I was hoping that some people would respond by sharing their models of pastoral care. Maybe they still will.
Let me suggest that two fundamental problems (pastoral care model, people willing to stand for the office of elder) you are struggling with are common and solutions that genuinely solve the problems more rare. I imagine this is why it is so hard to respond. But this is precisely why we have this network, to try to work things out together.
It does inspire me to reflect on a question: why is it that members of the congregation are not clamoring to serve in the office of elder? If everyone said this was a fulfilling and rewarding ministry, would we not have at least a few more people ready to embrace the work?
You mention the practice of elder visitation (home visit). Just one look on the forum and I realize that this is a major concern for many people. Some see it as valuable. Some don’t. The difference is reflected in any congregation. But that raises an issue: why would I stand for the office of elder when I think that its primary work (Home Visit) is no longer a meaningful ministry in the congregation?
Their experience has been that elders make poor visits (just a social visit), do not provide useful counsel, and attend far too many meetings at which little happens. While they may have heard of some who do an admirable job, they have had far too many other experiences. When small groups and other caregivers become involved, whatever was of value seems to have been taken away. So why do we have pastoral elders? Why home visits? What value does the office of pastoral elder bring to the life of the community? It has to be more than fulfilling a requirement of the church order.
Here are four distinct ways that this question has been answered: the purpose of elder visitation is
- To provide pastoral care, that is, to provide comfort (encouragement) in times of struggle. The term, pastoral care, is usually associated with times of sickness, death, trauma, and other similar events. In other words, if everything is OK there is no felt need for a visit.
- To check up on people, see how they are and connect with them. This seems lighter and perhaps not critical.
- To see how they are responding to the ministry and community of the local church. This is certainly an important task. But it seems to be closer aligned with administration (feedback loop and evaluation). When elders return with anecdotal conversations, they are precisely that- anecdotal. And addressed – not to administration but pastoral elders.
- To provide spiritual direction/ leadership in the household of faith. I personally like this, but it also raises many questions. First, what do we mean by spiritual leadership and direction? They are not common terms in our community and at times are associated with harmful practices. And second, what skills are needed for this ministry? What practices need to be part of such eldership? While elders have practiced this in the past, it does seem to be more unfamiliar territory.
I mention these because we need to know the why. Busy, engaged members who already have a meaningful ministry in the life of the community are not so eager to engage in ministry that seems like a lot of sitting around in meetings, or doing things that seem less valuable.
The fourth point I suggest is the central task of the elder. It involves hearing the voice of God in the community and connecting that voice to the lives of the people of God – collectively and individually. If that is the key purpose then we need to ask what practices would help elders engage in this work among the people of the congregation.
One can’t address the overlap in ministries or the difficulty in finding people to stand for office without naming the core ministry and value to the congregation for the office of the pastoral elders.
Many things flow from this fundamental decision:
- If hearing the voice of God is critical, how do the practices of elders in their meeting reflect the call to discern God’s voice to the congregation?
- What does the agenda look like?
- By what practices do we connect the word of God to the life of members?
When the core value is named and the practices developed, then the perceived value of the ministry is enhanced. Maybe then, people would be clamoring to join the pastoral elders.