How Pastoral Care Stunts the Growth of Most Churches

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 fulfillment: 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?

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.

Group 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 70, 12, 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 them and I have made the transition.

As a result, here’s what I’ve come to believe about pastoral care: 98 percent of pastoral care is having someone who cares. It doesn’t have to be the pastor.

Two percent 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 counselors are for. The tool kit of a trained Christian counselor is deeper and better than the counseling 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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Carey Nieuwhof
Speaker and podcaster Carey Nieuwhof is a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church, one of the largest and most influential churches in Canada. With over 6 million downloads, The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast features today's top leaders and cultural influencers. His most recent book is “Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.” Carey and his wife, Toni, reside near Barrie, Ontario and have two children.