You cannot visit all the members all the time. The reality of overcrowded schedules and overstressed ministers often leaves an awesome expectation gap between intention and reality.
In my own family, for example, immediately following the airplane crash that took my brother’s life, my father complained that his pastor had failed to visit despite the reality that five pastors were in his home with him at the moment I learned of the tragedy and telephoned from halfway around the world. Only later, my father discovered that the pastor he believed had ignored his grief had been graciously guarding the crash site.
When members repeat a favorite litany, “We haven’t seen our pastor in years,” I always attempt to query their assertion in greater depth. “Tell me,” I ask, “when did you last request your pastor to visit you?” “Have you alerted the church elders of your needs?” “What do you believe the pastor is doing while you are not being visited?” Too often, I discover that expectations are different than reality and that complaints are actually “recreational” griping. In one case, a complaining parishioner explained that it had been at least seven weeks since their pastor had been to visit. Disappointment results from members whose expectations have not been met, and reconciliation occurs only when both pastors and members more closely align their expectations with reality.
I have also discovered that increasing urbanization hinders rather than helps visitation. While it is accurate that more members may live in closer physical proximity in large cities than those in rural areas, various complexities actually deter the process of metropolitan pastoral visitation much more than the longer distances of rural areas. These complexities include traffic and transit issues, irregular work schedules, nontraditional housing arrangements, and increasing inaccessibility to high-rise buildings or gated communities. Society also has changed expectations for timing and frequency of fellowship and nurture.
I aim to correct the misperception that the perceived lack of visitation comes from either pastoral indifference or indolence. I am attempting to clarify that pastors have multiple schedule complexities that may prevent them from accomplishing what they would likely prefer to be doing. I also refuse to ever permit jokes about pastoral schedules to go unchallenged. When someone says, “I wish I had a job where I work only one day per week,” I invite them to work alongside me for just one day and then report their convictions about the workload.
In fact, I believe each pastor should provide a weekly activity report during worship services. Typically, just before beginning my sermon, I relate a few events of my pastoral week so that my members understand the various items that have consumed my time and energy. At monthly board meetings, I always provide an in-depth pastoral report so that leaders grasp the complexity of pastoral responsibilities and help provide explanations to members who might complain of neglect.
I also believe that pastors should understand the power of even a brief visit. In fact, I have learned that most pastoral visits can be accomplished in much less time than we might imagine. Remember, a pastoral visit need not be everlasting in order to be immortal. A short, focused visit can actually accomplish more than extended conversations that lack purpose or planning.
If possible, visit only by appointment. Signal the importance and brevity of your visit as you establish the initial contact. When you telephone, state, “My visitation partner and I are making brief visits to a number of individuals in your area. When could I schedule a fifteen minute appointment with you?” Advance notice permits the Holy Spirit to prepare their hearts and minds for spiritual business.
Upon your arrival, get right to your spiritual agenda. Inquire as to their spiritual welfare—time in Bible study and prayer. Listen carefully to their responses and then ask about their faithfulness to the Holy Spirit’s leading in their lives regarding church attendance, stewardship, fellowship, and witnessing. Ask whether they have any texts or topics on which they would like to hear a sermon, whether they have family or friends whom they might invite to attend church services with them, and conclude by inviting specific requests for which you can pray as you bless their home.
Even the specifics of your questions can signal that you expect a short response. Take responsibility for focusing responses. Beware of any story that begins, “Back in 1967, . . .” and bring such rambling discourses to a quick conclusion by saying, “I wish I had time to share all these details, but I’m expected at another home in just a little while.”
Ask for the Holy Spirit’s help and your own visitation can become more focused and your pastoral experience more personally fulfilling.