It is a question I think we as clergy and as congregations need to wrestle with more deeply: who cares?
Who cares, indeed?
In many congregations, it is assumed that the primary caregiver for people is the pastor. When people are troubled, they go to the pastor. When people are having surgery or they end up in the hospital, the pastor is supposed to visit. When someone loses a loved one, the pastor is there at the death, at the funeral preparation, calls numerous times afterward, and checks in on important dates: Christmas, Easter, a year after the death. When a member has cancer, the pastor is supposed to call, text, write, email on a regular basis to check in. If someone misses church a couple Sundays in a row, the pastor should call upon that person to see what is going on. And the list goes on.
Mind you, this isn't a bad thing. I am not trying to get into a bad versus good argument over this, but what I would like to suggest is a good versus better approach.
In the above scenario, the pastor basically functions as a congregation's chaplain offering care and concern for his/her members. This works pretty well for smaller congregations, but as congregation's grow, problems occur, mainly: the pastor is simply incapable of caring for so many people. More and more things pile up. More and more people have need. The calendar becomes overwhelmed, and, even worse, the pastor becomes emotionally overwhelmed. With so many people to care for with so many varied issues and difficulties, the pastor eventually hits emotional overload--no matter how good he or she is with caring for him/herself.
And even in smaller congregations, while this works, I am not convinced it is the best model of care and concern. Why?
Generally this: in those congregations, the pastor becomes the "glue" that holds the congregation together. People have a relationship with the pastor, but not necessarily with one another. And that brings me to an important point: what happens to that congregation should the pastor take another call or retire? If he/she is the glue that holds things together, what happens when the glue is gone? The results aren't necessarily pretty. In fact, you will see many congregations experience a drop in worship attendance and giving when the pastor leaves. This is not the healthiest thing in my estimation.
So, what model might be better?
First of all, I think there are some things that clergy must keep in mind and practice and then things congregations should keep in mind and practice.
First, I think those of us who are clergy need to remember our job is not to bind a congregation together by having people have a relationship with us. Far from it. I believe our job is to help people connect with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Sure, it's nice to get strokes when people tell us how much they appreciate us and like us. It's nice to hear, "I am so thankful for all that you have done." To a person who generally cares for others, these things touch a soul very deeply. However, if people are simply enjoying their relationship with you, are they growing in their walks of faith? Are they coming in contact with the God who works through you? That is another question entirely, and it is one I wrestle with constantly. As much as I like to be liked, I have become convinced that people don't need a relationship with me nearly as much as they need a relationship with Christ. He alone brings the peace that passes all understanding. He alone brings healing. He alone brings transformation. If folks are not experiencing such things, perhaps it is because we are in the way.
Second, I think a much better model for congregations to follow is care and concern for each other. When a pastor cares for members, one person essentially is the care giver. When people care for one another, well, that's a whole other ball of wax--a very powerful ball of wax. Suddenly, it's not the pastor alone who is showing compassion, concern, and mercy--to those he or she agrees and doesn't agree with--instead, a whole body of people begin to care about one another--they truly have compassion, concern, and mercy for one another. Suddenly, it's not one person alone trying to model the love of God for others, it's an entire group of people; and while God can certainly make a difference with one person, He can reach more people through the acts of others.
Furthermore, when people genuinely care for each other, the pastor no longer becomes the bonding mechanism for a congregation. People's relationship with God and with each other form that bond. Ideally, when the pastor leaves or retires, not much changes because the compassion and care is not dependent upon the pastor--it's shown with or without him/her.
When people show such care and concern for each other, no one feels left out. No one feels isolated. No one feels demeaned or unimportant. A congregation might hold a belief or policy that people do not agree with, but because of the love that people show towards one another, such things do not take on the utmost importance.
I am convinced that when people care for one another and are not dependent upon the pastor for such care, great things happen in congregations.
Who cares about such things?
I do. For I long to see congregations thriving and showing God's love--sharing the Gospel because they know the difference a relationship with Christ can bring. I long to see congregations thriving in a culture which a times is openly hostile to public faith. I long to see congregations full of joy and hope and people who smile and laugh with one another.
I simply cannot make people do these things.
All I can and will do is preach the Good News and hope that Christ transforms communities into such places of care and compassion.