The desperate need
In many churches, we have removed ourselves from genuine discipleship. We need to see genuine discipleship return to the local church in a mighty way. This is only possible when we genuinely follow Christ.