Every year, almost 3 million members of denominational and other churches fall into inactive status. This means people are leaving the church. According to research by The Francis Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development, many of these people are hurting and wounded survivors of some kind of abuse, disillusionment or just plain neglect.
When people leave, the research said, the church typically only has a month or two to bring them back before the hurt becomes too great, or they settle in to a new routine (going to another church or not going at all).
Congregational care is crucial for churches to thrive. It is not only a biblical mandate; it is also an expression of love and humanity.
"Acts 2 reflects very powerfully how congregational care is integral to who we are as the body of Christ," said Jodi L. Cataldo, director of laity in leadership at Discipleship Ministries.
"John Wesley taught and lived out the importance of caring for 'the body' through his system of class meetings, bands and societies," she said. "What is really important for us to see in both of these systems of congregational care is the part the laity plays. The 'clergy' leadership, as in Ephesians 4:11-12, is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. This means that we, the laity, are to be engaged in the work of ministry … and in this case, congregational care. It is not the 'pastor's job.'"
United Methodist congregations have a strong reputation for ministry worldwide in poverty, injustice, health and spiritual outreach. Additionally, churches have valuable congregational care ministries that serve their own members.
Congregational care takes many forms. Sometimes we offer prayer. Other times, we care for one experiencing a physical need, such as hunger or sickness. Still other times, we find that helping with an emotional need, like caring for a pet, is the most-appreciated ministry.
Congregations take on the role of caregivers as a caring staff leads them.
"It starts with the clergy leadership as they are they equippers of the saints for the work of ministry," Cataldo said.
'Being' the church
Intentionality is key, she said.
"Unless you are intentional, it most likely won't happen … regardless of the size of the church! Even the smallest of churches can train a team of lay pastoral caregivers. It is a wonderful and exciting ministry to be a part of because it really is about 'being' the church in the community and beyond."
Westlake United Methodist Church in Westlake Hills, Texas, is a large church with a great staff. Still, the staff knows it cannot meet all the ministry needs. Church members take on much of the caregiving opportunities, including prayer and care.
"Our ministry staff is great," said Mary Lou Batlan, volunteer congregational care leader at Westlake. "They know that if they promote ministries within the lay ministers, for every one hour they would have been able to give, the lay leaders can give many more. They do a tremendous amount, but they can't do it all."
Batlan knows that even when people want to help, they need a system to guide them. "People can't help if they don't know what is needed."
Westlake uses VolunteerSpot.com, one of several online programs that list specific needs for a member in crisis.
"We use this system for so many things – meals for new moms coming home from the hospital, arranging for rides for people, funeral and grief care, anything that is needed," Batlan said. "It's in a calendar format, so our people can easily see what is needed and when it would be most helpful. We have sweet, caring people in our church, and they want to help. For us, an online system like this makes it very easy."
Serving other church members can mean more than taking food and interceding in prayer.
Christ United Methodist Church in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, offers a greatly appreciated Hearts and Paws pet ministry.
Almost two-thirds of American households include at least one pet, according to the American Humane Society. Americans spend more than $50 billion a year on their beloved cats, dogs and other animal companions.
Hearts and Paws pet ministry meets unique needs of Christ Church members and their pets.
Reflecting 'God's love for us'
On their website they explain, "God has given us dominion over the animals of the earth, meaning that he has challenged us to take care of them. God also expects us to be in love and charity with our neighbors, meeting the needs of others whenever and wherever possible. Hearts and Paws provides assistance with the care and/or placement of pets for individuals in time of crisis, acts as a center for information regarding care of household pets and other animals."
It also provides pet food for those who cannot afford food for their pets, an annual pet fair, an annual blessing of the animals, and pet therapy resources and training.
The Rev. Seth McPherson, pastor for congregational care at the church, said the ministry began because of the passion of a few laypeople.
"I believe our Hearts and Paws ministry is a wonderful example of the church doing what it needs to [do] in mission and ministry – find where the people are passionate, then simply encourage, resource and support as needed and see what God does."
A pet may be the only intimate companion for some people, giving, for example, an older person another living creature to love and care for at home. When an illness strikes or an out-of-town absence comes up, knowing someone will care for the pet is a tremendous blessing.
In addition to their Hearts and Paws ministry, Christ Church also offers health ministries, individual caregiving, congregational care and Project Linus. They are also a Stephen Ministry church.
"My interaction with our Stephen Ministry has convinced me that every United Methodist church should have it or something like it," McPherson said. An equipping program, it empowers and equips lay caregivers to provide high-quality, confidential, Christ-centered care to people who are hurting
"One of the most wonderful things in the world," he added, is to be able to tell a person who is struggling, "I have an opportunity for you to journey with a trained, loving person who will really listen to you week in and week out, who won't give you advice, but will just be there for you.
"I actually haven't had anyone say 'no' to that yet. Stephen Ministry transforms lives for Jesus – and that's what we're about."
— Polly House is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.
Mental Health Ministries
The magnitude of mental illness in the United States is staggering. According to the Surgeon General, one in every five Americans experiences a mental disorder in any given year and half of all Americans have such disorders at some time in their lives. Nearly every person sitting in the pews has been touched in some way by mental illness. Yet individuals and families continue to suffer in silence or stop coming to their faith community because they are not receiving the support they so desperately need. They become detached from their faith community and their spirituality, which is an important source of healing, wholeness and hope in times of personal darkness.
Did You Know?
- One in four persons sitting in the pews has a family member struggling with mental health issues
- A majority of individuals with a mental health issue go first to a spiritual leader for help
- Studies show that clergy are the least effective in providing appropriate support and referral information
- Faith communities can be a caring congregation for persons living with a mental illness and their family members
The Rev. Susan Gregg- Schroeder, a member of the California-Pacific Conference, coordinates Mental Health Ministries, an interfaith web- based ministry providing educational resources to help erase the stigma of mental illness in faith communities. Mental Health Ministries offers a wide variety of downloadable print (many available in Spanish) and DVD resources, training curricula and other information that congregations can adapt them to their unique needs. E-newsletters provide timely information and links to resources addressing spirituality and mental illness.
Adapted from Mental Health Ministries website, www.mentalhealthministries.net.
28 Days of Prayer series (assorted topics), The Upper Room
A Spirituality of Care Giving: The Henri Nouwen Series, John S. Mogabgab, editor, The Upper Room, 2011
At the Edge of Life: Conversations When Death Is Near, Richard L. Morgan, The Upper Room, 2014
Compassion: Thoughts on Cultivating a Good Heart, compiled by Amy Lyles Wilson, The Upper Room
Each One a Minister, William J. Carter, The Upper Room, 2014
Lay Pastoral Care Giving, Tim Farabaugh, Discipleship Resources, 2009
Prayer Shawl Ministry, www.shawlministry.com
Stephen Ministries: www.stephenministries.org
The Caring Congregation: Training Manual and Resource Guide: Karen Lampe, Abingdon Press, 2014 (based on the ministry and training provided through United Methodist Church of the Resurrection)