Monday evening at our Session meeting there was a discussion about the benefits of a time tested model of shepherding based on the geographic location of members and their officers. This community based model of shepherding--(Tenth Presbyterian in Philadlephia uses the historic language and calls it a "parish" model)--offers some advantages over other models:
- Shared Gifts and Resources--In a community based or parish model of shepherding, members are matched with elders and deacons based on their location. Of course, this doesn't mean that relationships between officers and members are forbidden or discouraged outside of their own communities. But it does mean that church officers and members are given a structure to see clearly which resources of the body are closest them. Take my own family as an example. We are in a bit of a crunch right now. (I am writing this from a hospital room.) There are many families in the church who are willing to help us, but some are closer than others. Proximity enables some folks to help more than others. Being organized as a church around communities encourages us to draw upon the gifts and resources that God has placed near us.
- Shared Spiritual Accountability--Shepherding models that assign elders to care for particular members can (unintentionally) give the impression that members are accountable to individual elders rather than to the Session as a whole. It is an important principle of Presbyterian polity that elders exercise authority "severally and jointly" rather than individually over members of the church. Members are called to respect the counsel and character of godly individual elders, but to submit to the Session as a whole.
- Shared Spiritual Responsibility--There are seasons of life in which members of Christ's church find themselves in great spiritual or physical difficulty. At such times, it is often best if more than one elder or deacon be involved. A community or parish based model provides a context for relationships to be forged between officers and members so that when times of crisis arise more than one officer is in a position to help.
- A More Tangible Sense of the Body of Christ Throughout the Week--I am not sure that this is technically a shepherding benefit, but I think it is important and helpful. On Monday night we viewed a map that displayed where the folks at EPC live. Five communities appeared on this map: White Clay Creek, Pike Creek, Newark, Christiana, and Wilmington. I found it thrilling to see our church mapped out in this regions. Giving some tangible expression to where we live as a church outside of sanctuary on Sunday morning made our spiritual connection as a church seem all the more real.
Of course, it takes more than a model of shepherding to accomplish the work shepherding. Regardless of what model a church embraces, its officers will have to care for and lead the flock and its members will have to receive the care and leadership of their officers. However, structure and organization do matter. We ought to seek a plan and structure that serves as many good Biblical purposes as possible and facilitates as many healthy ministry dynamics as possible.