Life together in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeWe’ve previously seen how the Bible describes pastoral care in growth groups as being under God, leading God’s people, by the word of God’s grace, into eternity with God. Pastoral ministry looks back to the Good Shepherd dying for his sheep and looks forward to the return of the Great Shepherd who will gather his sheep for eternity. These are the trig points that give us bearings for caring for one another. Pastoral care should be shaped by teaching and modelling God’s word of grace, and by prayerfully depending on the power of God’s Spirit to change people’s hearts and minds. These are the priorities of the one true Shepherd, God himself, and they should shape the priorities of our churches and growth groups.

Family relationships

As we seek to live out God’s word of grace in our lives this will profoundly impact how we live with one another as God’s people. We’ve been called into God’s family as his adopted children. We’re now united with brothers and sisters in Christ having the same Spirit who unites us to each other.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4:3-6)

When we gather in our growth groups we get to share in a small family gathering. We catch up with each other, hear what our Father has to say, we’re reminded of the awesome work of our Father’s number one Son, and we attend to family business together. We also hear what’s been going on in each other’s lives, seek to encourage and spur each other on, celebrate family joys and share in family worries and sorrows, and we bring our requests and offer thanks to our heavenly Father.

Families exist even when they’re not together. This means our growth groups have opportunity to express our relationships in Christ throughout the week in other ways. Obviously, we see each other at church. This is a natural place to catch up and connect. It’s worth thinking about what you can follow-up from your group meetings at church, and vice versa. It helps to build relationships by connecting with one another over meals, coffees, and doing social things together. If you have space in your calendar, there is great value in catching up with different members of the group on a rotational basis. It’s amazing how much better people know one another simply by spending time chatting over dinner every now and then.

One way of turbo-charging relational connections in your groups is to spend time away as a group. A weekend away at a holiday house will often be worth a year of weekly meetings in getting people comfortable with one another, and deeper into each other’s live. Meals together on a weekly or monthly basis, occasional social nights, prayer and testimony evenings are all ways of strengthening the bonds between the brothers and sisters in your group.

Some families are big on remembering special events. Perhaps you could create a calendar for your group and celebrate each person’s birthday, wedding anniversary, or other significant special occasion. Discover each person’s favourite cake or special ice-cream or whatever as a way of showing you care.

The Apostle Paul provides a model of family-type pastoral care in the way he went about his ministry to others. He taught, dialogued and reasoned from the Scriptures with the people he served. But he also invested his life into them. He used words and life to communicate with integrity the life-changing message of Christ. Take a look at the family language in these words he wrote to the Thessalonian Christians:

7 Just as a nursing mother cares for her childrenso we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. 13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.

17 But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.  (1 Thessalonians 2:7-13, 17-20)

Whether you are a leader or a group member, we have the opportunity to invest in each other’s lives. As Paul worked night and day for his ‘growth group’, it won’t hurt us to put ourselves out for each other, to go the extra mile. Let’s seek to put each other’s needs before our own. What can you do that would make a practical difference in the lives of one or two of your brothers and sisters?

Well functioning families spend time doing things together. Dysfunctional families sometimes pass like ships in the night and grow apart in the process. I understand how busy we all are, and it might be that your relational ‘dance card’ already seems very full, but it will make a big difference to others, especially those who are new to your church or group, if you spend time together. Do you share similar interests? Maybe you work in a similar area, department or business. If you are going bike riding, catching a movie, having a night at the pub, inviting friends around for a barbecue, going for a Saturday site-seeing trip, playing touch footy, scrap-booking, joining a gym, hanging out in a cafe after church, heading to a sporting event or concert, or whatever else you’re into, then why not think about inviting others from your group?

Encouragement

If we care deeply for our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we will want them to share eternity with us. We’ll want them to run the race, to keep trusting in Christ, and to reach the finishing line rejoicing in their Saviour. If you’ve ever run cross-country, long distances, or even marathons, then you will appreciate the importance of support from others. Sometimes it’s the spectators who’ve made the effort to get alongside the track and cheer you along. Sometimes it’s your fellow runners who encourage you. It’s so helpful to have a running buddy who keeps pace with you, urges you up the hills, or sticks with you when you hit the wall. It’s tough trying do it all on your own.

God wants us to be there for each other. As we run the race, we shouldn’t have to do it alone. We’re urged to keep up with one another often. We need each other: the support, the encouragement, the help along the way. The Christian life is tough and there are so many obstacles and difficult times that we need to spur each other on. The writer to the Hebrews is focused on Christians making it all the way to the end, remaining reliant on the grace of God in the gospel, and keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. In the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he urges his readers:

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  (Hebrews 10:23-25)

We are urged to consider how – to think in advance – about how we can keep each other living and growing as followers of Jesus. This begins at home before we gather in our groups and at church. Who will be there tonight? What’s going on in their lives? What was it we prayed for them last week? I must remember to ask them about it. (Hint: it helps to keep your own prayer diary, jot notes, pray during the week, and follow up with people.) I wonder how they are getting along with their boss who’s been giving them a hard time? Have they had an opportunity to share what they believe with their class mates? Speak with them about what you’ve been praying, ask for other things to pray, show a spiritual interest in one another. Time to stop cruising. If the best we do every time we meet is discuss the footy, grumble about work, and engage in small talk, then we are missing out on wonderful opportunities to love one another.

You might notice that some people in your group are struggling. Perhaps some have doubts, others are being tested by their unbelieving families, some are battling the weariness of chronic illness and rarely get to the group. How can you encourage and spur on these brothers and sisters? You could commit this to prayer, make regular personal contact, put your mind to ways that you could be helpful. Each member of the group can do this sort of thing. You don’t have to be the leader to be an encouragement to others. Anyone can and should do it. The love and support of group members shows the family of God functioning well.

Care in a crisis

A crisis in someone’s life is an opportunity for the group to show love to their brother or sister. There is no end to the types of crises that happen to people. Here are a few crises we’ve experienced in our groups…

  • someone losing their job
  • unrealistic workload expectations placing massive strain on health, family, or involvement in church
  • bullying at work
  • a serious illness to a group member or someone in their family
  • child acting out or refusing to go to school
  • injuries in a car accident
  • difficulties associated with pregnancy
  • sleep deprivation following the birth of a child
  • difficulties associated with pregnancy
  • serious doubts over the Christian faith
  • relationship troubles such as a broken engagement or marriage
  • extended family putting pressure to turn from faith in Jesus

There are many more issues and I expect you could continue this list. These sorts of crises test families. They need to rally together, assess their resources, change the way they function, take on new responsibilities, and sometimes seek external support or expertise. It’s very similar for a growth group. A crisis is an opportunity time for the group. They can step up a gear, plan how to collectively offer care, pray together, and offer genuine practical help.

We’ve seen some groups do this very well. One time when my wife was bed-ridden with a difficult pregnancy our group arranged shopping, baby-sitting, cooperated in leading studies and took other initiatives that helped our family. Another group had a member hospitalised following a heart attack and the group helped with visits, practical help, and set up a buddy exercise program and roster. Couples with babies often appreciate the support of meals in the first few weeks. Sometimes people have paired-up to read the Bible, pray, and talk through issues with another person. My experience is that our groups often rise well to a crisis.

However, sometimes the needs of a person are beyond the capacity of the group to cope on their own. They may require more people to be involved due to the magnitude of the problem. They might need greater expertise than they have in their group. A marriage break-up, legal issues, psychiatric illness, or domestic abuse are the types of matters that require the involvement of other qualified people.

We recommend sharing these needs with an appropriate person in the church. Maybe you could raise matters with your growth group mentor or coach, a pastor on the church staff, or a specialist pastoral care team, depending on whom you have in your church. These matters will often need to be referred to people beyond the congregation. At this point the role of the group should be to provide support, love, prayer, and care for the person/s rather than seeing itself as responsible to provide the specialised help needed. They might have further tough times ahead, so your care will be very significant.

Care when it’s chronic

Not all significant needs remain crises. Sometimes the matters are ongoing for weeks, months, or years. There are real and often painful issues that simply don’t go away. Again, growth groups have the opportunity to provide ongoing loving care for these people or families that can make the world of difference. These are some examples of chronic care needs that we have experienced in our groups…

  • ongoing depression or mental illness
  • psychiatric disorders
  • chronic back pain or other physical illness
  • physical or mental disabilities, such as cerebral palsy or downs syndrome
  • families members who have chronic needs, especially children or ageing parents
  • chronic fatigue, long-term insomnia
  • eating disorders
  • bereavement, especially the loss of a spouse or child
  • prolonged unemployment
  • ongoing legal battles

Once again there are many more expressions of chronic difficulties facing the members of our groups and families. The love and care of growth groups is so valuable. Often these people become irregular, occasional, or non-attending members of our groups. Don’t forget them or give up on them. Stay in touch. You can call, visit, write, help out in practical ways. It can help for the group to coordinate its efforts. Find out what you can pray for them each week, ask in advance and follow it up afterwards. Remember them when the group does things that are different, especially if they weren’t at the group to find out. Make sure they hear about the special social night or weekend away. Let them know the news of the group: who had the baby, who is heading on a short-term mission trip, who’s friend has become a Christian, who won the netball grand final, and so on.

Maybe there are people in the church with ongoing chronic needs whom you could adopt as partners to your group. Ask your pastor or pastoral care team who might appreciate you connecting with them. Again, you can go the extra mile with these people. Maybe they’re shut in through illness and would love visitors, or to be taken out now and again. Perhaps, someone would love you to visit, read the Scriptures, pray and talk with them now and again. We adopt missionaries into our groups, so why not do something similar with those in need who can’t actually make it to groups. You know, there might even be people who’ve been burned by groups in the past, who through your love and kindness find their way back into a growth group where they experience the love of Jesus in practice.

As with those experiencing crises, some of these chronic needs will involve the wider church community or the specialised help of people outside the church. This is important.  As groups and individuals we need to recognise our limitations. Our role is to provide the ongoing relational love and support throughout their journey.

One particular issue to consider, is how these people are affected by holidays and the changes that happen with our groups from year to year. If a group stops meeting or disbands, don’t forget the people you’ve been caring for who haven’t been making it along. Talk together as a group about whether you continue to offer group support during breaks, whether individuals maintain support when a group disbands, or whether you need to discuss this with a pastor or coordinator.

Growth groups, not therapy groups

Our growth groups are primarily about growing followers of Jesus. This has an eternal focus anchored in the present. It is very easily to allow the immediate, obvious, pressing needs of people to overshadow their eternal needs. Jesus understood this pressure and temptation as he was confronted daily by suffering, struggling, needy individuals. He often chose to relieve people’s suffering and to care for them in practical ways. His compassion was unsurpassed.

However, Jesus came on a bigger mission than emptying hospitals. He came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God and how people could experience healing of their sins for eternity. We see Jesus alignment with these priorities throughout the gospels.

32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all who were ill and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’

38 Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’  (Mark 1:32-38)

Jesus chose to leave the pressing needs of people in one town, firstly to spend time praying, and secondly to go elsewhere to proclaim the eternal message of hope for all who turn to God. He came to seek and to save people who were truly lost. He came to call people into his kingdom. He placed the eternal needs of people over, but not to the exclusion, of their earthly needs. We see this distinction in the incident when some mates bring a paralysed man to Jesus to be healed.

Some men came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralysed man, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, take your mat and walk”? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the man, 11 ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

I assume that the forgiveness of this man’s sins were far from the thinking of the four mates. They had seen or heard about Jesus healing serious illnesses and disabilities, so they did all they could to see their friend get a piece of the action. How surprised they must have been when Jesus simply forgave his sins. Yes, Jesus forgave sins and then healed the man, but don’t forget one action lasted for eternity and the other only a few years. Forgiveness is the only gateway to healing that lasts for all time.

It can be easy to be dominated by people’s crisis and chronic concerns. We can even build a culture where needs becomes the way to get each other’s or the leader’s time and attention. This is not healthy. Let’s not lose the ministry of the word and prayer. And let’s invest in building leaders and the capacity of our group to serve and care for one another, as this will result in people’s temporal and eternal needs getting the love and support they need. Let’s keep God’s perspective in our growth groups.

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.

Going the distance

goingthedistanceGoing the distance: How to stay fit for a lifetime of ministry by Peter Brain is an important book for people in pastoral ministry. We should probably read it more than once! I read it years ago, when it was first published. It inspired me to make significant changes to my life and ministry and to encourage others to do the same. I remember inviting Peter to visit Canberra and lead 50 or more local ministers through his. We all found this time very confronting and useful. However, I also need to confess that some things need to be learned over and over. I’ve read this book for a second time over the past couple of days and I’ve kept finding areas where I’ve dropped the ball. Repeated mistakes that I should have dealt with. And fresh ideas to share with others.

Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that much of the encouragement to self-care, aimed at me as a pastor, is equally relevant to self-care for me as a cancer patient! Keeping fit, getting enough sleep, not feeding the adrenaline-stress cycle, investing in my family and friendships, taking time out, working well and relaxing equally well, spending time in God’s word and prayer, recognising the factors that lead to depression, enjoying a healthy sexual relationship with my wife, making holidays count, being willing to say ‘no’ so that my ‘yes’ means more, relying on God’s strength. These things are relevant for all people, not simply for pastors. But the problems come when pastors, like myself, assume that we are larger than life! When we think we can function differently to every one else. When we ignore the warning signs, we will eventually crash.

This book is a helpful road map for guiding us to avoid the pitfalls and dangers and disasters that will come our way, especially (but not exclusively) in pastoral ministry. If our lives are especially busy and draining, and if they revolve around caring for people, then we need to take these warnings seriously. Especially if we think we’re indispensable, or worse still, if we function as though we’re the Messiah, that no one can do without, then we’re in serious danger. Overall, this is a very good road map. It’s worth consulting many times on the journey. It’s worth spending time with others, looking at it together, and planning what steps to take next.

This book draws heavily on the work of one of Peter Brain’s teachers, Dr Arch Hart from Fuller Theological Seminary in the US. Hart has written a number of influential books, including Adrenaline and Stress and Coping with Depression in the Ministry and other Helping Professions. I remember my mother sending me Hart’s book on stress very early in my ministry, but I was too busy to read it! (I’m only semi-joking.) I put it aside, along with so many other helpful resources, because I didn’t have any problems and there were too many pressing things to be done. And there’s the problem! Straight and simple. We too often put off what’s important and replace it with the urgent. Eventually we can’t cope with the urgent or the important and we’ve become casualties of burnout.

Various statistics relating to the burnout of pastors are quoted in this book. It doesn’t matter whose stats we read, they’re always alarmingly high. Too many casualties. Too many avoidable tragedies. I can testify to having felt burnt out a number of times throughout my ministry. On one occasion a few years back, numerous people were asking me to consider a different ministry role, but I couldn’t even consider it because I knew at that time I’d have nothing to offer. It was then that I realised some things badly needed to change, and we took long service leave to recharge and try to sort them out.

Peter argues that the signs of burnout can be either friend or foe. It all depends on what response we make to the signs. If we ignore them, we’re headed for serious trouble. If we see the symptoms, and recognise them for what they are, then there’s real hope ahead. We have the opportunity to realign, take some better paths, and push on. I believe this experience will probably happen many times throughout a pastor’s ministry. Each time we should embrace it early, as an opportunity for change and growth.

If you’re involved in pastoral ministry or a ‘people-focused helping-profession’ of some sort, then I recommend you read and keep referring to this book. If you’ve never read it and you suspect that you may be at risk of crashing, then please get hold of a copy and read it. But also speak with someone you trust about your situation and how you’re feeling. This is a good book to read with some friends or colleagues. You can share what you learn, talk it through practically, relate it to your own situations, and agree to support and pray for each other. It will be worth the encroachment into your busy life. I promise!

Time for some self-care. I’m off to bed. 🙂

When crisis changes to chronic

It began with a crisis. Taken to hospital, rushed through Emergency, hooked up to an ECG machine, off for x-rays, back for a CT scan, a massive fluid build up around the lung… looked like there could be a tumour. A whirlwind of people, activity and emotion. Within hours people were visiting, offering help, gathering to pray, preparing meals, picking up cars, contacting children. Within days I’d become the centre of attention, everywhere, it seemed! It was confirmed that I had cancer and the prospects didn’t look good. So many people from so many places turned up to see me. The nurses complained that there were too many people. Letters, cards, Facebook greetings, emails, came in from all over. Meals kept turning up at the right times. A small army of people unpacked our belongings and refurnished our house. Fifteen hundred students gathered in small groups at a conference to pray for me! It was intense! It was life and death in our faces every day.

I’ve seen our family cope pretty well with a crisis. We’ve had a few now! We made some very big decisions very quickly. We put new plans into place. We made the adjustments. We had the tough conversations without too many problems. We just did what we had to… and coped. We enjoyed the support from others. We were conscious of God’s strength and comfort and we prayed a lot.

But…

Things have changed. The pace has slowed. The crisis has gone and left us with the chronic. It’s become three weekly by three weekly, rather than day by day. Life is now shaped by chemo cycles. One week sick, two weeks better. One week sick, two weeks better. On and on. It’s exhausting and we don’t seem to be achieving much else in life. Sometimes we feel like we’re just drifting with the current or stuck in a rut going nowhere. It’s not so much action that’s needed now, but patience and perseverance and gentleness and self-control. And that seems so much harder. It doesn’t come naturally. We absolutely need the help of God’s Spirit.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.  (Galatians 5:22-23)

In many ways the excitement of the crisis has given way to the mundane of the chronic. The daily grind is hard work. Perhaps, even more challenging than the mountain climb. In the crisis I think to pray. In the chronic I’m more tempted to forget. Gratitude easily gets replaced with grumbling. Matters of eternity give way to matters of trivia. Urgency steps aside for complacency. I can forget to number my days and begin again to take for granted my months or even years. Oh, how slow to learn I can be!

I think it’s harder for others also. Initially, people were making every effort to visit, bending over backwards to offer support… as we tend to do in a crisis. But as time goes on it’s harder to sustain the effort. Life fills up, another crisis gets in the way, we have our own lives to look after. We forget to drop in, make the call, check up on each other, see if there is anything we can do.

To be honest, it can be rather lonely having a chronic illness. You feel just as sick and powerless and needy, but you’re pretty much left to manage on your own. There’ve been times when I’ve felt disappointed in people. Why haven’t they called? It wouldn’t be too hard to drop in. It’d be awesome if they’d just ask Fiona if there’s anything they could do to help. I long to hear what’s going on in people’s lives. I’m interested in knowing about work or family or the latest sporting achievement. I’d love to have people offer to come and pray with me, or read the Bible and talk about stuff. Hey, I’d even be up for a regular game of real Scrabble! Even a quick phone call just to say they’re thinking of me!

I shouldn’t whinge. Fiona tells me I shouldn’t write posts when I’m feeling revolting from chemo and she’s probably right! I have so much to be thankful for and I keep being overwhelmed by how many people tell me they’re praying for me. But, I’m trying to be honest and I’m learning lots about myself as well. As I reflect on many years of pastoral ministry, I don’t think I had begun to appreciate what it was like for some people struggling with chronic issues. People with physical or mental disabilities, people with CFS unable to get out of bed for much of the day, women with debilitating pregnancies, people without transport or living in nursing homes. I had so many opportunities to be an encouragement to others that I simply overlooked. As a pastor, I was always up for putting on my superman cape and dealing with a crisis… but the chronic was often forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind perhaps.

Jesus is the Pastor Supremo. He came to overcome our alienation from God, which is the biggest crisis we will ever face. He did so at enormous personal cost, sacrificing his life on the cross to bring us reconciliation. But we also see Jesus caring for those with chronic disabilities, people who are outcasts and isolated from others. He was willing to hang with lepers, prostitutes, tax cheats, and those despised by the religious leaders of his day. Jesus had a pastoral heart that didn’t overlook the needy and he called those who follow him to have the same attitude.

12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  (Luke14:12-14)

Here’s a thought. Next time you think of putting on a BBQ, think about people you know who might rarely get invited out. Are there lonely people at work or church who’d love an invitation? Perhaps, there’s someone who’s not well and you can make a special effort to include them. Maybe even offer to take the BBQ to their place if that’d make it easier!

On another occasion Jesus told a parable to describe those who belong to him and those who don’t. They’re challenging words.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’  (Matthew 25:34-40)

The mention of brothers and sisters shows that Jesus especially has in mind the way Christians are called to treat each other. If we’re part of the same family, then we’re called to love our siblings. There’s a lesson here for those of us in churches to care for one another in our times of need. It should never be out of sight out of mind. But, I wouldn’t be too quick to say this stops with how Christians should treat each other. We’re called to do good to all, as we have opportunity. Do you know someone needing a place to stay? Is there neighbour down the street who never gets visitors? Is there someone at work going through a difficult divorce? Is there old friend with CFS who’s been doing it tough for so long that they’re embarrassed to even mention it? Do you know a single mum who never gets any time to herself? Would a friend appreciate you doing some shopping, spending time in the garden, running a few errands, taking the kids for a while? Is there someone you should get onto right away, just to check they’re doing okay?

How can you make a difference?