When Mercy Falls Through the Cracks

It should not be unusual for Christians to be actively concerned and involved with those around us. Our Savior lived and taught the ministry of mercy throughout His life. But, though many of our people have been “moved with compassion” (Mt. 9:36), not all of our churches have focused their organization and resources on showing mercy. A church-based mercy ministry benefits not only those who receive help but also those who show mercy by blessing them with the heart of Christ for a needy world. At Chapelgate Presbyterian Church we have rebuilt our corporate mercy ministry to work more effectively throughout our whole congregation. We hope other churches will be encouraged to join us in the quest to discover a deeper passion for mercy and develop better methods and tools for managing mercy ministries.

How Growth Fragmented Ministry

Several years ago, there were all kinds of bright spots in the Caring Ministry at Chapelgate Presbyterian Church, but nothing connected these good efforts into an effective safety net. No matter how many persons’ needs were met, too many others were falling through the cracks. Chapelgate had had a long history of faithful servants extending the love of our Lord Jesus Christ to others. But as our membership grew larger, busier, and more spread out geographically, old communication and collaboration channels broke down. Even our deacons were being asked to focus on church maintenance concerns and the problems of accommodating our growing numbers, rather than their biblical calling to service and mercy.

As Chapelgate’s mercy ministry became less effective, a great number of independent para-church ministries sprang up among our members. These good-hearted but isolated ministries did not communicate well with each other. They duplicated each other’s efforts and sometimes stepped on each other’s toes. Often people in need of help did not know that these ministries even existed. Under these conditions, the task of overseeing the pastoral care, mercy, and service needs of our congregation of 1500 members was overwhelming. There seemed to be a huge black hole of never-ending needs into which enormous efforts by disassociated caregivers disappeared. Results were haphazard. After studying our situation, we decided we could coordinate our various caring and mercy ministries by addressing three issues: Communication, Cooperation/Collaboration, and Encouragement.

Communication

Problem. Whether a particular need was made known to a pastor, church member, or receptionist, there was no guarantee that the right people would get the information so that they could address the need in an appropriate, timely, and consistent fashion. Thus, though we were sometimes thorough, other times the people in charge of filling the needs were unaware of them until it was too late. For example, in one instance we might handle a death in the family of one of our members with great care and attention, but another grieving family might only receive acknowledgement in the bulletin.

Process Solution. It was necessary to change our procedures for receiving and processing information about needs. We established a full-time Caring Coordinator position so that one person receives all information about needs in the congregation and the community. No matter where the information originates, the congregation and staff know they must contact the Caring Coordinator immediately as a first step toward meeting the need. As simple as this sounds, having just one person (and one computer system) process all requests dramatically improves the consistency of our care giving.

It took time and constant reminders to re-train the congregation to call or email the Caring Office, but soon everyone began to notice the benefits of having a central clearing house where information can be obtained on any ministry in process. We call the organization of all our pastoral care and mercy ministries our Caring Umbrella. Our caring and mercy ministries form a big circle, like an umbrella with spokes radiating from a center point (the Caring Office) out to the edge of a big protective canopy that shelters the lives of those in our community. The ministries operate interdependently, through the network provided by the Caring Office, which is composed of the Caring Coordinator, a pastor, and the Pastoral Care Management System “ShepherdWorks.” Information about needs flows not only up and down the spokes, but also in a collaborative fashion between the different ministries that make up the fabric of the Caring Umbrella.

ShepherdWorks Solution. While appointing a Caring Coordinator helped untangle the inconsistencies in our care delivery, we still needed a computerized Pastoral Care Management System to facilitate caring coordination. We needed a central repository of information about the resources of all the different mercy ministries (the people who were providing care, their skills, the goods and services they had and the ones they needed, etc.) and the demands that were placed on these resources. After a few false starts with a simple home-grown database, we saw that it would take a more sophisticated system to manage the day-to-day operations of our network of mercy ministries.

After conducting an exhaustive search of available software programs for pastoral care management, we realized that we would have to design and develop our own application to provide our mercy ministries with the requisite functionality. ShepherdWorks, the result of several years of development, is designed for both small and large churches. It can augment the work of a full-time Caring Coordinator, but it can also empower other staff or volunteers to perform caring coordination.

Moreover, ShepherdWorks will support many concurrent ministry users. It will be accessible through the World-Wide Web over the Internet, making it possible for mercy ministry workers, church staff, pastors, deacons and elders to collect, organize and maintain mercy information from anywhere in the world through a standard Web browser on an ordinary computer with an Internet connection. Participating churches and mercy organizations create, modify, store and retrieve their data over the Internet in a completely secure environment without having to purchase any software or maintain an expensive and complicated computer network infrastructure. ShepherdWorks will bring to faith-based organizations tools that promote communication, collaboration and coordination hitherto only available to corporate enterprises, but at a fraction of the cost.

Cooperation/Collaboration (Networking)

Problem. We found that some of our ministries were trying to handle problems that were addressed more appropriately by some other ministry. For example, if a caregiver delivered a meal and discovered a transportation problem, he might try on his own to find someone to repair the car instead of referring the matter to the transportation ministry.Essentially, we were faced with the kinds of needs that represent the challenge of collaboration in many group efforts. How do we:

  • find the right persons to perform a particular job?
  • inform others about problems and potential solutions?
  • monitor the current status of a problem-solving effort?
  • determine who tackled a particular problem and what exactly was done?
  • capture past experience in dealing with problems so we can apply the acquired knowledge to future cases?

Process Solution. The Caring Office has established and maintains a network among our various ministries to eliminate redundancy. The Coordinator has been able to foster cooperation between the various ministries so that each one works on the part of a problem that relates to its ministry, yet in concert with all those involved. Caregivers avoid frustration and the time they invest brings greater tangible results.

ShepherdWorks Solution. ShepherdWorks will offer a plethora of features that provide our ministries with the following collaborative functionality: shared content (ministry documents and discussions maintained in a central location, document revisions/versions tracked); shared sense of time (group calendars and Gantt charts capture task assignments, project milestones and meeting schedules; real-time, on-line awareness and chat facilities allow instant contact among ministry staff; automatic email notification); shared workflow (process management tools monitor status and control the orderly completion of tasks within a ministry project); shared knowledge (ad hoc processes may be captured and re-used in future projects).ShepherdWorks empowers mercy ministry staff to work together, exchange information, ask questions, find answers, and perform complex tasks with accountability as individuals and as members of teams.

Encouragement

Problem. Ministry leaders were often overwhelmed by the number of people under their personal care. Even when they felt equal to the needs they were serving, they felt they were working in a vacuum, unsupported and unacknowledged, without feedback from the church.

Solution. The Caring Team makes sure that our ministry leaders know they are not working alone, and that they are not required to meet all the needs of an individual or family. Our ministries provide great encouragement to one another as they work together to resolve a need. In particular, we support and encourage our shepherding elders and deacons by letting the congregation know that shepherding takes place when all the different ministries work together in concert with the oversight of an elder and deacon. No elder or his deacon counterpart can meet all the needs of those under his care. False expectations of shepherding can occur when the person being cared for assumes that one caregiver possesses all the gifts and resources to meet his need. The Caring Coordinator can explain that he must allow others to provide appropriate care for him in the name of Christ and His under shepherds. Now when a ministry is detailed to help a family, the elder is in continual communication, through the Caring Coordinator, concerning what is taking place in the life of those under his care. As the shepherding elders and deacons are kept abreast of a particular situation, they can come alongside their charge in appropriate and timely ways.

Blessings of a Well-Organized Mercy Ministry

In addition to all the benefits described above, the records of the Caring Coordinator and ShepherdWorks save us from having to reinvent the wheel. Good reporting and feedback provide the information needed to design a workflow path that can be used the next time a similar situation presents itself. Capturing the workflow and expertise of skilled caregivers enables us to maintain the same level of care even when we lose an expert caregiver for some reason.As we have organized our corporate mercy ministry, we have maximized the effectiveness. Enabling our members to more effectively express Christ’s love to our neighbors will be the true measure of a successful mercy ministry.

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