Carl Coffman was chair of the Department of Religion at Andrews University when he wrote this article.

One of the greatest assets of the local church is a capable board of local elders. The wise pastor utilizes all of his elders' talents and capabilities insofar as the responsibilities of their office involve them. To do less limits the effectiveness of the pastor and the strength that the elders can give to the church program.

One of the greatest needs of the local church is for the development and operation of a workable plan designed to meet the needs of the newly baptized and those whose hold on the church is slipping. These two groups need specialized care. Providing for their needs is usually far too big a job for the church pastor alone.

The newly baptized need spiritual guidance to develop Christian maturity as well as fellowship with seasoned church members. The backsliding group badly needs the warmth of friends in the church who have the genius to redirect while avoiding condemnation. How many potentially fine members of the church are being lost from these two groups. The real question is, How many could be kept in the church if we instituted some continually operating program in an attempt to accomplish the objectives outlined above?

Would not the most logical solution be to bring the greatest asset and greatest need together? The local elders are a very dedicated and qualified group. They can be trained to offer these two needy groups the necessary specialized care. For someone who sincerely loves the Lord and thus loves the people of the church, this skill is not difficult to acquire. But it cannot be done well by those whose tendency is to find fault.

Let us consider the newly baptized group first. What kind of "guardianship" program can the pastor and local elders follow to meet the normal frustrations and needs of one newly brought into the church?

First, what about the day they are baptized? It is true that they are "officially" welcomed to membership by the vote of the church body and the voice of the pastor. But they need personalized attention that day as well. That afternoon or evening, whenever they return home, an elder of the church, with wife and children, if appropriate, needs to call on them and extend to them that warm welcome that comes when someone goes out of his or her way to do such a thoughtful act. Such a call must never be made merely from the standpoint of fulfilling an obligation of elected office. If it is done with this attitude in mind it is usually quite obvious.

This simple visiting program is best organized by the pastor and head elder, and then discussed with the entire board of elders. For example: People baptized on a given Sabbath from three homes, then three different elders should make a call to each home. In assigning these important visits, thought should be given to send elders whose background is similar to that of the individual or individuals baptized. For instance, older elders are assigned to visit an older couple, and elders with children to visit a newly baptized family with children.

What should the visiting elder discuss with these people? Obviously, they need to get acquainted. Where do they come from? Where is the daughter whose picture is on the stereo? Why were they attracted to study the Bible? They should be encouraged to tell you about themselves. Do not talk too much about yourself. Invite them to your home for dinner next Sabbath. Encourage them to call the pastor whenever necessary, or to call you. Remember that their hearts are warm. It is your pleasant work to help them mature in their first love experience.

What about the weeks and months to come, after the dinner date next Sabbath? If your backgrounds are similar, and in many cases even if they are not but you are compatible with them, become their spiritual guardians for at least a year. If for some reason this is not possible, help them to become acquainted with another church family in similar circumstances who undestand the guardianship program and who will become their guardian friends and keep track of their development.

Call the pastor immediately if you see negative signs developing. An elder could and probably would be senior guardian to several individuals or families continually, but what more rewarding work could he do for the Lord.

A brief suggestion needs to be made to the pastor on this matter. Dedicate one evening each month to a class for new believers, where they can ask questions, to discuss frustrations, to receive instruction that leads to their maturity. They need this personalized care from the pastor, which, in connection with the elder's guardianship program, can go far to keep the lambs from straying and being caught by the wolves. Let them suggest in writing the topics they want to study in future meetings. Leave time at every meeting for questions. It is a wonderful opportunity for the pastor truly to serve as faithful shepherd of the flock.

What about the elder's work on behalf of drifting members? "Guardianship" here takes on a different meaning. Drifters or backslidders usually have cold hearts. Many in the church have conveyed the idea that they have forgotten them. They probably have difficulties with church standards. They may have forgotten important Bible doctrines to a large degree. There may be some open sin, as a result of which the individual has mentally separated himself from fellowship with the church, even though the church still wants him.

The local elders need to have specific assignments in this difficult area. Such assignments can become long term ones. These people need fellowship and love more than they need correction at first. Your relationship must be slowly and carefully fostered under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The elder involved must be one who knows how to love a sinner while hating the sin. You cannot push. You must draw. Sometimes your approach may be only a friendly greeting on the telephone or street corner. You must let the individual develop his own confidence in you, and at his own speed. Let him come to the place where he will open his heart to you. Even then, gently lead him to a new relationship with Jesus. Remember that lonely people do like a true friend. If you can become accepted by them as such, you can then reintroduce them to their lost Friend, Jesus Christ. It is a difficult work, but a soul rescued from sin is a real reward and such a work is part of the responsibility of both the pastor and the elder.

Talk to your pastor about the guardianship program. Start a solid program in your church for these two special groups. They're all around you.

Carl Coffman wrote this article when he was a professor in the Religion Department at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. He presently lives in Calestoga, California.