CARE: Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary?
A question we often ask is, “Do you view care as a primary, secondary, or tertiary ministry?” We find pastors are often quick to indicate ‘primary,’ regardless of how caring ministry is addressed at their church. Based on the standard set forth by Jesus and echoed throughout Scripture, we agree that the command to love people is a clear indication that care is a primary aspect of ministry.
The aim of this article is to distinguish between how caring tends to be represented at each of the different levels and to challenge church leaders to embrace a biblically-based discipling model of care. As you read the following summaries, consider which best reflects how your church addresses care (aka. congregational or pastoral care).
Caring ministry is commonly regarded as a necessity and handled by paid staff. At this level, care is typically pastor-centric, and the approach to caring tends to be episodic and reactive. Knowing that many people expect pastors to be available 24x7 “in case of an emergency,” the role and responsibility for caring are often handled by the pastor on-call. Designating a staff member or having a part-time or retired pastor devoted to visiting people who are in the hospital, homebound, or reside in a nursing home may be normal for churches with a disproportionately high percentage of older congregants or people facing health challenges. Another example of care at the tertiary level is sending cards to people at set intervals (e.g., birthdays, anniversaries) and when needs arise (e.g., get well, sympathy).
Despite being established to function as the body of Christ, could it be that the comment – “We pay people to do that” – reflects a generally held belief and fosters a pastoral oriented approach to caring?
At this level, caring tends to be programmatic and task-oriented. Though people within the congregation may volunteer and serve in a specific and limited capacity, expressions of care tend to reflect specific issues (e.g., addictions, cancer, divorce, grief), and be managed by a staff member who oversees the various offerings and personally responds to many requests. Similar to a vending machine, care is often synonymous with self-service: request what you want when you want it. In other words, at the secondary level, churches strive to meet care needs by presenting people with options such as submitting a care/prayer request or participating in a class or support group. Some churches also have ministries that respond when an opportunity is discovered (e.g., meals, prayer quilts/shawls, Stephen Ministry). A few notable challenges with this approach include:
- It is incumbent on people to acknowledge their circumstances and concerns.
- We expect people to request assistance and know what type of help they need.
- Emotional and spiritual support are frequent under-represented.
Could it be that the type of love Jesus is referring to is not that which is limited to designated volunteers, managed using to-do lists, or measured quantitatively?
To grasp what care entails, we first must understand what love requires. Throughout Scripture, we are repeatedly commanded and reminded to love God and love people. In fact, Jesus tells us to love as He loved (John 13:34-35). Given that Jesus loved us to death, He undoubtedly paints a picture of people loving and caring for one another in ways that are relational, sacrificial, and which focus on spiritual growth. Keep in mind that whenever Jesus fed, healed, or showed mercy, truth was proclaimed, and faith was the heart of the matter. While secondary and tertiary expressions may be a supplement, pastor visits, programs, and practical support are no substitute for people loving and caring for one another. Moreover, caring is not about tasks to be completed or problems to be solved; it’s about people to be loved.
Caring God’s way reflects abundant blessings, fosters deeper relationships, and is mutually beneficial.
A challenge to genuinely loving and caring for people is that our natural human tendencies are inconsistent with Godly wisdom and Jesus' teachings. As such, to care well there is often as much for people to learn as there is for them to unlearn. Until Christians are equipped and embrace the core biblical principles of loving for one another, caring is sure to be relegated to pastors and reduced to programs.
“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ” (Colossians 2:2).
Care Ministry advocates caring as a primary aspect of ministry and resources churches to advance a discipling model of care that is founded and grounded in Scripture. We provide the framework (See Triangle diagram), tools, training, and support that churches need to engage and equip people to love and care for one another in ways that advance the mission of the church and make a Kingdom difference.