Pastoral crises come to every church. In his 30 years as lead pastor at New Life Presbyterian Church of Dresher, PA, Ron Lutz saw how care teams can provide a deeper level of support for people requiring extended and intensive care. He answers some questions about how care teams work:
What is a care team?
Care teams serve in pastoral situations where the needs require something beyond the typical level of care. Care teams generally have three to four members who are appointed by our elders or deacons to work with a specific pastoral case when the needs can’t be handled through the normal shepherding that goes on in small groups, home groups, or other organic relationships. A team will always have at least one elder or one deacon or deaconess on it, representing the board that appointed it.
How do you determine when a care team is required?
There are usually clear signals that the issues are too big to be handled any other way. The cases that the elders oversee often involve family crises, like a marriage heading toward divorce. Does a spouse need protection from abuse? Are there biblical grounds for divorce? Do children need extra support? These can be complicated, intense, and very broken situations, necessitating the creation of a team.
But care teams aren’t just for complex situations. They’re also for situations that might go on for an extended period. Some of the teams our deacons appoint deal with chronic situations like a family with long-term financial problems or a child with special needs who requires extensive counseling or special care. The deacons and deaconesses can see that the situation won’t be resolved quickly, so they create a team to support the family and to coordinate financial giving, counseling connections, and so on.
Care teams aren’t just for complex situations. They’re also for situations that might go on for an extended period.
Pastors often assume that they (or an elder or deacon) should handle these needs. How did you learn it was wiser to set up a team?
We learned by experience that when well-intentioned individual staff members, elders, or deacons take on more than one person can handle, it leads to burnout and insufficient care. Our elders also realized that instead of having our elder or deacon boards handle all pastoral crises as a committee of the whole, we can provide much better care if a few people are focused on individual situations. It’s also a more efficient use of time.
Why isn’t sending a person to a counselor enough? That’s the model of care for many churches.
We see the church as the primary place where a person is discipled and nurtured. In most cases, we’re privileged to work with Christian counselors who agree with that, who see themselves as supplementing what the local church can do, not as a substitute for it. In most cases, the counselors’ role will be more temporary, so that they can do the appropriate handoff, at the right time, to the church.
We’ve had some experiences with counselors who didn’t share that vision, which made situations more confusing for the individuals involved. So a person might say, “I need counseling, and my insurance will pay for this counselor.” If we don’t know where the counselor is coming from, we’ll often say, “We would rather help you financially so that you can see a Christian counselor we know and trust. It’s that important to us, because we want the counseling to be tied in with the pastoral care of the church.”
What are some things a care team might be asked to do?
We ask the care team to work with the people they are caring for to identify (1) what the needs are, (2) what the team hopes to do about those needs, (3) how it will work, and (4) what each person’s role will be in the process. Starting with clear goals and expectations saves a lot of confusion and stress for everyone. From there, the care team can set up the mechanisms needed for communication and support—helping them find a good counselor, defining the church’s financial help, etc.
Then the care team can walk alongside them to love them, point them to the Lord, and help them get any other input they need from existing relationships in the church. Many people will be in home groups and will already have some good relationships. But sometimes they can’t do the things they would normally do, so the care team offers alternate support for them.
Sometimes when people feel overwhelmed by their situation, they can become passive, looking to the church to fix everything that is going wrong. But it never works when a care team is working harder to resolve the problem than the people receiving the care. We clarify that at the beginning and look for ways they can be actively engaged.
It never works when a care team is working harder to resolve the problem than the people receiving the care.
Also, when Christian counseling is part of the picture, someone on the care team is designated to have regular contact with the counselor. Usually an elder or a deacon/deaconess acts as the official link. We ask the counselee to sign a release so that the designated person can talk with the counselor for updates.
What does the care team not do?
They don’t do the counseling itself. And they’re not expected to respond to every need a person might have—that’s for the church as a whole. That’s why establishing goals and expectations at the front end is helpful. We want the team to care for people, point them to the gospel, and help them to grow in the midst of their struggle.
The care team doesn’t have the authority to take actions or make decisions that the elders should make. Instead, they report to the elders and make recommendations. For example, if we need to determine if there are biblical grounds for divorce in a difficult marriage situation, the care team would review the facts of the situation and make a recommendation to the elders, and the elders would consider that in their decision. Something similar would happen if church discipline needed to be considered.
In an emergency where someone’s safety was involved, the elders would trust the care team to make any necessary decision and then follow up afterward.
Are women involved in care teams?
Yes! The Lord has given us many godly, discerning women, and I can’t stress enough how helpful their gifts are in these situations. Early in my ministry, we were naive in thinking that the elders could handle these hard cases without the resources of the wise women in our midst. But when you are ministering to a single mom or a couple in trouble, for example, the woman may have a hard time relating only to male elders. She may feel the lack of a female advocate with distinctive perspectives, questions, observations, and intuition. Even when men are doing their best to be sympathetic and kind, we’ve seen that the care is more effective when women are included.
How do you train volunteers for this role?
Our elders, deacons, or deaconesses have had training when they were brought into their official church roles. So have staff members. We also have laypeople who have taken biblical counseling courses and offer their gifts.
Still, a fair bit of the training is on the job. We form teams intentionally with that in mind, so a team of four people may have one or two experienced members and one or two less experienced people. That way the wisdom of the more experienced ones can be passed on to the less experienced.
What challenges go along with this kind of care ministry?
A big challenge is time limits, since these situations can be so draining. To avoid burnout, we monitor how much time team members are putting in weekly and monthly. We do year-end assessments to gauge progress and continuing needs.
Another challenge is to respond wisely in complicated situations involving psychiatric diagnoses, medications, and specialized treatment. Good communication with the counselor or physician is essential.
And there is always the spiritual challenge of what you do when there’s resistance or a lack of repentance. We’re keenly aware that we are desperately in need of God’s grace to do what we cannot do through our own human words and effort.
How does a care team report on their activities?
A care team might report monthly to the elders or deacons—whichever board appointed them—using three categories:
- Highlights: What new developments since your last report are worth mentioning?
- Challenges: What are your current challenges?
- Goals: What are your goals for the next month or two?
Why should churches consider care teams?
When these teams are working well, it is Ephesians 4 put into action. Church leaders are being used to equip all the saints for the work of ministry. When people are willing to serve struggling people with a Christlike love, it’s a picture of the gospel. It shows how people in the church can be shepherds to one another. So, even in the midst of the mess, the heartbreak, and the sacrifice, there’s a lot of beauty in watching the church be the church.
There’s a lot of beauty in watching the church be the church.
CareLeader.org offers numerous articles on how to build a care ministry, and we encourage you to glean from other churches’ care ministry models. In addition to Ron Lutz’s article, take a look at the following:
A Vision for Care Ministry, Discipleship, and Counseling by Andrew Rogers
How We Provide (Sustainable) Holistic Care by Susie Howard & Wendy Herrberg
Why Your Deacons Should Be Involved in Care Ministry by Dr. Tim Lane
How We Organize Congregational Care by Kevin DeYoung
How I Care for Everyone—When I Can’t Be Everywhere by James Roberson