Pastor's Pastor

Pastor's Pastor: Visitation revisited

Pastor's Pastor: Visitation revisited

We pastors seldom visit too much.

James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

We pastors seldom visit too much. Only once did I know a pastor who overvisited—from first thing every morning until too late into the evening. His colleagues often repeated jokes about his reputation for visiting at such odd hours, calling him a “visiting fool.” His members called him something else—“our best pastor ever!”

Too often, our good intentions for visiting members collide with reality in the form of overcrowded schedules, urgencies trumping essentials, insufficient time for our own families, plus inadequate planning. These encroach to the point that our performance seldom matches the expectations our members have for us or even those we expect from ourselves.

Back in the day when pastors were required to list cumulative visits on the monthly conference report, I was shocked one time to learn that an intern had reported nearly 200 visits for a particular month. In fact, a quick review of his previous reports showed that he seldom reported less than 100 pastoral or evangelistic visits per month. Attempting to match these extraordinary reports to his ordinary behavior, I asked about his method for achieving such grand totals. “Oh, that’s easy,” he responded. “Each day I meet the parents as they collect their kids from school. In just a half hour, I make at least twenty spiritual visits.”

Even when members receive pastoral care, they sometimes fail to identify the spiritual nurture they have received because it may not match their expectations. A conference official once expressed frustration that his pastor had not visited his home in years except when his mother died. While this was a factual report, accuracy and reality should also indicate that this leader’s heavy travel, committee, and weekend schedule left him seldom at home to receive visitation. Numbers of his colleagues, myself included, had come to his office to pray with him and encourage his effective leadership. But because these instances had not occurred at his house, he did not view such encounters as pastoral visitation. If this leader believed he had not received adequate pastoral care, imagine what members have concluded when they report, “We never see the pastor.”

Another leader, facing professional discipline for misconduct, widely complained that none of his colleagues had extended pastoral care in his hour of trauma despite the reality that he had declined counsel and care from several ministers including long-time friends.

Sometimes, people refuse to be pastored. Others may fail to recognize acts that we believe express sensitive care and appropriate concern.

Beyond regularly scheduled systematic visitation of your members, which should function best as an intentionally coordinated plan by the pastor and elders together, specific instances demand pastoral visitation with an essential and clearly expressed agenda.

Serious illness. Visit a dying person to share an assuring text of Scripture, inquire about their spiritual peace with God (“How do you feel about God’s assurance of personal love in your own life?”), encourage hope in Jesus’ soon return, and ask if they have specific prayer requests or if they would like to be anointed.

Such visits accomplish much more if they are relatively brief rather than marathon sessions. Remember, Jesus assured salvation to the thief on the cross with just a dozen words.

Hospital. When visitation occurs at a medical facility, pastors should be sensitive to prioritize the busy schedule of physicians, technicians, and therapists, as well as noting the lack of privacy if other patients share the same room. While you may appropriately offer to include another patient sharing the same room in prayer, you should anticipate that lack of privacy may make your parishioner uncomfortable with in-depth discussions of spiritual or physical issues. Always ask about a person’s requests for your prayer on their behalf. Don’t assume that you know. A young parent may be eager for healing and full restoration of strength, while an older saint may be longing for a quick and peaceful end to life in confident assurance of Jesus’ return.

Grief. Simply being there with the family forms the most beneficial process of pastoral visitation at the time of death in a family. Your physical presence provides much more meaningful care than any words or exhortations you express. Sit quietly with the family and allow plenty of time for listening to their responses to your question, “Tell me about your loved one’s life . . .” Bible promises of Jesus’ return, our heavenly home, and God’s promised restoration of all good things are excellent ways to assure grief-stricken families of your pastoral care. The most meaningful pastoral care I received during the hour immediately following the news of my brother’s death came from a pastoral couple whom I had never met. They simply stood silently by my side, hands on my shoulder, while I made telephone calls and processed the impact of such a sudden loss.


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James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

April 2009

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