I once saw a comic strip in which the first frame showed a pastor visiting with someone in their home but thinking, I really should be working on my sermon. In the second frame, the same pastor, now preparing his sermon, kept musing, I really should be out visiting.
In my experience with fellow pastors, I have often found that visitation takes a back seat to sermon preparation because it has no weekly deadline. Here are three keys that have helped me keep pastoral visitation a top priority of ministry. Feel free to use or adapt them to your own situation.
1. Do not go alone
When entering a new district, I wanted to get into as many homes as possible. So I blocked off 19 evenings for visitation during my first two months. I sent the dates to the head elder and asked him to work with the other elders to set up a schedule in which they would go visiting with me. I would meet the designated elder at the church building at 6:30 P.M. and have them back by 9:00 P.M. They could choose whom we visited that evening, or if they did not have anyone in mind, I would pick families from the church directory. When it involved female elders, we always worked in a team of three so that there would never be a question involving relationship boundaries within the church.1
As we visited families of members and interests, my elders and I were bonding because of our on-the-job ministry together. By the end of the two months, I knew all my elders well, along with many of our members and interests.
One evening, while visiting with two elders, we stopped by a care home for the elderly owned by some church members. When it was time to leave, I invited the family to join us for prayer, along with several residents in the room.
One of the two elders glanced at one of the residents and suddenly almost shouted, “Is that you, Ruth?”
The elderly woman looked up quizzically. “My name is Ruth. Do you know me?”
“Twenty years ago, didn’t you live in that apartment complex downtown?”
“Yes, I did.”
“You were the cookie lady!” Smiling, Ruth nodded. “You often made cookies for those of us who lived there,” the elder continued, “and you were always so kind. Back then, I was far, far from God, but you were always so sweet.”
“Ruth is one of our church members, but she doesn’t get out much anymore,” the care-home owners commented.
“All those years ago,” I told Ruth, “God worked through your kindness and the kindness of others so that this precious elder surrendered her life to Jesus.”
What an amazing providential reunion! But it never would have happened if I had been making the visits alone.
2. Make it a high priority
It was my first Sabbath in a new district.2 After the potluck meal, I met with the elders to discuss our mission of reaching the 1.5 million people in the metro area where God had placed us. My first priority, I explained, was to strengthen the connections within the church family and between each family and the Lord. I told them that I would be sending a letter to every household on our church records, letting them know that a church leader would be contacting them within the next 90 days to arrange for a simple survey. The letter would state that if members did not hear from a church leader within those 90 days, they could call the church office, and I, as pastor, would take them out to eat.
“But Pastor, you’ll go broke!” one said jokingly.
“You don’t expect me to pay for all the meals if the church leaders aren’t doing their job, do you?” I teased back.
“Well, how are you going to do it?” another asked.
“I’m glad you asked! I want each of you to pick ten families in our church directory to survey.3 One of the questions on the survey is, ‘Are you willing to help with this survey of our church family?’ Pick families whom you think will be likely to say yes.”
I had the master church directory, and they began a good-natured draft of selecting names, bantering for those they thought would be most likely to become involved. “Twice a month, we will meet after the potluck to talk about our experiences,” I stated. “Invite everyone you survey who is willing to be involved so that they can participate in the meeting and choose their own ten families.”
That first meeting included 8 elders. The next meeting had about 15 people. By our last meeting, we had almost 50 willing people to survey a church of about 400 members. One elder told me later, “I’ve known Russ for ten years, but after the survey, I know him ten times better!” Another elder said, “We’ve always been told as elders that we should be visiting the members, but this survey makes it easy and fun.” Another leader commented, “I had no idea there were so many members willing to get involved in something like this.”
After the 90 days concluded, four families called the church office to say they had been missed and were looking forward to going out to eat with the pastor. I had a good time with each of them. During one of those meals, I discovered that a very faithful and dear woman had never become a Seventh-day Adventist even though she had been attending church for years. Within two months, she joined on a profession of faith and, a year or two later, became the secretary at the local academy. In visiting over a meal with a couple, I discovered their interests and gifts. Within a year, she was head deaconess, and he was leading a small group.
What about visitation after the first 90 days in a district? One evening a week, I continued visiting with one of the elders on a rotating basis. We focused on short visits to new members and new interests. And because the members knew each other much better after the initial survey, a lot of informal visiting continued.
I have found doorstep (unscheduled) visits to be very effective in my ministry, even while pastoring a church with more than 900 members. On Monday evening, I would meet with a team of laypeople and give them names of interests and inactive members so that they could go two by two to make doorstep visits along with me. If individuals attended regularly, I tried to schedule the visits. But if they did not, then a doorstep visit often gave us a chance to strengthen their connection with the church. If no one answered the door, we just left a simple note saying that we were sorry that we had missed them, along with our names and phone number, the date and time, and a Bible verse. We also gave spiritual-growth packets4 to every church family each quarter, delivering them to the doorsteps of those who did not pick up theirs at the church. A doorstep visit may be the only kind you can make in some situations.
Recently, my wife and I made a doorstep visit two Sabbaths in a row to somebody who had visited the church we are helping plant but then did not come back for a month. When we arrived, they invited us in, and we discovered the crisis they were dealing with. On our way home, we talked about how God had led us there and praised the Lord that we were able to be there for them.
3. Remember why you are visiting
Visitation is not just socializing. It has an eternal purpose. I teach those who are visiting to pray for the people before going to their house, identify themselves at the door, find a quick way to connect with the people they were visiting, and then include the following things:
- Listen briefly to their story. Ask questions such as, “How has God brought you to this place in your life?” “How did you become a Seventh-day Adventist?” “What is your favorite Bible story, Bible promise, and/or Christian song?”
- Read a promise from their Bible. Ask: “May I read you something from your Bible?” Share a verse or two and some encouraging words about God’s love and care.
- Connect them with a group or ministry if they are not already involved in one. Ask: “Have you found a Sabbath School class you enjoy?” “Have you found a ministry that interests you?”
- Pray for their needs, family, friends, and neighborhood. Ask: “What prayer requests do you have?” “Who are some people you would like to see surrender their lives fully to Jesus?” Then say, “Let’s pray for them right now.” Pray a faith-filled, positive, Christ-centered prayer.
- Leave a piece of literature with them by their open Bible, such as Your Bible and You or Steps to Christ.
It is not necessary to make long visits. Sometimes a doorstep visit is all that is needed. They may invite you in. But if you need a longer follow-up visit, you can schedule it right then, perhaps one at their home, over lunch, or during a break at their work.
Someday, at the end of our ministry here on Earth, we need to be able to say to our church leaders and members, “ ‘You know, from the first day that I came to [this district], in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me . . . ; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house’ ” (Acts 20:18–20, NKJV; emphasis added).
- See Dan Serns, “Three Steps to Setting Healthy Relationship Boundaries. Or: How Far From the Cliff?” Ministry, September 2006, https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2006/09/three-steps-to
- See Dan Serns, “Starting Well in a New District—Ministry Models,” Dan Serns (blog), June 7, 2017, https://danserns.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/starting-well-in-a-new-district-ministry-models/.
- Download the Church-Wide Church Family Survey at https://danserns.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/adventist-church-family-survey-2.0.doc.
- See item 2 at Dan Serns, “Reclaiming Former and Inactive Church Members,” Dan Serns (blog), December 17, 2020, https://danserns.wordpress.com/2020/12/17/reclaiming-church-members/.
- Ellen G. White, Pastoral Ministry (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 1995), 133; emphasis added.
- Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 59; emphasis added.
- White, Pastoral Ministry, 133; emphasis added.
- White, 132; emphasis added.
- White, 230; emphasis added.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 558; emphasis added.