March 10, 2019 – Elders: The Ministry of Pastoral Care

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By Rev. Victor Kim
John 10:11-18, 1 Peter 5:1-4, Acts 6:1-7
(03-10-19) Lent 1

This morning we are in the second of a three part series on eldership as we prepare to add up to 5 additional elders to our Session. Last week I spoke on one of the core responsibilities of an elder, that of governance.  Elders are called to be leaders, they are elected and ordained to help discern God’s will and vision for the ministry of a congregation.  Along with the minister, the elders on the Session are responsible for most of the decisions around the direction and content of the congregation’s ministry.  Though they are decision makers, elders are also called to be humble, to be servant leaders, to model themselves after our Lord Jesus Christ, who came, not to be served, but to serve. This governance role of the elder is an important one and vital to the health and wellbeing of any congregation.

But just as vital is the other primary role of the elder, that of pastoral care.  Some of you might think, pastoral care, isn’t that the role of the minister?  In a way it is, but not always in the way you might think.  The pastoral care duties are shared by the minister, or teaching elder, and the other elders, called ruling elders.  In a congregation of this size, roughly 150 members, the minister can do a fair bit of pastoral care and might be expected to do so, including things like home visits, hospital visits, counselling, and of course, emergent pastoral care work like crisis visiting and funerals.  But church studies show that as congregations grow beyond roughly 150 – 200 people, it becomes nearly impossible for one minister to continue to offer pastoral care at the same level that might be offered to a smaller sized congregation.

Let me offer you an example, although it’s a bit of an extreme example.  Back when I was in seminary, I took a year off between my second and third years of studies and spent that year in Korea.  Many of you will know that it was during that year that I met Sophie, who would later become my wife.  I also spent most of that year working as a student intern in what was at that time the biggest Presbyterian Church in the world, Young Nak Presbyterian Church in Seoul.  It had 50,000 members!  There were also 44 full time ministers and many more student ministers and other ministry staff.

Now, would you expect the minister, the senior minister, or any minister to know most of the people in that congregation?  I would hope not.  The only way pastoral care could be done in a church that size is through small groups, or cell groups.  These are groups of 10-12 families that are clustered together and in the situation of that particular church in Korea; usually it was a deacon who was given responsibility to care for that small group. It’s in that small group that people get a sense of what it’s like to belong to the church, not in a worship service of 5,000 people, of which there were 7 identical services every Sunday.  An elder would have been given responsibility over a larger district of the small groups, but even an elder wouldn’t be able to know all the people in those small groups.

Now, fortunately we don’t face that problem.  Our church is a bit smaller.  But the structure remains the same in Presbyterian churches.  Even in a church of our size, it still remains a fact that not all the people know all the other people.  Even in our smaller congregations, the small group, the cell group, remains the best way for people to get to know each other and to experience what the fellowship of the church is all about.  I’ve heard of groups in RPC that have existed over the years, groups like the marriage enrichment group that used to meet for many years or of course affinity groups like the choir.  Many people will tell you that it’s in small groups like these that the best experiences of church take place, as people get to know each other and grow in friendship and fellowship.  In the Presbyterian Church we have a system of small groups built right into our governance structure.

They are called elder’s districts and every member and every adherent belongs to a particular elder’s district.  The Book of Forms, which is a guidebook for Presbyterian governance says that the Session shall assign the names of all members and adherents to the elders who shall keep a list of the names and addresses of those assigned to them and shall cultivate a personal relationship with those persons through visiting, counselling and encouraging them in the Christian life.  (Book of Forms 109.4)  The elder’s district is the foundation for pastoral care in most congregations of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. In theory, if not always in practice, elders are to be the front line pastoral care workers in our congregations caring for the people entrusted to them, visiting, counselling and encouraging them in their walk as disciples of Jesus Christ.  And each elder is also a part of another elder’s district, receiving that encouragement and care from a fellow elder.

As we think and pray about electing new elders to serve on our Session, as you think and pray about whether you may be called to serve as an elder, one of the things to consider in your thinking and praying is whether you or another person in our congregation may have the gifts of pastoral care that elders will need to offer.  Now that might sound a bit intimidating, but it’s not as scary as it might seem.  A lot of this happens on a regular basis without a huge amount of effort needing to be spent.  We see each other regularly in church and we can build those relationships as we meet and as we talk.  We can and do encourage one another in the Christian life, not only with words, but by acts of kindness, encouragement, compassion and thoughtful care.  These days we can also communicate via email, texts, social media, along with cards and letters and phone calls.  And those who are called to eldership will also be given training and support around pastoral care, such as how to visit people in your district, how and when to pray with people, what to say in particular situations and when to refer people to the minister for additional pastoral care.

And above all things we remind our elders, current ones and future ones, that in all aspects of pastoral care, Jesus is the one who goes ahead of us, who goes alongside us, who is the one who ultimately brings the care that people need, often through us, sometimes in spite of us. Almost every elder I have spoken to over the years have pointed to their districts as the most enjoyable part of being an elder.  They have cherished the relationships built, the families they have gotten to know, the children they have watched grow up, the moments of crisis when they have prayed together, the celebrations of joy they have shared together, the love Jesus they have lived together.

The church’s ministry of pastoral care is grounded on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. He is our model and we pattern our pastoral care on him, his teaching, and his life.  This ministry of pastoral care isn’t something that only elders are called to offer.  All Christians are invited to be a pastoral presence and support to others, as our gifts allow us and as opportunities present themselves to us.  The cover of the bulletin is a lovely example of that.  Two of our members, Christine and Margie, sitting by the water’s edge at Camp Douglas.  Who knows what they were talking about that day, maybe they remember, maybe they don’t, but it sure looks like a pastoral moment.  Two people sharing and being present for each other in friendship and fellowship.  All Christians are called to engage in pastoral care, but elders have a special responsibility for this ministry.

The ministry of pastoral care is grounded in the example of Jesus.  In the gospel reading from John 10 we read that Jesus says that he is the good shepherd and that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  And I lay down my life for the sheep…no one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord…  It’s clear how Jesus sees his pastoral role.  He is our shepherd, our good shepherd.  He isn’t a hired hand who runs away at the first hint of danger, but he cares for the sheep, for us, and he lays down his life for us.  He lays down his life for those who are his own, those who know his voice, but, and this is important, he lays down his life willingly, no one takes it from him, but he does it of his own accord.  Jesus gives his life for the sheep, not because he has no choice, not because of an angry God who demands punishment for sin, but because he chooses to love us, love the sheep in his care.  The good shepherd chooses out of love to give himself for the sheep so that the sheep will know life, abundant life, true life, eternal life.

The pastoral care ministry of Jesus, in its broadest sense, beyond the specific healings, the teachings and the encouragement, the pastoral ministry of Jesus is to heal us from the fear and darkness that sin and death bring, and to restore us to the relationship with God that God has intended and desired from the very beginning of creation.  The pastoral ministry of Jesus is about love, love for the Father and love for the sheep that the Father has placed in his care.

In the letter of 1 Peter, we read that Peter, an elder himself, exhorts the elders of the early church communities to tend to the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you do it…  The reference to the pastoral ministry of Jesus could not be clearer.  Just as Jesus is the good shepherd, those who are called as elders are also be to shepherd of those whom God has entrusted into our care.  And as Jesus willingly gave himself, his life, for the sake of those entrusted to him, we also are to willingly care for those entrusted to our care as elders. This does not mean that elders are to die for the people in their districts.  This would lead to very few people willing to become elders in our congregations and would give a very different meaning to the phrase “life service.”  What it does mean is that the same love that was in Jesus for the he loved needs to be the kind of love we have for those who are entrusted to our care as elders.

Are we going to do it perfectly, of course not!  There will be times as an elder when we would rather do just about anything except call on that person who has made us angry or anxious. I remember one elder from Calgary telling me that they were visiting a person in their district just after I was first ordained as the new assistant minister at Grace Church. This person, who had never met me in person, apparently said something quite racist about me in their conversation with the elder.  The elder later told me that she was so angry that she almost made the decision to never visit this person again.  But I encouraged her to go back and she did and she continued to visit this person and so did I.  Years later, after a relationship that had become one of respect and care, I had the honour of officiating at both his and his wife’s funeral services.  It’s not easy, but we are to love those entrusted to our care.  It’s the way of our shepherd and it must be our way as well.

The ministry of pastoral care is the ministry of Jesus.  That ministry isn’t only about spiritual considerations, it’s also very much about life here in this place.  While it’s clear that as the good shepherd, the sacrificial death of Jesus has freed us from the power of darkness, fear and death, the earthly ministry of Jesus was very much rooted in the physical needs of people.  He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, cleansed the lepers, made the lame to walk and even raised the dead.  Our earthly needs don’t escape the notice of God, in fact they matter a great deal to God.  In the days of the early church, as told in our story from the book of Acts, we see that the Hellenists, the Greeks, the Gentiles, felt that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.  Remember that in the early church most of the Christians were Jews who had become followers of Jesus and there was an expectation that those who weren’t Jews would need to become Jews, circumcised, before they could become Christians.  So it’s not surprising that the Gentiles might have felt a bit overlooked at times within the church community.

The disciples, knowing what was happening, called the people together and basically said that there would need to be people appointed whose gifts would be gifts of service, not of preaching the word.  Some people would need to be chosen to offer the ministry of pastoral care, the care of the physical needs of people.  And so they chose people like Stephen and the others and the word of God continued to spread, and many became obedient to the faith.

The church needs people in the model of Stephen and the others, people of faith not afraid to serve others.  We need elders who understand that our model of pastoral care is Jesus.  We need people in this congregation who feel called and gifted to love the people of God in this place.  We don’t need perfect people, in fact if you think you are perfect, it’s probably a good idea not to sign up for eldership.  We need people, imperfect, but willing to follow Jesus, to follow him in loving the people entrusted to our care.  We need people who like people, who will be persistent even when it seems that there’s no point.

There was a man who in my time in Calgary, never came to church.  He was unhappy and often gruff.  I was told that he never spoke with anyone from the church except one elder because she was in the same business that he had been in.  She saw him once a year when she brought over the annual report.  I went to visit him and those were some of the hardest visits I made.  We would sit there, he would say almost nothing, sitting there in the darkness, surrounded by mementos of his time in the Second World War, and then I would pray and leave.  I think I saw him 5 or 6 times, then I sent Richard Watson, who some of you know as the former minister of Knox, New Westminster, but who was an elder at Grace Church at that time.  I told Richard, go visit this guy, knowing that it would be a difficult visit, but Richard loved a challenge.  So he did, about another 5-6 times before he died.  He hadn’t ever been to the church during my time at Grace. He showed no interest in the church and barely seemed to acknowledge my visits. But two elders persisted and visited him and when he died, he left an enormous bequest to the pastoral fund of the church.  He didn’t show it well, but he knew he was loved, and it mattered to him.

It matters to all of us.  Is God calling you to this ministry?  Do you have the gift of pastoral care, to love others as Jesus loves us?  Are you willing to learn, to grow, to serve with humility and persistence?  The church, this church, will grow because of people who can serve in the ministry of pastoral care.  As our elder’s districts become more and more places of strong fellowship and friendship, our congregation will grow, I have no doubt.

Is God calling you to be part of this ministry?  May we prayerfully be open to the movement of the Spirit and may we be willing to follow in the way of Christ.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Written by Rev. Victor Kim
preached on 10 March 2019
at Richmond Presbyterian Church