Church Growth and Pastoral Ministry

Today we are going to talk about pastoral ministry.

Pastoral ministry is something which evangelical churches do not do well.  As a matter of fact, many in the most successful churches in American evangelicalism have a seething disdain for the very concept of pastoral ministry.  We are going to look at a couple of articles written by someone in leadership at one of my church’s strategic partners which express this disdain.

Last time we looked at a post by Charles Featherstone in which he put his finger on the one thing the so-called Islamic State does well which is helping them gain traction among young people, especially here in the West.  They reach young people organically, by connecting authentically with them and building empathetic, supportive relationships which help them see their lives, their stories, their struggles as part of a much bigger story.  Contrast this with the Western way of doing things, which is all about institutions, structures, processes, programs, accountability, standardization, mass production, economies of scale, quality control, quantifiable results, and measurable outcomes and successes.

One clear example par excellence of the Western way of doing things is the church growth ideology which has come to dominate American evangelicalism over the past couple of decades.  According to this ideology, pastoral care and pastoral ministry is something to be disdained in the strongest possible terms.  Why?  Because it gets in the way of building a strong, effective organization.  If you are a lead pastor, you are too valuable and your time is too important to be consumed by the concerns and demands of pastoral ministry.  You are a rancher, not a shepherd.  You are the leader, the visionary, the builder, the vision-caster.  Without your vision, the organization perishes and your people perish for lack of vision.  So set yourself up high.  Keep your eyes on the big picture, and let your underlings handle all the day-to-day issues.  Make yourself unapproachable to any who want you to be involved in their lives on a personal and pastoral level.  They may resent you for it, but they will understand that what you do is critical to creating a church that is worth being a part of, and in the long run they will thank you for it.  Or they will move on to some other church that is dying for lack of vision because its leaders are consumed by the day-to-day demands of pastoral ministry.

I promised you that we would look at a couple of articles which express this point of view.  They are written by Carey Nieuwhof, lead pastor of Connexus Church in the Toronto, Canada area.  The first is called “8 Reasons Most Churches Never Break the 200 Attendance Mark“.  The overarching reason he gives for this is that most churches organize, behave, lead, and manage like small organizations and therefore do not have the organizational infrastructure in place to handle larger numbers of people.  He then goes on to enumerate eight specifics as to what this looks like.

He is absolutely right.  There is a lot of dysfunction out there in the world of small churches.  If you’ve ever sat through a business meeting at a Baptist church, you could probably tell some stories.  There is a lot of wisdom out there on the subject of how to run an organization well, and there is a lot that the church could stand to learn in this regard.

But here’s the rub:  Who said that the Church’s raison d’etre is to grow?  (Why use fancy French words?  Because I can.)  Who said that the whole point of doing this thing we call the Christian life is to grow the Church?  Who said that the goal of the Church is to build an organization with a vision and mission, and a strategy to accomplish said vision and mission?  Is that who we really are as the Church of Jesus Christ?  Is that what Jesus Christ came down to earth and died on a Roman cross in order to establish?  And even if it were, is it really the pastor’s job to be the point person for this effort?

Okay.  I get that pastoral care/ministry is a significant organizational challenge in any church of 10,000 or more.  With that many people, how could it not be?  Yet there are ways to overcome this challenge.  There are ways that any organization which is serious about pastoral care can make it a priority and carry it out.  For example, a church of 10,000 might break it down to groups of 200-500 or thereabouts, perhaps by area of town, and have one person on staff for each area of town whose responsibility is to provide pastoral care to all members in that area of town (if he/she lives in that area of town, so much the better).  The lead pastor would then provide pastoral care to everyone on staff.

But Nieuwhof doesn’t approach the issue of pastoral care from this standpoint, as an organizational challenge to be solved creatively.  He goes beyond this to a state of clear disdain for the very notion of pastoral care.  Reasons 1 and 8 take aim at pastors who make pastoral care/ministry a priority.  According to this article, churches don’t grow because:

–The pastor is the primary caregiver, and
–The pastor suffers from a desire to please everybody.

In other words, any pastor who makes pastoral care a priority does so because he thinks he has to do it all, and he thinks that way because he is concerned with pleasing people, not leading them.  Here it is, in his own words:

When the pastor has to visit every sick person, do every wedding, funeral and make regular house calls, he or she becomes incapable of doing other things. That model just doesn’t scale. If you’re good at it, you’ll grow the church to 200 people and then disappoint people when you can’t get to every event any more. Or you’ll just burn out. It creates false expectations and so many people get hurt in the process.

…Many pastors I know are people-pleasers by nature. Go see a counselor. Get on your knees. Do whatever you need to do to get over the fear of disappointing people. 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 many people either.

As if this disdain for pastoral care/ministry was not clear enough, Nieuwhof went on to write a follow-up article called “How Pastoral Care Stunts the Growth of Most Churches“.  More money quotes:

Many pastors I know are people-pleasers by nature…. 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.

…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?

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.

He then goes on to offer his own solution to the problem, which is what the vast majority of evangelical megachurches do:  Outsource pastoral care to the congregation.  Make small groups the venue in which pastoral care happens.  For the small percentage of people whose needs are too great to be dealt with in the group setting, that’s what trained professional counselors are for.

There has been a healthy discussion/critique of megachurch evangelicalism’s approach to pastoral care this past week over at, one of the blogs where I hang out regularly.  Chaplain Mike draws from his experience as a hospice chaplain and discusses how the Catholic church provides a blueprint for growing the church into a healthy and effective organization that makes a difference in the community while maintaining a robust theology of pastoral care/ministry and placing it at the center of everything.  (Heads up:  The pastor doesn’t do it all.)

The point being:  It is possible to have a healthy and effective church which is growing and making a difference in the community, while at the same time being intentional about pastoral care–not as an add-on or as something which happens by accident while the church is busy growing, but as the heart and soul of everything the church is and does.

Pastoral ministry is not something to be despised, to be pushed off to the side or outsourced to the congregation, which has no specific training for the tasks of pastoral ministry or commission from God to do the tasks of pastoral ministry.  It is not something to be allowed to happen by accident while we are busy with the real work of growing our churches.  Instead it is the very heart of who and what we are as the Church of Jesus Christ.  His charge to those who would become the first leaders of the early Church was “Feed my lambs”, not “Train my lambs to feed themselves”.

As noted above, there are significant organizational challenges to pastoral care in any large church.  But there are ways to make it happen.  We need to begin the conversation about how to make pastoral care happen, because until we do we are missing out on who and what we are as the Church of Jesus Christ.

American evangelicalism is ailing because we have forgotten who we are and whose we are.  We have allowed the interests and priorities of corporate America to define who we are as churches and as a movement.  We cannot afford to let the care and feeding of those for whom Christ died get lost in the business of growing the Church.  Let us learn from corporate America, yes.  There is a wealth of organizational wisdom to be gleaned out there.  But for heaven’s sake, don’t let corporate America tell us who we are as the Church and what our priorities ought to be.  Jesus Christ has already told us.