A recent social media post by a friend asked whether or not people would be offended by a visit from their pastor. Within a short time, more than 100 responses uniformly agreed that some of their most meaningful spiritual moments came from caring pastors during a pastoral visit. Most went on to deplore the fact that pastors today do not visit them at home anymore.
Pastoral visits were incredibly influential in shaping my own Christian experience; and now, as a pastor, I see them as essential for staying in touch with the heartbeat of my congregation. Having pastored a three-church rural district as well as a larger, metropolitan multipastor staff, I have found that in both instances developing a regular visitation plan resulted in some of my most influential time in the pastorate.
In this article, I want to share what I have learned about the art of the pastoral visit.
What is a pastoral visit?
For starters, a pastoral visit should be defined as a meaningful point of contact, which creates an intentional spiritual moment, most notably outside of the immediate confines of the church and/or church school. For many people, this may look very different. I have had such moments attending a sporting event for a youth group, going on a Sabbath afternoon hike, or meeting people in the hospital or in their homes. When we had a smaller congregation, we used to love inviting the entire church over to our home, but later on, with a larger church, this became much more difficult. Not every pastor is in a position to entertain, but I am continually amazed when we have someone over and people discover that a pastor is a normal human being.
Yet whatever situation this occurs within, I would suggest that every pastoral visit have a couple of key parameters:
1. Relationship building. One of the great advantages of the pastoral visit is bonding with your church members before a crisis occurs, so that when there is a problem they do not view you as someone who came to “beat them up,” but rather as someone there to help.
2. Spiritual moment. Again and again, I am surprised when I ask people the simple question, “How is your walk with Jesus?” and how much this impacts those whom I visit. The question can take a variety of different forms, but at its core is the intent to find out in a nonjudgmental way where they are spiritually. Sometimes I will share a Bible promise or something that jumped out to me that day in my devotions.
3. Connection with the church. I like to ask people how they are doing at staying connected with the church. This is a great opportunity for feedback. Are they getting our church email or print newsletters? How can I, as a pastor, improve and become more effective? By focusing the conversation on how I can improve, I have learned a lot about how to become more effective in my church and as a pastor.
4. Prayer. Never leave without having a meaningful moment in prayer. At times, this has been awkward because there may not be a good place to pray, but just stopping where you are for a brief prayer can mean a great deal to the person with whom you are spending time.
Developing a visitation plan
The most effective pastors do not just wait for church members to call them but instead develop a proactive plan for reaching out. I have run across several ways that help make this possible in both small and large congregations.
Set a goal of visiting each of the families in your church once a year. Do not bother announcing up front that you want to visit because church members will not believe you until you show up. I keep a church directory in my car that I make notes in about each family—especially those who have a tenuous connection—and check off any significant points of contact, be it a Sabbath lunch invitation over to our home (for those who are more shy) or an intentional visit to their home. Some of my most fun “visits” were going in squad cars along with one of our church members, a law enforcement officer. I will never forget sitting in a police car as he asked me to pray for him and his family about very personal issues. It was only after I had spent eight hours chasing criminals through the night that he felt comfortable enough to open up to me.
Some pastors develop more elaborate plans that encompass dividing up the pastoral staff or elders by geographic regions or even age demographics. And these plans can work too. Obviously, this is increasingly challenging the larger the church (both in terms of church size or quantity of churches for multichurch districts). Yet it can and should be done. And visits are especially productive when they happen in conjunction with a fellow pastor or church elder. After all, Jesus sent His disciples out “two by two” (see Mark 6:7).
Finally, I discovered from one of my pastors, Pastor John Brunt, when I was a member at Azure Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church, that developing a birthday list is a great way to keep in touch. As the senior pastor of a congregation with some 3,000 members, he took time to call me each year. I have never forgotten the first time he called. Pastor Brunt was on vacation, although I did not know that until later, but he still took a few minutes to let me know that he cared. Since then, as a pastor, I have found that many church members have been surprised—especially those on the margins of the church—when I have called them just to let them know that someone cares about them on their birthdays.
There are special kinds of pastoral visits that deserve specific kinds of additional skills: hospital, military, and jail or prison visitation. Some words of advice about each are in order.
Hospital visits. In my first pastorate, I signed up with other clergy to become a volunteer hospital chaplain. We rotated on a regular basis; once every two months, I was on call for a week. Each day I made rounds, visiting those who were open to a chaplain’s visit.
- Always begin on a neutral tone. I loved to ask the question, “So how did you manage to get all of this attention?” That typically would generate a chuckle. My purpose was not to learn about their maladies but to begin a conversation that emphasized listening.
- Be sensitive to different religious backgrounds. In a rural part of the country, I was surprised by the religious diversity. Instead of seeing myself as the person to minister to each person, I would try to put people in touch with others who could help them better. If they were Catholic, I would help the person find a local priest or nun. Fortunately, I was friends with most of the clergy from a variety of denominations, so it was easy to assist people in finding help.
- Just be yourself. I once went in and met a man who, after I introduced myself, told me to “Go away.” When I inquired further, he said that I was just too young and had not experienced enough pain in my life. I said that I would call an older chaplain and, as I left, I told him I would be upset if I came back to find that the older chaplain was too old. He later let me come back.
- Be prepared for death. I did rounds one day and had four people in a row die after my visit. Some people are waiting for someone to pray with them so that they feel that they have permission to die. The nurses thereafter dubbed me the “Grim Reaper.”
- Respect privacy. With the Health Information Privacy Rule and other government regulations, remember the importance of not revealing the identity of people you visit, including their medical conditions. Even when I had church members in the hospital, I would specifically ask their permission whether it was all right to add the people to the prayer list for the church. Sometimes the answer was Yes; but other times, it was a definite No.
- Get identification and certification. Most hospitals have an accreditation program that allows you to visit church members or join a chaplain’s group. Better yet, get certified through the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE). Find out more at www.acpe.edu.
- Military visits. Because I pastored near an air force base, I discovered that visiting members in the military involved an entirely different set of skills, the hardest of which was learning military protocol.
- Identify military personnel. By simply knowing who they are, including those in the reserves, you can better anticipate deployments. If you can, try to be there for significant occasions, especially when they leave or come back from a tour of duty.
- Base access. Many military families live on base and require a military ID to get on base. Many bases have a chaplain’s office. It helps to introduce yourself at the local chaplain’s office. The chaplain can help you gain access when needed; or, if possible, another church member in the armed services can assist you.
- Dedicatory prayer. Regardless of how you may or may not feel about combat, it is a good idea to have a prayer of dedication in front of the church each time a church member is deployed. In our church, we lay hands on him or her and ask God to watch over the church member while he or she is away. Some churches even put up a map where they have pictures to remind the congregation to lift up both the individual as well as his or her family in regular prayer.
- Jail or prison visitation. Without fail, every church I have pastored had members who have been incarcerated. Whatever the particular case, when you move into a parish, it helps to introduce yourself to the local constabulary so that when you need access, you can do so.
- Accreditation. Clergy visits in many cases have to be arranged ahead of time so that jail or prison authorities can do a background check and make sure that you are safe to visit.
- Limited access. Do not be surprised when you have to talk to the person in a limited access situation—whether through glass or in a small room.
- Limited literature. I find that people I visit are incredibly open to spiritual things as they reevaluate their own bad decisions. Try calling in advance to find out what literature is already on hand that can be shared with the individual. Most hardbound books are banned. Expect any material that is allowed to be carefully searched.
- Consider a jail ministry. In some places, especially near large federal prisons, some churches have become intentional about developing a regular prison ministry. Such a ministry can have far-reaching evangelistic effects.
As with anything, too much of a good thing can become problematic. I will never forget attending a conference constituency session where an elderly minister criticized younger pastors for not doing pastoral visitation. Since I was one of the young pastors, I was curious to find out what he meant. One member confided in me that this retired pastor scared people by trying to visit them too much. It was a point of pride for him to visit 25 or more homes in a day. How he did that was a mystery to me, but the problem was that each member became merely a checklist on his objective to fulfill his own goal. The same church member told me that he or she hid and did not answer the door so that he or she would not have to endure “another visit.”
Ultimately, the art of pastoral visitation centers on building meaningful relationships. Obviously, a healthy dose of common sense is essential because each person is different and has unique needs. There is no one-size-fits-all solution that every pastor should do, although some of the things that I have learned in my own experience I hope will inspire other pastors to connect and utilize the pastoral visit as a meaningful extension of his or her pastoral ministry.