Pastoral visitation

Pastoral visitation: in person or by... ?

Technology may help, but can never be a substitute for personal visitation.

R. Clifford Jones, D.Min., Ph.D., is chair of the Christian Ministry Department, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Is the pastoral visit a phenomenon of the past? Some pastors think so, and give many and varied reasons ranging from the sublime to the ludicrous. For some, technological advancements have rendered visitation obsolete. Such pastors argue that visiting may have been necessary when telephones were a luxury, but in this high-tech age of video messages, telephones, answering machines, etc., it makes little sense for a minister to make his or her way to a member's home when a 5- or 10-minute phone call will do. Then there is the matter of time. Many clergy contend that, given the increasing demands on their time, it only makes sense to minister by telephone. Add to this the fact that a majority of parishioners are employed outside the home, which cuts down the time available for visitation.

Another reason for not visiting homes is lack of or limited resources. An aggressive, wide-ranging visitation program can run up the expenses of the pastor, so they should explore ways of saving money, such as visiting with congregants in the pastor's study.

All of this may call into question the wisdom and relevance of the pastoral visit to a parishioner's home. And yet, can ministry afford not to have home visitation?

Biblical rationale

Notwithstanding the differences of opinion pastors may have, home visitation has a biblical rationale. In Scripture we find God visiting with people both before and after the Fall. In fact, after Adam and Eve fell it was God who took the initiative in seeking them (see Gen. 3:8, 9). The Bible provides unambiguous proof that our God is not aloof, but approachable, and that He visits with His people in their circumstances, surroundings, and situations (see Gen. 18:1-16).

But God was not content to visit periodically with His people, so He went several steps further and sent His Son to live with us: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14).* In Jesus Christ the transcendent God became immanent and one with us. The purpose of the Incarnation was not so that God could condemn or censure the human family, but that He could save it unto Himself. "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him" (John 3:17).

Perhaps nothing more characterizes the life and ministry of Jesus than His identification and empathy with people, including and especially those whom society condemned as sinners. Jesus often visited people in their homes, where He listened to them, ate with them, and generally met their needs (Mark 1:29-34; 5:35-43; Luke 19:5). Writes Ellen White: "Our Saviour went from house to house, healing the sick, comforting the mourners, soothing the afflicted, speaking peace to the disconsolate."1 Christ also showed how important visitation was by placing it among other acts of kindness and benevolence that would separate the sheep from the goats in the final great assize (see Matt. 25:34- 46).

If ministers are to follow the example of their Lord they will there fore be found often in the homes of their members. Ellen White is quite instructive in this regard, stating that "ministry means much more than sermonizing,"2 and that pastors "should visit the people in their homes, talking and praying with them in earnestness and humility."3 But she doesn't end there, going on further to state that "no minister is sufficiently equipped for his work who does not know how to meet the people at their homes, and come into close relation to their needs."4

Benefits of pastoral visitation One can hardly overemphasize or belabor the significance and relevance of pastoral visitation, especially in a parishioner's home. There is simply no place more appropriate than the home for pas tors to interact with their members in a personal manner. And this holds true whether such interaction is for the purpose of leading a person to Christ, reclaiming a lost soul, or offering support and guidance. To be sure, quality pastoral care may be provided at other times and in other places, but seldom is it ever better provided than in the privacy of the home, where face-to-face, one-on-one conversation and interaction can take place.

To be effective, pastors cannot afford to remain apart from their members. We must come down from our ivory towers, our stations of apartness, and meet with our people where they are. Then our ministry will become more vibrant and successful. How? For starters, we experience firsthand the conditions under which our people are attempting to live out the king dom values. Pastors who visit have a better idea of their members' concerns and cares. This information is vital, perhaps even foundational, for ministers, who, as shepherds, must constantly search for ways to meet the felt needs of their flocks.

Another benefit of pastoral visitation is that it helps in building warm, caring relationships. In the home the pastor is bound to be seen as a warm human being who cares, and as a person who is able to relax, laugh, eat, and talk about a host of issues, including some not directly connected to Scripture. As a consequence, the relationship between the minister and member will grow.

A third benefit of pastoral visitation is that it leads to a heightened interest in the church. Members whose leaders visit with them are more apt to feel a part of the church. Accordingly, they involve themselves and lend their full support to various ministries and programs of the church. Seldom, if ever, do these members have to be cajoled into being faithful stewards.

Retired North American Division president Charles Bradford loves to say that a home-going pastor makes for a churchgoing people. This statement still holds true. Apostasies usually are low when pastors visit their members. Thus pastoral visitation also leads to a deepened spirituality on the part of the member. But it doesn't end there. I believe that the pastor's own spirituality also will be deepened as he or she enters into an experience with the member in the home.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church, faced with a disturbing and tragic missing-member problem,5 certainly stands to benefit if its clergy would do more visiting. Fortunately, church leadership recognizes this. At its 1990 Annual Council the General Conference appealed to every division, union, conference/mission, and institution to have church member ship visitation as part of their Global Mission strategy. This action was long in coming.

Guidelines for effective visitation But how is pastoral visitation done so that the benefits mentioned above are realized? Certainly not all visits made by pastors lead to increased church attendance. I know of one church member who stopped attending church because her pastor dropped in one day, ostensibly because he "just happened" to be in the neighborhood, and then proceeded to bore her with details about her new neighbors. Pastors must know how to visit to reap the desired benefits.

Here are some general principles and guidelines for a successful visitation program.

1. Plan the visit with specific objectives and goals in mind. Why are you calling on this member or person? What do you wish to accomplish by this visit? Do you have as much information as I'm possible about the family? Exercise tact and common sense during the visit so as to protect the individual or family from concluding that you are either prying into their affairs or snooping around.

2. Schedule the visit. Many pastors call on parishioners unannounced, believing that setting an appointment robs the visit of its spontaneity and them of their flexibility. This may be true, but the drawbacks of an unscheduled visit far outweigh any ad vantage. On the practical side, you may make your way to a member's home only to discover that the member is not there or not in a position to welcome you. Even visits to health institutions should be scheduled; you don't want to go to a hospital or nursing home only to find that the patient is in therapy, surgery, or perhaps discharged.

Another important reason for scheduling your visit is that it is not proper social ethics to visit people without informing them ahead of time. Unscheduled visits almost always create anxiety and stress in parishioners, many of whom may pass the time you are there praying that you leave soon. The unscheduled visit may help the pastor meet a visitation goal, but it will hardly lead to a strengthening of the relationship between the pastor and parishioner.

People not only need to know that their pastor will be visiting with them, but also why he or she is coming. Few members appreciate preparing for a visit not knowing why you'll be there.

3. Be relaxed. A nervous and tense pastor can upset a parishioner. If your next appointment is causing some concern about time, then cancel or postpone it. Members feel demoralized when during a visit the pastor keeps constantly looking at the watch.

The rushed visit benefits neither the pastor nor the parishioner. Again, such visits may lead to quantity, but they always lack in quality. It is far better for you to make two or three quality visits in a day than 10 hurried ones. The latter tends to leave pastors stressed out and members frustrated, unfulfilled, unaffirmed, and disappointed.

Being relaxed means that you will strive to make the person you're visiting as comfortable as possible. Communicate in both demeanor and words that you are not there to judge, condemn, or embarrass. Speak with warmth. Be genuine in your words. Look for opportunities to affirm the individual.

4. Create an atmosphere of confidence. At times members want to share information and experience of a confidential nature. Create an atmosphere in which they can speak freely. Let them feel confident that what they share with you will not be used as public information, such as in a sermon illustration. To do so even with out revealing names is to destroy trust and confidence that members have in you.

5. Listen empathetically. Most people think they must talk "religiously" in the presence of ministers. Let them know that that isn't so. En courage them to talk about their feelings, concerns, questions, and issues of life. Be attentive. Empathize. Listen to unspoken messages. Keep the conversation flowing. Periods of silence may tend to be dysfunctional.

6. Conclude with prayer. No pastoral visit should ever end without prayer. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the visit, people expect that at some point in a pastoral call the pastor will pray. Don't disappoint them. Place the hopes and concerns of the conversation before the Lord, asking Him to work things out for them.

Pastoral visitation is not a peripheral or incidental phenomenon. It is an essential part of the ministry in the steps of the Lord who visited us.

* All Scripture references in this article are from the New International Version.

1. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), p. 188.

2. Ibid., p. 185.

3. Ibid., p. 187.

4. ____, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 438.

5. Monte Sahlin, "Where Have All the Members Gone?" Ministry, February 1990, pp. 4-6.

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R. Clifford Jones, D.Min., Ph.D., is chair of the Christian Ministry Department, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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