by Mark Frost and Rob McRay
How do we as shepherds care for a flock that is physically separated from us and each other? Traditionally we have used the regular assembly to determine who needs our attention. Meeting our flock face-to-face gives us an opportunity to listen to their concerns and even pick up nonverbal cues that help us assess their spiritual health. If someone is absent, we may make a phone call to uncover a deeper spiritual need or personal issue. But when we are no longer able to assemble, how do we know about the needs of the flock and how do we organize our resources to meet their needs? We may feel we are “flying blind” in these circumstances. Here are some suggestions:
Avoid Overload and Burnout
- Recognize your need for a spiritual care strategy that will protect you from leader burnout. Some churches simply take the church directory and divide the names up among the elders. This can impose a heavy burden on each elder, especially in a large church. After a valiant attempt and hours spent on the phone, the elder burns out, gives up, and feels enormous guilt. When that happens, no one receives shepherding care. Jethro’s advice to Moses to delegate responsibility (Exodus 18:13-26) is especially appropriate in these times.
- This is a good opportunity for leaders to stress to members that we need to look out for each other. If they don’t belong to some kind of small group (bible study group, Sunday School class, ministry team, prayer group, etc.), they cannot receive the kind of spiritual care they need. That was true before this crisis, and is even more true now.
Identify and Contact Those Most Vulnerable
- Begin by doing a congregational triage. Go through the membership roll and identify people who are most likely to need special care. Use ministers, class teachers, and small group leaders to help with this process. Try to whittle your list down to 10-20% of your congregation, especially in larger churches. Some categories might include:
- The elderly, especially those who do not have family living nearby
- Members in nursing homes or long-term care facilities
- People who have had challenges in making it to church assemblies in the past
- Single adults living alone
- People who have recently been through traumatic life events: death of a spouse, divorce, serious illness, etc.
- Those who have lost jobs due to the pandemic
- People known to be struggling with depression and/or anxiety (see the article on Emotional/Psychological Support)
- Determine who will make contact with those on your list. Those designated may include shepherds, ministry staff, or other spiritually mature members who have a relationship with the individual. DO NOT overload elders and staff with too many of these people. Where possible, find others who can make contact with them. Elders and ministers will have a heavy-enough load in this challenging season.
Create a Structure for Connecting the Members
- For the majority of the congregation, use existing small group, class, or ministry structures where possible. For example, if your church is already organized to care for needs through small groups, group leaders may already be functioning as shepherds to their groups. Your youth ministry and/or children’s ministry may have a contact structure for parents. Utilizing pre-existing structures will leverage active relationships that are vital to the church family.
- Make a list of existing sub-groups in the congregation: committees, ministry teams, fellowship groups, adult Bible classes, home groups, sports teams, task forces, etc.
- Recruit and organize the leaders of these sub-groups who can be responsible for keeping in contact with members in their groups. If an existing group has more than 10-20 members (a large adult Bible class, for instance), divide it into groups of no more than 10-15 with a capable member designated to keep in contact with those members.
- Identify those who are not in any of the above sub-groups and divide them into groups of manageable size. Recruit capable men and women to contact them.
- Communicate clear, realistic expectations to all these group leaders. Examples might be:
- Make initial contact with each person on your list within one week.
- Keep the conversation brief unless there is an obvious need for deeper conversation.
- Ask the following questions:
- How are you coping with the challenges of our current social isolation?
- Are you or any of your family sick with COVID-19 (or other illnesses)?
- Are you facing any financial needs because of the crisis?
- Do you personally know anyone with COVID-19 or related need that our church can help?
- Have you participated in any of our online worship and Bible study opportunities and, if so, what opportunities have been most meaningful to you?
- How can I/we be praying for you and yours? (End with a short prayer.)
- Determine a rhythm for continued contact with each person. Some may need just a quick check-in phone call every week or two. Others may need more frequent contact. Suggest that groups connect by Zoom, perhaps weekly or monthly.
- Encourage group members to stay in touch with each other (this doesn’t all have to fall on the group leaders).
- As you identify deeper needs (physical or financial needs, illnesses, faith issues), pass along the information to the shepherds or the ministry staff.
- Affirm these group leaders—tell them you believe they are spiritually mature and gifted for this task. Ask them to commit to the above expectations. Pray with them.
- Determine which elders will be in touch with which group leaders (keep the number manageable—10 or less, if possible). Determine how often you will be in contact (by phone or email) with group leaders for feedback, encouragement, and prayer.
God has entrusted the care of his people to you—his chosen shepherds. It is a huge responsibility. But done wisely and with the right kind of support and participation, pastoral care will be of significant benefit to your people and your congregation as a whole.