Parish Ministry

Series: Elder Training

by D. Marion Clark May 8, 2008

Lesson 3                     Parish Ministry

Tonight I begin by setting a story straight. I am given credit for many innovations at Tenth, some of which are true, but others which are not. I confess: I did not come up with the parish system of Tenth. The architect of the present parish system is Joe Winston.

I learned from Jay MacMoran that the concept of dividing the church into parishes came up when Tenth was in the process of separating from our former denomination. Every elder was assigned a parish of about 50 people to communicate what was happening. After the separation, they continued the system as a way to provide shepherding care.

That was a pretty good idea. But over time, difficulties grew. For one thing, the church membership grew. It became more difficult to keep up with the growth and changes in parish membership. Another inherent difficulty had to do with geography. Elders were responsible for parishes where they did not live, making it awkward to provide pastoral care. Furthermore, there was a lack of personal identity, not being identified with the community in which an elder’s parish was located. And then there was the reality that not all elders shared the same ability to shepherd parishes. All elders are shepherds, and all must have the ability to come along their people; but not all have the ability to organize pastoral ministry for a large group.

I don’t know the precise timing of the new system that we now have. I came on board the summer of ’92, and I believe the system was fairly new, perhaps only a year or two old. I’ll have to ask Joe.

The 18 parishes were reduced to six, and the original boundaries have only changed slightly over the years. The thinking behind the new system was that, though the parishes were larger, better pastoral care could be provided for the following reasons:

1) The parish elder would live in the parish for which he was responsible.

2) Elders especially gifted for this kind of ministry would be selected and thus do a more effective job. It was originally proposed that the parish elders would not have to attend Session meetings nor hold other duties, thus freeing them up to focus on shepherding care.

3) The parish elders would build a team (the Parish Council) by which to minister in the parish. They would still have the Session elders helping, but more, they would tap the services of elders not serving on the board. The so-called “inactive” elders could continue to shepherd their people within their parishes. The deacons and deaconesses of the parish would also serve on this team, including those “inactive.”

When I came on as Executive Minister, I served on the Growth and Maturity Commission with Joe Winston. We developed three goals for the parishes:

1) All parish members would be contacted regularly – preferably every two months

2) The parish would insure good assimilation into small groups and membership

3) The parish councils would meet monthly

Here was the thinking behind 1) and 3). If all parish members were kept in touch with at least every two months, and then the parish council met every month with the primary purpose of discussing needs and issues that came out of those bi-monthly contacts, then we would assure that everyone was properly cared for. We would also see creative ministry rising out of the parishes, as the councils figured out how to minister to the particular needs of their people.

There would be other benefits. As ministry takes place throughout the parishes, more people are given opportunity to get involved and use their gifts. A greater sense of community would be formed among those who lived near each other. New church leaders would be identified and developed. And all of this would happen in a decentralized, grassroots way.

So, how have we done more than 15 years later? Well, consider these results from the Spiritual Health Survey of 2006:

- 55% feel well connected to at least one elder or pastor at Tenth

- 52% feel they “have a good support group in the church who know me well enough to help me when I am in need”

Now, I think I can explain what went wrong and even offer solutions on how to fix the system. But before I do that, we need to understand what the parish system is meant to do. Its purpose is two-fold: to provide pastoral care and to enhance community life.

Consider the first – to provide pastoral care.

By pastoral care, I mean the shepherding of the elders and the service of the deacons and deaconesses. At Tenth we understand the importance of the teaching ministry of the pulpit. We know the primacy of worship. We also emphasize ministry, especially ministry to the city and supporting outreach to the world.

But it is the duty of the elders before God to shepherd their flock – sheep by sheep. We don’t merely watch over our flock like a watchman looking out over the flock. We take time to know each sheep by name and care for him or her. So is the responsibility of our deacons, and the deaconesses who assist them. They are to come alongside the sheep that is lame and tend to him or her.

That is the work that should be going on in the parishes. That is why it is necessary to make the regular, ongoing contacts with every member. We are accountable to the Lord for each and every member. And our members are just like sheep. They tend to wander; they tend to get themselves in trouble. We cannot wait for them to come to us when they have a need. We have to keep alert for them, and it is in the parishes that we are to do this.

The second purpose is to enhance community life.

People are attracted to Tenth for a number of reasons. Many come because of our reputation for good preaching. They have heard our ministers on the radio and visit. Others come for the ministries of Tenth, either to get involved in them or because of benefiting from them. Others come for our music. Still others come for the children’s programs. Many of these people travel in from other communities and towns. The minority of Tenth members live in walking distance or a ten minute drive.

This produces the challenge of creating a healthy body life in the church. Our membership is spread out over a wide geographical area. We may worship together, but we do not go to school together or shop in the same stores or see each other in daily life.

Because the parishes themselves cover wide territories, they cannot adequately produce community life as a parish. But they are still to come up with ways to enhance community life for their members. That is a major reason for small groups which the parishes are intended to promote. Parishes can sponsor gatherings. And there are undoubtedly other ways. The point is that the parishes are to be the laboratories, so to speak, of enhancing community life.

Can these two purposes only be accomplished by the parish system?

No. show how can be done

            - small groups

            - fellowship affinity groups

the advantage of parishes

            - elders and deacons cannot give up their responsibilities

            - cross-section of membership get together

            - community outreach

Ephesians 4:15-16

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

© 2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By D. Marion Clark. ©2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org