SOME ministers do very little visiting in homes. Often it is be cause they are too busy. Others, however, think of it as a chore they would rather avoid, or even as a waste of time.
When I retired in 1970 as pastor emeritus of my last parish, I came to Grace Lutheran church, a large congregation in Buffalo, New York, as part-time associate pastor, with visitation as my chief work.. This has been very rewarding, especially as I have become accustomed to including the reading of a Bible selection and the offering of a prayer in each visit I make. The people now take it for granted that I will take time for such devotional periods and seem to appreciate it very much.
I usually carry a New Testament and Psalms with me. This conveniently-sized volume gives a wide selection of passages for every possible occasion. Some times, I may use only a "penny gospel," which is even less bulky. Some ministers carry a complete Bible. This has the advantage of suggesting to people that this pastor makes a practice of always reading the Bible in connection with his pastoral visitation. In whatever form, the minister should have at least a portion of the Bible with him at all times.
There are many Bible passages that are especially appropriate for these visits. Sometimes they are from the Epistle or Gospel used in our services in the church. The Psalms are very helpful, although a caution should be raised as to their appropriateness for every occasion. Even the twenty-third psalm may not always be appropriate. On one occasion I said that I would read the twenty-third psalm when a husband was critically ill in a hospital, but his wife asked me in a highly emotional way to read something else.
In my earlier ministry I used the Scriptures only on special occasions, such as in hospital visitation and in homes where someone was ill. Having changed to the plan of reading the Bible as a part of each call I make, I wish to testify to the added blessing it has been.
In my New Testament I carry a little card that keeps me alert to questions I might ask or points I might make as I try to make the call as helpful as possible. The card includes the following:
Do you know anyone that I ought to visit? (This is especially necessary in a large congregation. I have in mind especially the sick, the elderly, those who are not attending regularly, and prospective members.)
Are there problems where I can be helpful?
When did you last take part in the communion service?
Are you a member of some of our church organizations?
Suggest ways that the person may help in the church.
Draw attention to coming events in the church.
We need a plan of visitation, or much needless talk may develop. A brief reference to the weather or some late-breaking news, or questions about the family may be helpful in breaking the ice. But beyond that we must guard against that which may lead the conversation away from spiritual matters.
We must also avoid the urge to preach a sermon. Sometimes the lay member may be overtalkative. Then the conversation may be terminated with some appropriate remark, such as "Before I go, let me read a Bible selection and offer prayer."
The Bible reading and prayer will help to make a true pastoral visit out of what might have been only a friendly or social call.
There are some problems that arise in connection with devotions in pastoral visitation. Perhaps the people are just ready to leave for an appointment. The appointment is important—it must be kept! I stay only a moment and then depart. The television or radio may be on. Many people turn it off immediately. Some turn down the television. There have been times when I sat down and watched a program through because the people being visited really wanted to see it to the end. Sometimes I suggest that we turn down the television, at least for the reading of Scripture and prayer.
What do we do when the person we are visiting seems completely dead spiritually or entirely uninterested? There have been times when I have omitted the Scripture reading and the prayer. Upon looking back, however, I usually concluded that I had made a mistake. If devotions had been held, there would have at least been a distinctly Christian witness.
From informal conversations with many ministers that I have been asked to speak to concerning pastoral visitation, I would estimate that only about half of those who visit include Bible reading and prayer in their contacts. Some who omit Bible reading do pray occasionally, perhaps when requested to do so. To some the plan of conducting devotions on pastoral visits is too "oldfashioned." However, my personal experience with this program has led me to encourage ministers to follow this plan.
When I was a hospital patient in 1971, some visiting ministers offered devotions; others did not. A hospital chaplain remarked that he conducted devotions only if he were asked. I think more is expected. Chaplains should take the initiative, at least asking the patient whether he would like to have him read a scripture and offer prayer.
The blessings that come from associating Bible reading and prayer with pastoral and hospital visits need to be understood and emphasized. My experience since being assigned to this particular area of ministry suggests that we should never, except under very unusual circumstances, omit this essential part of the pastoral call.