Weary from a tense encounter with a patient, I took a few minutes to relax in the visitor's lounge.
While preparing for another visit, I noticed a woman in her fifties whose warm smile and eye contact invited me to introduce myself as a member of the pastoral care team.
"I work as a church treasurer," she said. "Have been there for over fifteen years. Within my tenure, we've had four pastors."
"How is your pastor doing now?" I asked.
She paused and then confided, "He has just returned after a year of recovering from burnout."
I expressed concern for her pastor's welfare and asked, "What do you think contributes to a pastor's success?"
"Visitation!" she answered without hesitation.
Amazed, I assured her that "I, too, am interested in pastoral visitation. I'm in training to supervise pastors to make meaningful pastoral visits. This supervisory program is called Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) Supervision."
"What methods are used to teach you the values of pastoral visitation?" she asked.
"The pastoral caregivers make innumerable visits, including ministering to scores of families who have lost loved ones. In the last few years, I've visited about 1,000 patients and church members. Usually I listen, pray, and read the Bible with them. Afterward, I reflect and evaluate each visit as to whether I have been caring. I am under constant supervision from several experienced supervisors at the same time I'm supervising others. Pastoral visitation creates a thousand opportunities for real ministry and attracts just as many blessings."
That encounter sparked in me a desire to analyze the importance of visitation.
Benefits of visitation
Spiritual growth. Without a deep personal experience with God, pastors cannot make meaningful visits. Spiritual preparation before visiting is important. Without communion with God, visitations can become social events only. Mutual interactions be tween pastors and members evoke a desire to know each other better. Thus it enhances both pastors and members to a better knowledge of God and them selves.
Several years ago, as a church pas tor, I repeatedly visited a former church member. We enjoyed a series of Bible studies. This eighty-year-old gentleman expressed with utmost sincerity his re newed longing for God. "I want to be re-baptized," he said. What a remarkable transformation; from estrangement to "new creation"! (2 Cor. 5:17).
Relationships. Pastoral visits cement relationships between pastors and their members. Since relationships are vital in Christian ministry, these visits help parishioners know their pastors. Pastors also can encourage members to visit one another. In the first church I pastored, members lived in close proximity. I encouraged them to visit one another. As a result of their frequent contacts and my visits, the church, a small congregation, became very close. Visitation fosters unity and is key to establishing a warm and caring congregation. The pastor's sincerity in making effective visits is certain to produce results.
Preaching. Pastoral visits give pas tors insights into the lives of members, which enables the minister to preach with a particularly focused relevance. In my presentation on baptism, I recalled a recent visit to a young couple who rejoiced over their first newborn. I de scribed the way I and the parents held the infant, how we felt in doing so, and what happened between us as we did it. This experience enabled me to urge the congregation to care for new members, as these parents cared for their baby.
Nurture. Pastoral visitation is an integral part of church ministry. Jesus' parting words to Peter urged him to feed His lambs (John 21:15-19). Coming close to people is essential in nurturing them. Each day their minds are bombarded with unwelcome ideas. Attaining nurture through shepherding is crucial, and it includes healing, sustaining, and guiding.1 To prioritize shepherding in pastoral responsibility is essential in these days when most church members constantly experience stress and hurt. This calls for an increase in training in pastoral care and pastoral education in both the seminary and continuing education programs.2
Stewardship. Pastoral visitation is key to communicating the relevance of stewardship. During the Wall Street collapse of October 1989, an elderly member of our church lost heavily. The impact of the loss was so great that he suffered a stroke. During my visit, he welcomed me as I prayed for his recovery and conducted a Communion service for him. The following Sabbath, his wife gave a very substantial offering to the church. There is no better motivation to giving than for the pastor to provide a member with effective pastoral care through preaching and visitation.
Personal growth. Visiting others of ten reveals inadequacies in the pastor's own life. One professor at the Adventist Theological Seminary confided that "most seminarians are poor in comprehending the weaknesses and needs of their own inner being. They do not know themselves. They are not sure of their personal and professional identity." Ministers need to rediscover themselves by asking, "Who am I and what is a pastor?" This can be clarified for the pastor in his or her visitation of people.
My own lack of self-understanding became clear when I visited Joseph, a young student wrongfully sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment because of his involvement in an automobile accident. In spite of the unfairness, he grew spiritually while in prison. We encouraged each other. I shared that I, too, had been unfairly judged. However, upon reflection, I over-identified my self with him. Had I concentrated and focused more on him and his concerns, and not so much on my own, I could have been more helpful.
It has been said, "You must educate and train yourselves to visit every family that you can possibly get access to. The results of this work will testify that it is the most profitable work a gospel minster can do."3
Why the lack of pastoral visiting?
Why do pastors make comparatively few visits?
Most seminaries teach students how to preach, exegete, and manage a church. These roles are important. But we should not minimize or omit training in how to listen, counsel, and visit? It is probably true that some of us are tempted to be negligent and uncaring about visitation because pastoral visits demand patience, compassion and genuine diligence. But one of the great pastors of this century said it well when he wrote: "Many a pastor does not be come a true Christian until he engages in spiritual care."4
Perhaps some pastors don't visit because they do not plan effectively. Setting aside the hours and energy to visit takes planning. Perhaps we do not visit because we are afraid it will reveal too much of us because in visiting we become too vulnerable. Or could it be simply because of a lack of love for God and others? To know God brings new challenges and responsibilities; to know self leads to genuine repentance and a daily conversion.
Some pastors are satisfied with a superficial relationship with parishioners. When they lack the depth of understanding of God and self, relationships with others remain at a distant, shallow level. This is followed by vagueness in preaching. Thus many congregations have been hurt because church members who expected pastoral care do not receive it.
As pastors we need to be stricken with awe as we read passages such as Psalm 23 and John 10 great chapters on shepherding. One commentator on the shepherd psalm challenges: "Do I sit up on my pedestal of self-pride and look with contempt upon my contemporaries, or do I get down and identify myself with them in their dilemma and there extend a small measure of the goodness and mercy given to me by my Master?"5
Indeed, pastoral visitation is not an option but a way of pastoral life.
1 Steward Hiltner, Preface to Pastoral Theology
(New York: Abingdon Press, 1958), 28.
2 Ibid., 32.
3 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 440.
4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Spiritual Care
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 45.
5 Philip Keller, The Inspirational Writings
(New York: Inspirational Press, 1993), 115.