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If you’ve been in ministry for any length of time, you know the challenge of trying to move the mission forward and handle the pastoral needs of a congregation at the same time.

One of the most perplexing problems pastors and church leaders face is how to handle ‘pastoral emergencies’—the crises that come up in the lives of people that they look to you to help solve.

The challenge in many churches is that more people = more crises.

This dynamic stresses many pastors out, and it’s hard to know what to do. You’re working on your sermon or some long-term planning and your phone buzzes, letting you know that someone just got admitted to hospital or that a couple needs to see you NOW for marriage counseling.

What do you do?

Most leaders respond immediately to the need (because we’re pastors, after all). And that leaves the sermon prep or project to the next day.

Which also gets interrupted by a new crisis. Which moves your work to the evening, or the weekend, or into family time. And soon, you only write your sermons on Saturday night.

The Pastoral Care Trilemma

And this is what breaks many church leaders.

Eventually, you just can’t keep up. And, predictably, three things happen:

  1. You get completely overwhelmed, and maybe even burnout.
  2. The congregation gets upset with you because you’re not as responsive as you used to be when the church was smaller.
  3. The church stops growing, because few human beings can sustain that level of pastoral care beyond 200 attenders, and many burn out trying (see point 1).

What seemed manageable when your church was just starting or was smaller,  feels completely out of control as your church pushes 150, 200 or 300 in weekend attendance.

Responding to every emergency just doesn’t scale.

The good news is that pastoral care is something that can be scaled to help your church reach hundreds, and even thousands, of new families.

I address this issue comprehensively in my new course, Breaking 200 Without Breaking You (click here if you want to learn more).

But what do you do in the meantime with the seemingly endless emergencies?

One step you can take is to decide whether something is actually an emergency.

Just because it’s an emergency to them doesn’t mean it has to be an emergency for you.

While there are some pastoral emergencies that are true emergencies, here are 5 pastoral emergencies that may not be.

1. Marriage Breakdown

We’ve all received calls where someone needs to see you right now because their marriage is in trouble.

The pain is real, and I’m sure they feel like it’s a five-alarm fire.

But the reality is that their marriage didn’t go bad overnight. In fact, it’s likely been bad for months, or maybe years.

You can easily set an appointment to meet with the couple at a time that works for you.

Instead of saying “Yes, I’ll be right there in the next hour,” why not say “I’m so sorry to hear about this. I’d love to meet with you. Can we get together here in my office on [fill in time that works for you]?”

You know what will happen? Most reasonable people will say yes. That’s what will happen.

If they push back, just tell them you can’t meet right then but would be glad to meet them [fill in next available time].

Again, most people will be delighted you’ve made time for them.

If there’s abuse or violence, that is an emergency. But there are shelters, professional counselors, and law enforcement officials who are well equipped to deal with that in the moment. You can come alongside shortly after or at the earliest opportunity.

And if you have a great group structure and counseling referral network, you might soon discover you’re not needed nearly as much as you used to be.

2. Money Problems

Like marriage, money problems rarely happen quickly. They’re usually a long time coming.

People present money issues like emergencies because they feel like emergencies to them. The credit cards have been maxed for a few months, but suddenly they can’t make rent.

A few thoughts.

First, a short-term cash infusion is not going to solve a long-term money issue. Most churches have money available for a financial crisis.

But even if you had, say, $5000 to give someone to help them clear their debt, your short-term help rarely solves their long-term pattern of mismanagement.

I’ve come to realize (sadly) that sometimes giving to someone who doesn’t manage money well just makes more money disappear faster.

These days, we point people to long-term financial management seminars to help them get the fundamentals of their finances right (giving, saving, living on the rest).

We’ve helped almost 1000 people with restructuring their personal finances to live with margin and live on mission. An ounce of prevention or change is worth a pound of cure.

3. Interpersonal Conflict

Get two people in a room, and it’s only a matter of time until they disagree.

Many pastors spend a lot of their time resolving conflict between people in the church. While this beats avoiding conflict, it’s hardly a scalable system.

First, as adults, we should be at least half decent at resolving our own conflict. Train your church that way.

The number one question I’ve learned to ask when people ask me to step in to resolve conflict with someone else is “Have you talked to X about this?” (That’s Matthew 18, by the way.)

The number one response is “No, I haven’t.”

Well, that solves the problem most of the time.

And even if it’s gone beyond that and you need to get involved, just because it’s presented in the moment doesn’t mean you need to respond in the moment.

4. Staff Issues

It’s so important to take staff issues seriously. Healthy teams produce healthy churches.

But again, many leaders as they add staff end up fighting fires every day.

First, if the issue is interpersonal, follow the practices in Step 3. That will resolve much of it.

But second, in your weekly one on ones with your team, start by asking how your staff are doing before you ask them what they’re doing.

You’ll be amazed by what you discover, and second, you will diffuse most problems before they erupt into something bigger.

5. Frequent Flyer Issues

Let’s be honest (we do that well around here, don’t we)? Some people are always going to be in crisis.

I call them frequent flyers.

Frequent flyers always have a problem, and they always want your time. It’s how they live.

Last week it was a problem at work, today it’s a problem with their kids, and next week it will be a new rare medical condition they think they have that no one can quite diagnose or a new thing that’s wrong at the church.

Frequent flyers will ask for your time again and again. You’re foolish to give it to them.

Some people don’t want to get better. They just want your time. Don’t give in.

Don’t give in. You’re not helping them. And if you keep giving them time again and again, you’re not helping, you’re enabling.

How Can You Solve the Problem?

Not knowing how to handle pastoral emergencies is one of the reasons 85% of churches never grow past the 200 attendance mark.

I outlined pastoral emergencies you shouldn’t handle as emergencies above, but what do you do with real emergencies?

I tackle that and many other issues small and mid-sized church leaders face in my brand new online course called Breaking 200 Without Breaking You.

It’s designed to help church leaders and their teams break through the barriers facing them and their church.

The course tackles eight key issues that keep churches from passing the 200 barrier and beyond. It includes:

  • 8 videos designed to guide you and your leadership team through all the key growth barriers smaller churches face.
  • 150 page downloadable workbook for you and your team.
  • 12 licenses, so you can take your entire team through it—board, staff, key volunteers—whoever you want (that’s about $20 a person).
  • A bonus cheat sheet with access to 20 free resources designed to take you further.
  • A limited-access private Breaking 200 Facebook Group.

So whether your church is 50, 150 or 250 in attendance, the principles will help you gain the insight you need to break the barrier more than 85% of churches can’t break.

In addition to serving as Lead Pastor at Connexus Community Church north of Toronto Canada, Carey Nieuwhof speaks at conferences and churches throughout North America on leadership, family, parenting and personal renewal.

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Greyson Peltier

commented on Oct 18, 2017

What are your thoughts about using an external counseling provider as a referral for some of these kinds of cases that recur? This seems to work at some churches. If so, how would you recommmend one find and screen those providers? Also, on a slightly unrelated note (but also related as talking over these kinds of issues with a member in the congregation can suck time) is there any time where a pastor should be engaged on a consulting basis for an outside nonprofit or business purpose or is it improper to have such an arrangement? And how would one be redirected into this type of service from receiving too much "free time" from their church?

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