“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood” (Acts 20:28, NIV).
You have heard it said that “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV). But how about, “where there is no visitation, the people and the pastor will perish?” The primary object of pastoral, or elder, visitation is to show that pastors care for their flocks. People do not care how much we know until they see how much we care.
Yet some members say that they have not received a pastoral visit from their pastor or from an elder in many years. What kind of message, then, is being sent by the shepherds who do not visit their flock?
A lost art
There are several factors that have brought pastoral visitation into a period of neglect: First, the changing demographics—members in many countries commuting great distances to church rather than living in the community where the church is located. Second, the pattern of the nuclear family—members busily care for the needs of their family and have little time to entertain visits from pastors or other church leaders. Third, some pastors have moved away from the shepherd model to the general manager model—they are tied up with administrative niceties and complexities and have little time for the members of the congregation.
For the older generation of members, a visit from the pastor was the norm, but for Generation X (born 1961–1981), and Generation Y, also known as the Millennial Generation (born 1982–2000), visitation has become a lost art. Though some pastors see themselves as nurturers, they attempt to do the nurturing through sermons rather than through member visitation. This is, I believe, a big mistake.
Why they leave
Between January 2006 and December 2006, there were approximately 2000 new members added to the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ontario. However, during that same period, over 500 left. Could it be that the majority of those were never visited after their baptism? From conversations with members with whom I have visited in the hospital, in their homes, or just in casual meetings in a store, I know that many hoped for a pastoral visit.
We like to say that most of those who leave the church do so not because of doctrinal issues but because of social factors: i.e., the pastors or elders not visiting when they were sick at home or in the hospital for surgery, or when they had a problem with their child. Some members can be so particular about who visits that unless the senior pastor visits them, they do not consider themselves being “visited.”
It would appear that the church’s loss of members correlates with the feeling these people often have that the church had abandoned them after baptism. The sense of abandonment also arises in matters of church discipline, in the mid and later stages of grief, in the aftermath of separation and/or divorce, and even in retirement. Pastoral visits could do a lot to solve this problem. Again, if nothing else, these visits show that you care, and so often that makes all the difference in the world.
The pastor who visits has the ability to nurture relationships and to acknowledge the deeper needs of the people. This should enhance retention of present members as well as the recruitment of new ones. Visitation can do what massive outreach programs can’t. For example, if pastors have a concern about one of their church leaders, rather than asking the member at church why they have not been fulfilling their responsibilities, the better thing to do would be to visit with that member either at home, work, or the pastor’s office. It will amaze the pastor how that member will resume their responsibilities without much persuasion or coercion.
Pastoral visitation is as basic as taking the time to listen to someone’s deep needs. Yet one of the things that a pastor often hears is, “Pastor, I hate to bother you, but . . .” as if their needs are an intrusion upon our work. As pastors, we need to remember that their needs are our work. Yet many people have been told that their needs were secondary. By the time they get to us—their pastor or pastoral care provider—they’ve already been conditioned to consider their needs to be unimportant.
Take the initiative
As pastors are aware, a number of factors contribute to congregational strife and conflict. If pastors do not visit, based on their own initiative, they will run into problems. Congregations are sometimes willing to tolerate boring sermons, disastrous administration, and lack of organization, but members will not tolerate a lack of visitation. They count that as neglect. Even parishioners who say that they do not need a pastoral visit are often most excited when pastors do visit; they are generous in their praises of their caring pastor, who takes time out of their busy schedule to visit them.
Many a pastor’s ministry has been spared from the wrath of a full-blown congregational conflict by a significant member coming to their defense and sharing how, during a time of crisis, the pastor visited and aided them. However, maintaining the peace or protecting self from the wrath of the congregation cannot be considered as a good rationale for visits. Pastors should visit because they care.
Thus, pastors should take the initiative in visiting. Taking the initiative presumes that visiting is important and appropriate for the pastor, as a caring person, to reach out, even without an invitation. But one of the roles of the pastor includes being a caring shepherd. If you have been visiting on a regular basis, you are more likely to hear about crises. The reason why some pastors do not hear about illnesses and even deaths of members is because they have not been visiting regularly. Regular visitation allows the pastor to establish a caring relationship. Such a relationship provides a climate where the expectation of receiving care during a crisis is the norm.
Regular visitation will help people to develop trust in you as their pastor, thus preparing them to divulge more intimate details in times of crisis. One member remarked, “Because the pastor has been in my home and seen my stained couch and my fraying curtains, I feel I can trust them with the other stains that mar my life in times of crisis.” Visiting results in care giving, trusted pastors becoming involved in planning funerals or discussing surgery options for members.
Should pastors visit only in emergencies? Should they just visit once a year? Since both adults in the home are often at work, it makes it difficult to find a time when both persons will be home. But in an age when gerontology has shown that people are living longer, there are more senior citizens at home, and they treasure visits from their pastor. That means that home visits will be the most common type of visit. If a member stays in the hospital longer than overnight, a visit is usually expected. A family going through any type of crisis needs a visit. New families who have been attending the church regularly should be visited and encouraged to become members of your congregation.
In this day and time when so many people are busy, pastors, in much of the world, should call and make an appointment before coming. Calling first also helps members to prepare for your visit. However, pastors are still often welcome if they drop in on the spur of the moment.
After arriving, spend time getting to know the family or the member. Ask how long they have lived in that area or about their families. People usually love to talk about their families. You can unobtrusively look around the room for clues. Family photographs, toys, books, and other memorabilia are good clues. You may wish to share a little about yourself. When you arrive, remove your overcoat (if wearing one) and never announce that you have only so much time.
Yet, do not overstay your welcome. A visit that lasts under 30 minutes appears rushed. However, longer than one hour makes your visit just a social occasion rather than a pastoral visit.
When you find yourself drifting away during a listening session, change your body position and concentrate on listening actively. Your body position defines whether you will have the chance of being a good listener or a good deflector. Good listeners can be compared to poor boxers; they lead with their faces.
You are a pastor
When a pastor visits a parishioner, their duties include encouraging believers in their Christian faith. The pastor must not try to be the physician or the psychiatrist or the social worker. Pastors are generalists with one specific goal—to share the gospel with everyone. What the pastor says during a hospital visit, or any visit to the sick, is vitally important.
When visiting the sick, never ask direct questions like “What type of surgery did you have?” or “How long is the scar?” Ask questions like “How are you doing today?“ or “How has your day been so far?” Listen sympathetically, but do not give advice or share stories of what happened to you or other people who have suffered the same illness. Remember that you are not the physician or the social worker.
You are the pastor. Get acquainted with other family members. Have your Bible and be willing to share words of hope. Never leave the bedside of the sick without praying. Even if the person you are visiting lies in a coma, still pray. Hearing is one of the last senses to go. So be very careful what you say at the bedside.
Always remember that your ministry will be stronger and more meaningful if you make the effort to stand by your members through the changing scenes of life—through sorrow and through joy. This we are called to do as shepherds of the flock.