“I just don’t feel like the church cares about me.” This is hard to hear as a pastor, yet most of us have heard it. Sometimes we write it off as coming from an overly needy member who has unrealistic expectations of the pastor’s time. Sometimes, though, it’s a real problem.
The church has two offices: elders and deacons. Each local church should not only have these offices, but have them work together. However, too often elders and deacons don’t complement one another but instead contradict, overlap, or ignore one another altogether.
A measure of structure can help remedy this, but it has to foster caring relationships, not merely task-driven organization.
When I arrived at University Baptist Church in 2006, one of the first things that needed addressing was member care. The church had been through a very difficult season. There had been fractured relationships, broken trust, and a burden of financial debt. My desire in coming to a church in need of healing and reform was to first establish expository preaching and, eventually, a plurality of elders. I was content for this to take the first five years to complete, but the church was in need of care—now.
After meeting with the deacons several times, it was apparent that these men really wanted to be deacons. These were not elder wannabes or a baptized labor union. They were men longing to be led and organized to care for the church, so that’s what we did.
First, we divided up the church membership by households and assigned those households to the deacons. At the time, each deacon had about fifteen households to care for. In the early stages, we contacted all inactive members. This “family plan” helped us tremendously as we sought to reconnect with our members and, where necessary, remove from our rolls those who were unable or unwilling to reconnect.
Once the inactive members were all but removed, we focused care on the present members. Our deacons were tasked with a plan to contact their households via personal visits, phone calls, emails, and/or texts. After several relational hits and misses, we finally settled on a more balanced approach to entrusting the deacons primarily with families they had natural relationships with, some families they did not know at all, and at least one widow. This made caring for the members measurably more natural, though still daunting.
Once we established elders in the church, we implemented a second phase of care for the body, shepherding groups. These shepherding groups are led by an elder and consist of four or five deacons. Each deacon is responsible for ten or so families, therefore each shepherding group represents approximately 50-60 households.
Shepherding groups meet every 6 to 8 weeks for discipleship, family reports, and prayer. These reports alert the elders to practical needs. If there are deeper spiritual concerns, including potential discipline issues, the elder leading the group takes the concerns to the elder body at the next elders’ meeting.
This organization of care for our church has helped us meet the needs in our body, understand member concerns, and strengthen the relationship between elders and deacons. While we do not currently have deaconesses, if we moved in that direction, we would separate deacon tasks between those with household assignments and those with more administrative responsibilities. Out of prudence, only men would be assigned households.
There are many ways to organize ministry. We have found that this model of shepherding groups gives us the best chance of fulfilling the responsibilities and relationships necessary to the offices of deacon and elder in member care. It is just one way, be we have found it to be a very good way.
Mike Lumpkin is the pastor of University Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.