Advent resources

Called to care

A recent personal experience affirms my observation that congregations won't thrive unless they have a consistent and extensive calling ministry, led by clergy who value calling more than attending meetings and doing judicatory business.

Even though calling — pastoral visits in the home, hospital visits, taking parishioners out to eat — consumes time and is far more difficult than worship and staff meetings, I believe calling is the linchpin of congregational wellness. It is the foundation of trust, the glue of community, the sign of being known and valued.

Conversely, the absence of calling, or selective calling on only a few, will undermine the rest of what clergy and leaders are trying to do.

Several years ago, for example, I went searching for a fresh church experience and was led to a nearby congregation. I joined the choir and had many meals with the pastor. It dawned on me that I disagreed with every word he preached, but by then he had become a friend. So I stayed happily.

Later, in a new city, I had exactly the opposite experience: congenial theology, but zero pastoral awareness. We moved on.

I spent last weekend visiting my ailing father. Even though he devoted his life to a certain congregation, he has gotten little attention in the past decade, other than requests for large donations. Now he shrugs when I mention church — not angry, not disappointed, just no longer engaged, a stranger in what had once been the center of his life.

Too many church leaders cling to the magical thinking that if they open the door on Sunday morning, people will come in, and that somehow sitting in a pew for 70 minutes and chatting over coffee for 15 minutes will nurture community. That passive model hasn’t worked in 45 years. What does build churches — calling, engagement, strong bonds, feeling part of a caring community — has gotten lost. It takes work, and work for many hands, led by a pastor who enjoys being among people.

Here are six steps to establishing a calling ministry:

» Tell people you are going to do it. Tell them why. Warn them that certain patterns will need to change.

» Form calling teams. Clergy can’t do it alone. To grow, congregations need trained, consistent, and accountable teams of callers.

» Start a system for tracking people’s lives. There’s no single or easy way to do this. It requires attention to subtle signals: e-mails not getting through, calls not being returned, brief mentions in coffee hour, failure to show up for an assignment, news of layoffs that might be affecting your people. Tap informal networks of sharing personal news.

» Set up a calling schedule that will make a difference and that you can sustain. For example: visit every other day while hospitalized, once a month for elderly and shut-ins, and twice a year for all members.

» Start in. People don’t expect flawless performance; they’ll be happy you are trying. Write and speak about your efforts and how meaningful it is getting to know people better. Gather callers for regular feedback sessions, and ask constituents for feedback.

» Form a small groups ministry and gradually shift primary pastoral care to the group level. Almost without exception, every congregation that is experiencing significant growth has a strong small groups ministry.

TOM EHRICH is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is founder of the Church Wellness Project ( His Web site is (