Pastoral care in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeHaving been professionally trained as a social worker, I made the assumption for many years that pastoral care was the term for social work in the church. It was about visiting the sick, providing for the poor, counselling the messed up, befriending the lonely, caring for the needy, and helping people with their problems. This was the stuff pastors should do. Preachers preached, but pastors took care of people’s social, relational, physical, emotional (and sometimes spiritual) needs. That’s what I thought and, to be honest, I think most Christians I knew would have agreed with me. The trouble was that I’d never examined the Scriptures on the topic. We need to look at God’s definition of pastoral care, and allow his Word to shape our pastoral priorities.

As we consider the role of growth groups in the life of a church, we’ve identified pastoral care as a priority for groups. But what does this mean? What expectations should we have of the groups and their leaders? What will it look like for a group to take pastoral care seriously? Well, we need to be clear on how the Bible describes pastoral care. Pastoral care in the church and growth groups must be shaped by God’s plans as revealed in the Bible. What is the emphasis of pastoral care in the Bible?

God – the Shepherd

The word pastor comes from Latin word for shepherdPastoral ministry is the ministry of shepherding God’s people. It’s a leadership picture that uses the image of the shepherd to describe the roles and responsibilities of those who lead God’s people. It’s an idea that starts with God himself. God is the Shepherd and he leads his sheep where he wants them to go. Arguably the most famous description of this comes from Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.

In this Psalm the Shepherd leads, guides, feeds, comforts and protects his sheep. The Shepherd ensures the eternal security of his sheep.

The image of the shepherd is also applied to Israel’s leaders. They are to lead, guide, feed, comfort and protect the people by teaching and living out the Word of God among them. They fail dismally on this front. Instead of watching over the sheep, they feed on the sheep and destroy them. God holds the leaders accountable for this, and declares that he, himself, will replace these oppressive shepherds. God will act to save his sheep and provide for them.

7  Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. 11 For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.  (Ezekiel 34:7-11)

God specifically promised to send one special shepherd. This new shepherd will be the Messiah in the line of David and he will rule over and care for God’s people.

23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.  (Ezekiel 34:23-24)

This remains the hope for God’s people throughout the Old Testament, and it’s not until the New Testament that we meet the one promised by God.

The Good Shepherd

Jesus fulfils God’s promises made through Ezekiel. He is the Davidic Messiah, the Good Shepherd who will rescue the sheep. He will not only gather in the lost sheep of Israel, but also people from all nations and he will unite them together under him. The amazing thing about this Shepherd is that instead of slaughtering the sheep, as Israel’s leaders had been doing, he allows himself to be slaughtered in their place. To mix the metaphors, the shepherd becomes the sacrificial lamb.

14 ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 

God’s plan in saving and caring for his sheep extends from Jesus to others who will lead under Jesus’ authority. Jesus as shepherd remains the model to follow.

Shepherds/pastors

The book of Acts introduces us to the beginnings of Christian pastoral ministry. As the gospel spreads and churches begin to grow, leaders are put in place to oversee the congregations. The Apostle Paul spent three years pastoring the church in Ephesus, and he uses the image of the shepherd/pastor when encouraging the Ephesian elders to continue his work. The church is precious to God. It’s purchased with his blood. It belongs to him. Pastoral care of God’s own flock is very important. Knowing this, Paul urges the Ephesian elders to teach God’s word of grace, so as to see the church growing into maturity, standing firm against false teaching, and persevering into eternity. This is to be their pastoral care. Paul had devoted himself to this responsibility and he now calls the elders to do likewise.

28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. 32 ‘Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

With the spread of the gospel and the establishment of churches, people are regularly being equipped and appointed to oversee and care for these congregations. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are particularly helpful in understanding pastoral ministry. In fact, they are often described as the pastoral letters. Paul is looking to the future, raising up leaders, shaping their priorities, emphasising both life and doctrine, character and teaching. He is working to ensure that the gospel remains central to the life of the church. It’s worth taking the time to read these three letters very carefully in order to understand pastoral priorities.

The Apostle Peter also encourages pastoral care in the churches. He is concerned about the heart of the pastor/shepherd and calls his fellow elders to allow the gospel to shape their attitude to ministry. They are to be willing, generous, and eager servants as they exercise pastoral ministry among the flock, all the while looking forward to the return of the Chief Shepherd, the true Senior Pastor, Jesus Christ.

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.  (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Pastoral care

From this brief overview of shepherd/pastor ideas in the Bible we can distil some important ideas.

  1. God is the ultimate shepherd/pastor who promises to lead people into eternity with him.
  2. Jesus is God’s appointed shepherd/pastor who gives his life to bring people into relationship with God.
  3. Shepherd/pastors lead others by gospel-shaped teaching and modelling the application of God’s word of grace in their lives.
  4. Therefore, the goal of pastoral care is: under God, to lead God’s people, by the word of God’s grace, into eternity with God.

I suspect this is probably not the way we would have described pastoral care. It sounds more like a ministry of evangelism, teaching, discipleship and encouragement. And yes, it is. This is what flows from the pastoral heart of God. What God is doing in our world isn’t limited to the next ten, twenty or even seventy or eighty years. God is gathering his people for all eternity. He’s keen to see them secure in his grace in this life, so that they will enjoy his full blessing in the next. As Newton wrote in Amazing Grace: ’twas grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home and when we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun. Pastoral care is a ministry of God’s grace for a few years, focused on people enjoying God’s grace for a zillion years. This is the perspective we must carry.

In growth groups

If growth group leaders are to exercise pastoral care among the members of their groups, and if the people in our groups are to pastorally care for one another, then they will need to look backwards and forwards. Backwards to the saving grace of God in the Good Shepherd laying down his life for the sheep. Forwards to the Chief Shepherd returning to usher his people into glory. These are the trig points that give us bearings for our pastoral care.

The leader will be concerned first and foremost that every member of the group has become a member of God’s flock. Is each person in our group a Christian? Are they trusting in God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus? Are they submitting to Jesus as the one who rules and directs their lives? If someone is not a Christian, then the most caring pastoral thing we can do for them is to help them to understand and respond to the gospel. This will likely mean praying for them, catching up with people one to one, reading and discussing the gospel together. There might be questions and doubts to resolve. If there are a number of people in the group who aren’t Christians, then perhaps the whole group might focus on these matters together.

Leaders, do we know where people are at? Have we taken time to get to know people, to understand what they believe, where they’re coming from, what they’re living for, what they’re trusting in? Maybe it’s time for some quiet conversations. This is the starting point for pastoral care.

The leader will desire to see each member of the group becoming more and more like the Chief Shepherd. Bible study will be central to this, as we seek to nourish and strengthen the members of our group in the grace of God. Not Bible study so as to know about the Bible, or even to know about God. We will examine God’s Word together, so as to get to know God himself. We want people growing together into maturity. This isn’t measured by how many theological books we’ve read or the Bible verses we’ve memorised. It’s not how much we know, but how we respond to what we know. It’s about being gripped by God’s grace and letting it shape our thinking and speech and behaviour. It’s about the wonder of the gospel freeing us to walk in God’s ways by the power of his Spirit. It’s about not being tossed around by false ideas. It means not being lured away from God by the idols of this world. It’s seen in patiently keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and the things of eternity. This is what pastoral care is about.

Pastoral care will involve praying. We can’t bring about spiritual change. That’s the work of God’s Spirit. We need God to bring about deep inner transformation, and therefore we pray. We are weak and so we pray for God’s strength. God’s strength to persevere through trials and difficulty. God’s strength to stand firm against temptations. God’s strength to remain faithful in the face of persecution. God’s strength to work through our fears and doubts and struggles and selfishness. God’s strength to run the race to the end. And so we pray.

Pastoral care is gospel-shaped. It’s Bible-nourished. It’s prayer-dependent. This is God’s idea of pastoral care. We are seeking to grow leaders who will care pastorally for the people in their groups and encourage their groups to develop relationships where people care pastorally for one another. Please encourage the members of your group to become pastoral carers.

But I’m sure you are left with a few questions…

So what about things like visiting the sick, counselling, offering hospitality, providing practical helps, supporting couples or parents, caring for the elderly and orphans and widows? Aren’t we called to carry each others burdens? Isn’t this still pastoral care? Shouldn’t we be focusing on these things? Aren’t we expecting our growth groups to provide ‘practical’ care to one another?

This is the topic of another paper: Life together in growth groups.

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