Every pastor ought to visit the members. Every visit ought not be made by the pastor. These two statements summarize the crux of overwrought expectations for pastoral visitation. Another denominational magazine recently opined on the insensitivity of shepherds who published instructions in their bulletin for members to request pastoral visits.
Systematic, consistent visitation of church members does need to occur, and members have reasonable expectations that such pastoral visitation will occur.
However, members have unreasonable expectations if they believe the pastors should personally perform the visitation process that rightly belongs within the assignment of the local church elders and other laity leadership.
For example, in my last pastoral assignment, I could have made a fulltime career out of circulating among the seven or eight hospitals in our metropolis where my sick members were being treated. The circuit to just one of those hospitals—the most prestigious in the region—took over three hours from the church to a short visit at the hospital bedside and back again.
Reasonable expectation—sick members will be visited, especially when they are in the hospital. Unreasonable expectation—the pastor will personally do that visitation. An irate member complained that she had been hospitalized, and I had failed to visit her. I responded, “But you did receive a pastoral visit from two of the elders who reported to me of your progress.” When she retorted, “But you did not visit,” I recalled and repeated the statement I had learned from a wise, older pastor. “Sister, let us right now offer a prayer of thanksgiving that you were not so ill that they had to call for me to visit. You do not want to become that sick.” In that same pastorate, I surveyed each member right at the beginning of my tenure. Upon analysis, one of the multiple-choice questions produced interesting insight. The question:
How would you like to receive pastoral visits?
__ Drop in anytime. __ By appointment only. __ Only when I request a visit.
The surprising result was the age demographic for the various respondents. The first option was primarily selected by retirees over age 65. The “By appointment only” option was most typically the response of mid-career members, age 40 to 65. The “Only when requested” group was heavily weighted to the “under 40” group, many of them young adults and overextended parents of small children.
I wonder if the responses would follow the same age/schedule track if the congregation were surveyed again today. I believe that expectations would shift along with the changed circumstances of life. The analysis of that survey encouraged me to reclassify pastoral visitation into several categories of need and responsibility.
Proactive visitation. We enlarged our board of elders and divided the congregation into groups for which the laity leaders were responsible for regular visitation on behalf of the pastoral team.
Our elders were always to visit with a partner. As pastor, I would rotate among the elders and thus could visit some of the members from time to time while assuring that all the members would be routinely visited over the course of the year.
Reactive visitation. Family crisis such as death, traumatic illness and anointing, or unexpected challenges received a higher priority in which our elders knew to involve the pastor in the visitation process. Such reactive visits could also come at joyous times such as wedding preparations, birth and child dedications, graduation celebrations, or home dedications. Remember how much ministry Jesus accomplished at banquets, funerals, and social gatherings.
“Deactive” visitation. If permitted, emotionally unstable individuals would monopolize nearly all of the pastor’s time. Such members must have specifi c limitations set or nothing else could be accomplished beyond allowing them to vent their frustrations or expound fanciful theological theories.
When someone asks to relate their long, involved story, I always respond: “I can give you ten minutes now or a half-hour next week if you wish to write all the information out so that I can read and understand your thinking in advance.” My busy schedule forces them to prioritize or seek other outlets.
Creactive visitation. Much of my personal visitation was designed around engaging people whose circumstances could make an “infl uence contribution” to the church. For example, praying with police offi cers, fi refi ghters, judges, and city offi cials. I asked my members to introduce me to their business associates, neighbors, and friends whose infl uence would positively impact the church. I invested time and energy in relationships with pastors of all denominations and unchurched associates of my leaders.
Instructive visitation. The most delightful visitation for me develops people for spiritual growth, preparation for baptism and church membership, premarital counseling, leadership development, and creative visioning in areas where the church can expand.
Where have all the shepherds gone? Because they are typically overworked, I hope they have gone for some vacation time, especially if they have the assurance that proper planning provides consistent visitation for their members.