Recently Thom Rainer posted some reflections on church member visitation, providing 15 reasons why those in pastoral ministry ‘shouldn’t visit much’. While the risk of being viewed by one’s congregation as a sanctified social worker or life coach is ever present, and while some local churches impose utterly unreasonable visitation demands on their Pastor, there are also significant dangers in neglecting this vital work.
Here, rather than critiquing Dr Rainer’s reasoning, I share 15 of my own incentives to keep going at pastoral visitation. I read Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor once every year, and am forcibly reminded from its pages just how far short I fall in this area of ministry. The following are, however, offered as aspirational statements. They appear in no particular order.
I should also say that balance and context must always be borne in mind with regard to our ministry priorities. Every Pastor ministers in a different setting with differing time constraints, and under different expectations. We are all unique individuals with varied gifts, and these general observations in no way seek to steamroller those.
1. The principles behind pastoral visitation are biblically mandated. While there are no direct injunctions in Scripture for home visitation, the broad picture of the Pastor in the New Testament is one of a man engaged with the people under his care. Paul supplemented his public ministry with ‘house to house’ discipleship (Acts 20:20); he shared not only the gospel but his very self (or life) with the Thessalonians (1Thessalonians 2:8); his instruction to Timothy incorporates broad brush ministry, but also specific relational guidelines for differing groups of members (1Timothy 5:2). We could build a solid theology of interpersonal pastoral discipleship from the New Testament. These encounters don’t need to be realised in people’s homes, but often that is the best location of all.
2. Pastoral visitation keeps the need for plurality of leadership firmly on the Pastor’s agenda. A church with a significant number of members will soon wear out the best intentions of any man who believes that he can exercise pastoral care outside of the biblical pattern of a plurality of elders. Seeking to meet some of our people’s pastoral needs will help us to recognise that we can’t meet them all. This is a great impetus to train others to share the privilege of private discipleship with church members.
3. Pastoral visitation applies needed pressure on our preparation and study time. Speaking personally, I need pressure to work. A fifty or sixty hour week of study for two Sunday sermons sounds like bliss at times, but in reality I could never fill those hours with entirely productive study. Balancing my time between preparation and visitation keeps my perfectionistic tendencies in preparing a sermon in check, and applies sufficient pressure on me to actually meet the never-ending deadline of Sunday ministry.
4. Crisis and emergency pastoral care is deepened and more fully facilitated by regular visitation. At times of need people are often inundated with specialists from the secular world who are concerned with meeting their needs in the short term. In such circumstances they need pastoral care from a trusted confidante, rather than a tasked consultant. The time spent with people in the non-crisis moments of life opens the door to ministering to them meaningfully at those times when the wheels come off.
5. Pastoral visitation leads to real evangelistic opportunity. Our church members do not live vacuum-sealed lives. Many of them have non-Christian family members and friends, or unsaved neighbours. Our presence in their lives and homes provides opportunity to share our lives and the gospel with non-Christians whom we would never otherwise meet. These seemingly arbitrary and casual connections can yield rich fruit if properly cultivated.
6. Constant exposure to/study of Scripture places the Pastor in a unique position to bring biblical counsel. While much that we glean in preparation and study should be invested into the lives of others who can in turn minister, we are also privileged to be in sustained contact with the Word of God in a way which will uniquely shape the contours and content of our pastoral counselling. Often what I read in works of Biblical Theology is as helpful in counselling a weary Christian as it is in producing a helpful sermon.
7. Regular contact with the members of the churches in which we serve is a great antidote to pastoral frustration. If our time is spent chiefly in the company of commentaries, colleagues, and people who are gospel-oriented enough to want to be trained for ministry, then we can easily disconnect from the struggles that our members are facing. We preach with the glory of God always in view, but also with the express concern for people growing in their faith. We can easily slip into critical patterns of thought when we see those in our care not growing in grace as we might wish. Spending time with them, listening to the pressures and obstacles to Christian growth that they are facing, might enable us to encourage and challenge them with more compassion and a greater appreciation of just how tough it can be to develop in our Christian lives.
8. Our prayer lives are enriched by intentionally listening to the needs of our people. Through pastoral visitation I am privileged to be able to pray for our members in much more meaningful ways, understanding their needs and challenges more clearly.
9. False teaching and wrong thinking can be more sensitively (and less censoriously) dealt with in one to one contact. There is certainly a place for exposing false teaching through our pulpit ministry, but we are enabled to gently inform the doctrinal thinking of our church members through private conversation and counsel.
10. Through visitation we get to share not only our preaching but our lives with fellow church members. Aside from getting to know members of the church, they get to know us a little better, and that can be of enormous help to their engagement with our preaching.
11. We need to be encouraged through the fellowship that visitation fosters. I often end a day of visitation wondering who has been more blessed by my calls to people’s homes: me or them? I need the encouragement that conversation with my brothers and sisters brings. Paul might have wanted to go to Rome to encourage the believers there, but he also needed to be encouraged by them (Romans 1:12).
12. Visitation protects us from living a sheltered life. This is a world full of challenge and contradiction to the work of the gospel. By listening in on the lives and struggles of our brothers and sisters we are reminded constantly of what the ‘real’ world is like. There is an argument for the Pastor being the least sheltered member of the whole church.
13. Our preaching, particularly in terms of application, is enriched by visiting with church members. I would never allow visitation to set the agenda for my preaching, but I might benefit from allowing it to steer my application. Understanding where people are at helps me to show them where the teaching of a Scriptural passage fits in the life they are living.
14. The best forum for a members’ Q&A session can often be in their living rooms. Christian believers often harbour questions, concerns, and even doubts about their faith that they would never articulate in a group setting. What a privilege for the Pastor to be able to listen carefully and seek to answer biblically the questions that many Christians have about Scripture and holy living.
15. Pastoral visitation humbles me by its never-finished nature. If preaching is a task for which there is seldom immediate meaningful feedback, then visitation reflects the same reality. I am never fully satisfied with my visitation, I am conscious of my shortcomings, and can even question my usefulness in serving the Lord in this context. But God is sovereign, and God is using even my weakest efforts in seeking to promote growth in grace in the lives of others. Not knowing what impact seemingly trivial contact with others Christians might have is a great driver of faith and trust in God using my very weakness for his glory. Who is to say that that visit in which we struggle to connect or counsel in a measurable way isn’t the very conversation that God might use to effect change in the life of one of His children? I sow in faith when I am spending time with people as much as when I am spending time in the pulpit.