Mailbag #38: How to Shepherd Every Member; Shepherding by the “Parish Model”; What’s the “Church” in Matthew 18?

Mailbag
05.20.2016

How can the elders of a large church ensure every member is both known and cared for? »
We’d like to divide our church members by families and individuals and then designate them to a particular elder. What do you think of this approach?»
In Matthew 18, what does Jesus mean when he says “tell it to the church”? »

Dear 9Marks,

How do the Capitol Hill Baptist Church elders practice congregational care? Do you divide up the entire membership, with each elder responsible for caring for a specific number of members? Do you divide up the membership by geographic location or in some other way?

I’m specifically interested in how the CHBC elders ensure each and every member is being cared for and is accounted for by the elders, especially in such a large church with a large elder board.
—Matt

Dear Matt,

Great question. No, we don’t formally divide up the flock, whether alphabetically, geographically, or otherwise. All 25 elders are formally responsible for all 950 or so members. But I know healthy churches that do make such divisions among their elders, and it seems to work fine.

We prefer to keep things more “organic,” knowing that certain members will naturally gravitate to certain elders, and others to other elders. And so we have been reluctant to impose an artificial constraint on this process. But again, the elders of sister churches of ours in the DC area do divide up their membership lists, and sometimes I wonder if we might benefit from doing something similar.

I’ll shoot straight with you: I don’t know about the rest of my fellow elders, but I primarily initiate with people who live inside my suburban Maryland county. I assume that, if you live within 10 miles of me, it will be easier for you and me to find time for a meal or a coffee or the whole host of things that come with living life together. Now, if a guy who lives on the other side of the DC metropolis (in Virginia, say) initiates with me, there’s a decent chance I’ll reciprocate. But in the scarcity of time, I have simply chosen to generally prioritize people who live closer to me. No doubt, having 25 elders—some of whom live in Virginia—gives me that luxury!

Bottom line: I do think there is freedom for how you might divide up the flock, and you need to figure out what will work best for your elders. (But see the cautions I offer in the Mailbag question immediately below.)

How, then, do our elders ensure all 950 or so sheep are cared for? A few ways:

  • We work and pray name by name through the church directory over the course of a year in our elder meetings, averaging 30 to 50 names per meeting. Before a meeting we email everyone on the list and ask for prayer requests. If someone cannot be accounted for, an elder will be assigned to pursue it. Whether or not you divide up your membership list, I would encourage you to adopt a similar practice.
  • We have one service that meets in one site. You wouldn’t believe how much easier it becomes to notice who is and is not present, even when there is over 1000 people in the room. We also stand at the doors after the service so we can greet who comes and goes.
  • Perhaps most importantly, we regularly encourage our members to recognize their responsibility for one another. If someone has not attended in a while, hopefully the members are “on it” well before we are.

There are a few other things we as elders do to make sure sheep are inside the pen, but let me say this: we don’t understand ourselves to be responsible for personally discipling all of the sheep. I personally disciple my half dozen or dozen, and I assume the other elders do the same. But I cannot disciple forty or fifty people, which would be my share of the flock by percentage breakdown. Our work is to equip the saints to disciple each other. Beyond that, a decent share of an elder’s time should be spent pursuing the one who has wandered off from the 99. Don’t think you must divide your time equally.

I assume our elders could grow in doing all this better. The goal is always “keep watch over all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). He doesn’t say “some” of the flock or even “most” of the flock, but “all” the flock. I pray that both you and I would heed these words.

Dear 9Marks,

We would like to divide up our church members by families and individuals and assign those families and individuals to a designated elder. We hope this will fill the need for shepherding and care for each family. We will also be initiating a deacon ministry to help the elders care for our partners. Ultimately, we would like the majority of our small groups to be led by deacons. That way we can have an elder leading three or four deacons who lead groups.

Do you know of any other church that has been successful with this kind of structure? Or are there any resources out there about this kind of structure?

—Tim, Georgia

Dear Tim,

I deliberately placed this question after the previous one, and will assume you read my answer above so that I don’t have to repeat myself. Bottom line from there: I think you are free to divide the church up by elders; I often call this the “parish model,” for short. However . . .

I would recommend you keep the divisions and structures fluid. Some people might naturally do better with one elder or another, and I cannot think of a biblical reason to prevent a church member from appealing to an elder of his or her choice. Plus, you want to guard against people over-identifying with one elder over another: “I’m of Joe” versus “I’m of Frank.” No, we’re one body.

One error of the infamous Shepherding Movement from the 1970s was that they insisted people belong to a small group, each of whom had a group leader, who in turn reported to an elder, who in turn reported to a pastor, who in turn reported to an apostle. Did I say one error? There are several in that sentence, aren’t there? But I mean to highlight this: we generally should not require something the Bible doesn’t, like joining a small group. The movement succumbed to other errors, like requiring members to “cover” every major and sometimes minor life decisions with prayer (approval?) from their small group leaders. And this combination of a tightly-scripted small group structure with the practice of “covering” led to all kinds of authoritarian abuses.

Bottom line: I’d encourage you not to be too severe with your structure. It’s not presented in Scripture, so keep a very loose grip on it.

One other thought: I understand Scripture to teach that the office of deacon exists for addressing physical needs in the church (see Acts 6:1-6). Plus, the ability to teach is not one of the qualifications of a deacon, whereas it is for an elder. If being a small group leader generally involves teaching (or at least facilitating biblical conversations, which requires the discernment of knowing when to draw lines), then “small group leader” strikes me as more elder-like role than deacon-like. I’m not saying that a small group leader must be an elder, but calling them deacons seems like a mismatch.

Maybe I misunderstood what you are proposing? I do like the idea of partnering elders and deacons together for the purpose of ministry together. I know of one friend’s church who pairs a deacon with every elder, so that when an elder goes to do spiritual ministry for someone’s family, particularly in a crisis situation, a deacon accompanies him for the purpose of tending to any physical needs. That sounds great!

I pray this is useful.

Dear 9Marks,

How do you define the term “church” in the Matthew 18 stage of “tell it to the church?”

In the past, we have chosen to not define it as the entire, formal church membership. Rather, we have made it a circle as broad as the circle of relationships that influence the member undergoing discipline. For example, it would generally be elders, family, small group members, and any ministry team connections.

However, I know many churches we respect that would define “the church” as every adult member. One reason we might be open to this broader definition now is that a member in church discipline is very vocal in Sunday meetings, “Amen-ing” the message while his family is falling apart due to his unrepentant sin of arrogance that has led to continual job firings, financial mismanagement, and a seriously fractured family and church relationships.

—Edward, Pennsylvania

Dear Edward,

When Jesus says “church” or “ekklesia” in Matthew 18:17, I understand him to mean “church” or “ekklesia.” He does not mean a sub-group of the church, whether a small group, a family, or the elders. He means the whole church.

Now, Presbyterians since at least the 19th century have employed the example of synagogues to argue that elders could stand in for the “church.” Historically, that’s problematic because not all synagogues were led by elders; plus many organizations in the ancient Near East had elders, and we don’t model churches after all those.

Exegetically, that approach is problematic because

  • Jesus said “ekklesia,” drawing his vocabulary from Greek political assemblies, not from Jewish synagogues, which he could have done;
  • there is no reason to think Jesus’ hearers would have understood him to be saying anything other than “assembly”;
  • and in context, there is a clear numeric trajectory from one, to two or three, to assembly.

Practically, for the last stage of church discipline (excommunication) to work, the whole congregation must be involved, as your own testimony suggests. If a person is removed from the small group and the elders, but not the church, he is not really excommunicated. Or, if the elders have informed him that he is removed from the church, but the whole church is not informed, then the church does not know to treat him any differently. They cannot obey passages that tell church members to treat someone as an outsider (e.g. Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; Titus 3:10).

Having said all that, I do think church discipline is a multi-step process, and a principle we can draw from Matthew 18:15-17 is that we should keep the knowledge of the sin as small as possible for producing repentance. If working with the family, an elder or two, and a few close friends can be used to produce repentance, great! No need to take it to the church.

But you asked what Jesus meant by “tell it to the church.” And if you’re at that stage, I don’t think we have the authority to construe or interpret that word “church” in any other way than Jesus did—the whole assembly. Again, the word simply means “assembly.”

I pray this is both correct and clarifying!