The pastor and visitation: Richard Baxter's model

A "classic" model of pastoral visitation: its parameters, purposes, and opportunities

Paul Miller is pastor of the Grantham United Church in St. Catherine's, Ontario, Canada

Three hundred fifty years after it was written, The Reformed Pastor by the English Puritan Richard Baxter, remains one of the most helpful works available on pastoral ministry. In these times when there is so much confusion over pastoral roles and expectations,2 Baxter's work can illuminate the goals and methods of ministry. The book is an extended treatment of Acts 20:28: "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood."

This pastoral classic falls into three sections. In the first, Baxter outlines the need for pastors to have oversight of themselves.3 The second section concerns pastoral oversight of the congregation in a spirit of humility and service.4 The need for pastors to "take heed unto themselves" and to "oversee the church of God" are the twin themes that run throughout. Pastors cannot be effective unless they practice both personal self-examination and devotion to their flocks. In the third section, Baxter makes a practical application of the principles outlined in the first two.5 This section is a detailed argument in favor of regular, systematic, personal instruction of the congregation. Baxter himself spent two full days a week with his congregation, teaching them the essentials of their faith. I want to focus on the method of systematic visitation.

Ministry more than a "job"

Baxter lamented a situation in his day that is similar to our own. Many, he said, treat the ministry as "but a trade to live by."6 However, there is a key difference between pastoral ministry and every other occupation. Pastors are called to be shepherds of the church of God (Acts 20:28). They are not called to "do a job" or even to carry out "professional responsibilities," but are summoned into a living, personal relationship with a community of people on behalf of Jesus Christ.

Pastoral ministry is, in essence, a personal relationship. We cannot put sharp boundaries around authentic personal relationships, because they are grounded in the communion of whole personalities that cannot be fragmented into "roles" or "functions." In a marriage it is impossible to separate the "roles" of friend, lover, partner, adviser, critic, or cheerleader that are bundled together into the designation "spouse." Likewise, pastoral ministry defies the categories and classifications of the modern "job description" that tends to reflect the alien ethos of business or government more than the values of the kingdom of Christ. The "job" of the pastor is determined by our calling to care for people in the name of the Good Shepherd. Baxter understood that ministers cannot think about what they do apart from who they are and whose they are.

Integration through visitation

Baxter's holistic understanding of ministry with reference to the last part of The Reformed Pastor is illustrated when he deals with "personal catechizing and instructing,"7 or pastoral visitation. Visiting, Baxter argued, is the principle method of bringing about personal "reformation" in the parish.8 (This is the sense in which he talks about the "reformed" pastor. "Reformed" does not refer narrowly to a particular confession but should be under stood in the sense of "re-formed" remade, reshaped, renewed.) Baxter combined visitation with instruction into an overall strategy of pastoral care. He insisted that every pastor should devote a large portion of the week to visiting people in their homes, following the apostles' example (Acts 5:42) by instructing them on the "principles of religion" and testing their knowledge.9

Even in the seventeenth century, it seems, pastors resisted going out and visiting their flocks. "We teach our people in public [on Sundays]," they argued, "how then are we bound to teach them [individually] besides?"10 Baxter tried to get pastors to stop thinking of visitation as an onerous duty and to consider it an advantage to both themselves and their people.

The people benefit when the pas tor combines visiting with personal instruction, because one-on-one encounters lead to deeper intimacy and effectiveness. Baxter describes the sort of person with whom every pas tor is familiar: the faithful pew-sitter who, after listening to decades of sermons, still does not know the difference between Genesis and Revelation, let alone the more subtle points of Christian doctrine.11 More can be accomplished with such a per son, he argues, in 30 minutes of private conversation than in 10 years of preaching, because the communication of the gospel is a profoundly personal event. The pastor mediates a personal Savior to his or her flock, person-to-person. Each person tends to respond to sermons in his or her own way, and often they do not hear accurately what the preacher has said. Personal conversation can deal with the individual's own peculiar needs and correct misunderstandings.

Regular personal instruction benefits the pastor as well as the congregation. People get to know a pastor who visits and can cooperate more effectively in the redemptive work of the church. 12

Visiting strengthens preaching, because it helps pastors know what to preach. They come to know their people's struggles and fears. This knowledge enables them to preach with greater power. Baxter expresses it eloquently: "By means of [personal instruction!, we shall come to be better acquainted with each person's spiritual state, and so the better know how to watch over them. We shall know better how to preach to them, and carry ourselves to them, when we know their temper.... We shall know better how to lament for them, and to rejoice with them, and to pray for them."13

Knowledge of Scripture combined with intentional visitation are the practical foundations of evangelical preaching: "as the physician's work is half done when he understands the disease, so, when you are well acquainted with your people's case, you will know what to preach on" (page 228). Indeed, Baxter regarded personal instruction as a form of preaching. "Surely," he wrote, "a man may as truly preach to one, as to a thousand" (page 228).

Visitation also engages the pastor as a healer. Baxter uses the images of the "shepherd" and the "physician" to describe the minister. 14 We are called to bind up the brokenhearted and to heal their wounds with the medicine of the gospel. Unlike other helpers, pastors can actually go out to seek and save the lost. We have what Paul Pruyser has called "the pastoral right of initiative and access." 15 Once people have invited us in, we discover how many broken and breaking hearts there are out there. It never ceases to amaze me how people will open their hearts to their pastor during the course of the visit, confiding things they have not told even their closest friends or family. We can use such opportunities to teach them of the healing power of the Savior.

Several pastoral roles preacher, teacher, healer coalesce in the act of visitation. Baxter did not view visitation as merely one of the "tasks" that keep the pastor busy. It is a method or a means by which the pastor can more effectively be who he or she is called to be. According to Thomas Oden, pastoral visitation "is one way of reflecting the glory of God's own visitation of humanity in Christ, seeking the lost, redeeming sin, mending pain." 16

Conditions are very different today from what they were in the 1600s. Consequently, it is not easy for pastors to do what Richard Baxter did: spend all day Monday and Tuesday interviewing families. Practically speaking, people are too scattered today, both in terms of geography and of lifestyle. However, Baxter's central principle that personal visitation strengthens the total pastoral ministry can still be adapt ed profitably to the contemporary situation. This is especially true in smaller communities where the neighborhood church still exists.

No matter what the difficulties, it is essential that we pay attention to Baxter's model of the active pastor "going out," "seeking," rather than passively waiting for people to come to church, to join Bible study, to make appointments.

Using pastoral visitation to teach

There are many occasions when visiting and teaching can be combined.

First, the pastor has certain "rites of passage" which provide excellent teaching opportunities. Visiting with a young couple planning to get married, with parents after the birth of a child, with bereaved families these are all opportunities for deepening Christian understanding.

Marriage appointments can be a time to instruct couples about the uniqueness of the Christian concept of love in contrast to popular roman tic notions. The pastor can relate the unconditional love promised in the marriage vows to the unconditional love of Christ for His people, and actually invite couples to a deeper Christian commitment.

Baptisms or dedications can be opportunities to teach about God's covenant faithfulness and His promise of a future. Pastors can bring young parents into touch with Jesus' words about childlike faith.

Funeral preparations not only serve a comforting purpose, but are moments for teaching about the gospel of resurrection.

Second, pastors can teach during times of crisis. The death of a loved one, the breakdown of a marriage, or the loss of a job plunge people intoemotional, social and spiritual crises. Particularly in smaller communities, with limited mental health resources, the pastor is still most likely to receive the first cry for help when lives begin to crumble." Pastors continue to be on the very front lines in dealing with individuals and families in crisis.

Acute loss is often accompanied by feelings of guilt. "What did I do to cause this to happen? What could I have done to prevent it from happening?" People are brought face-to-face with issues of sin, failure, and injustice at such times. Visitation at times of crisis affords the pastor the opportunity to bring people into touch with the realities of grace, forgiveness, and hope that lie at the heart of the gospel.

Visits during passages and crises are special opportunities for pastoral instruction. It is not necessary to wait for these exceptional moments. Regular visitation in people's homes should have an implicit teaching or proclaiming component. It is not always possible or desirable to have an overtly theological discussion. In most cases, it is possible to apply Christian faith and teaching in some way to the concrete circumstances of life.

There are many excellent resources that can guide and encourage the present-day pastor. I have found none more challenging and rewarding than Richard Baxter's The Reformed Pastor.

1 Richard Baxter, The. Reformed Pastor, 1656 (Edinburgh' Banner of Truth Trust, 1974).

2 See Ronald E. Olson, Creative Disarray: Models of Ministry in a Changing America (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1990), 5 "No clear consensus prevails in America as to what a minister is or ought to be.

3 The Reformed Pastor, 53-86.

4 Ibid. 87-132.

5 Ibid. 172ff.

6 Ibid, 80

7 Ibid., 172.

8 Ibid 190, 191.

9 Ibid., 229.

10 Ibid., 212

11 Ibid. 190

12 Ibid 178

l3 Ibid

14 Ibid., 40, 88.

15 Paul Pruyser, The Minister as Diagnostician (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 25.

16 Thomas C. Oden, Pastoral Theology. Essentials of Ministry (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), 171.

17 Sec David G Benner, Strategic Pastoral Counseling. A Short-Term Structured Model (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 25, 26



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Paul Miller is pastor of the Grantham United Church in St. Catherine's, Ontario, Canada

November 2003

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