Visit – and Prosper
History is replete with stories of pastors visiting their flocks-none better than Richard Greenham of Dry Drayton in Cambridgeshire in the 16th Century. Henry Holland, his biographer, records that in the afternoons Greenham visited the sick, or walked into the fields “to confer with his neighbours as they were at plough.” In the same century, Richard Fairclough, a Somerset rector, “found time not only to visit the sick…but also in continual course, all the families in his charge.” Likewise Richard Baxter held “personal conferences,” so much so that at the end of his ministry in Kidderminster “not past one family on one side of a street did not worship God.” Even a quick reading of The Reformed Pastor will give every minister a jolt of conscience regarding the work and value of visitation.
But we have current authority on this matter as well. Presbyterian elders-both ruling and teaching-can find an extensive list of their duties, particularly home visitation, in our own Book of Church Order. We can assume that the authors of the BCO meant both Ruling and Teaching Elder to be doing this work. However, Teaching Elders typically do these tasks, particularly visitation. This is the task least understood and most neglected. And by neglecting the full exercise of visitation we miss out on a great opportunity to sow and harvest the distinctives of the Faith, especially in the most unpromising circumstances.
While many of our congregations do not lend themselves to easy visitation patterns, BCO 8:3 nonetheless requires visiting the people in their homes, and no exceptions are allowed. In our modern world visitation seems so difficult because of the deranged schedules most of our members have: soccer for the children, parent-teacher meetings, business obligations, etc. Modern schedules seem to render home visits an impossibility and an imposition. Perhaps we should remove the clause from our BCO? Or perhaps-I propose- we should attempt to do something about it.
We can, first of all, learn from example.
I was introduced to the whole issue of visitation by the minister under whose ministry I came to faith. He was no different than any of the Welsh-speaking ministers in my community (except that the English-speaking ministers did little or no visitation), but he was more industrious and systematic in the way he did it. In his faithfulness he managed to increase the size of our congregation and bring many of us to a living knowledge of the Faith. His visitation work was accompanied by his powerful preaching and obvious seriousness, which had a great effect on my own life. Since telephones were a rarity in Wales in the 1950s, one never knew when he would turn up on one’s doorstep, and that in itself had an effect on one’s lifestyle. Such visitation changed the atmosphere of our Church throughout his pastorate with us.
For me then, visitation was a sine qua non of the ministry, and I never thought of the ministry without this necessity of visitation. As I set out on this work, I found three things to be true:
1) Many ministers/elders did no regular visitation at all. They went to hospitals and occasionally to a home at times of urgency or death, but not in a regular or systematic way. To this day I meet with people who have never had a pastoral visit. I suppose they have kept healthy!
2) Since there is both Biblical and historical precedent for the work, there is no real excuse for not doing pastoral visitation. When Christ sent his disciples out he encouraged them to go to homes (Luke 10:5), and our Lord went to homes as he saw need (Mark 1:29-31). He was a familiar guest in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and visited the home of Simon the leper. The pastoral care to be exercised by Timothy and Titus presupposed an intimate knowledge of the home life of church members (1Timothy 3:4, 1Tim.5: 4-8, Titus 2:4-5).
3) Visitation has been ignored by so many because we find it onerous and painful and wish it would go away, but it won’t and we need to face up to its necessity in this impersonal age. Despite 21st century difficulties-distances that members travel, work and school schedules- there remains a longing in the hearts of church members to be visited and be held accountable by church authorities who are responsible for their spiritual condition. Visitation is often high on the lists that congregations give when looking for new pastors, and it even appears on that mysterious document, the Ministerial Data Form!
Any pastoral ministry must include pastoral visitation, and visitation must be a part of our “philosophy of ministry.” Without preaching and prayer, visitation becomes merely social work, and obviously preaching occupies the major role. But preaching will be a lonely task without people who listen willingly and affectionately. By reinforcing preaching with pastoral visitation, people will be made to hear “conscionably” and with good results.
However, visitation is not in itself the ‘missing key’ that guarantees success. Despite Richard Greenham’s faithfulness in visitation and preaching, he could say, “I perceive no good wrought by my ministry on any but one family.” Richard Baxter’s ministry in Kidderminster evidenced the precise opposite results. But both Greenham and Baxter went about their task with patience, persistence, and passion, and as a result brought the Word of God to bear on the lives of their people-to their good or their judgment.
How, then do we go about Pastoral Visitation? Where do we accomplish our task? What is our goal in all our contacts?
This is in reality a broad canvas, but here are five areas that are legitimately Pastoral Visitation:
1. Sick visits. Including those in the hospital, and in homes.
2. Visiting the aged. Some are unable to get to worship. Some, because of frailty, are afraid to venture out to worship. Others tend to those who are unable to get out to worship, and are, as a result, unable to worship themselves and out of touch with much that goes on in the fellowship.
3. Family visitation. These are often the hardest visits to arrange due to home schedules, e.g., children with a variety of needs, soccer, school events, late work, shift work for both wage earners, and so on. But these, of all visits, are the most productive in learning of people’s needs and the pressures they face. It may mean significant adjustments in our schedules to fulfill the task, but we must be willing to go whatever it costs.
4. Official mandated visits. These can be painful. People who have neglected worship, those who are complaining about the Church or the pastor, those who are engaged in issues that have come to the Session/minister, and ‘brush fires’ that need to be put out. Or they can be delightful, such as bringing the gospel or interviewing prospective church members.
5. Follow-up visits to those who have attended a few times to discover their spiritual needs. Or to newcomers to an area. Or to people who have a home church but are now wandering.
During the course of any visit an elder must do certain things:
1) He must make inquiry as to the spiritual state of the person or people who are being visited. It need not be protracted (in the case of those whom one sees on a regular basis in the home or at church worship) but everyone must understand that the elder is not just a social visitor.
2) There must be the reading of Scripture and prayer. Maybe the elder will read the passage expounded on the Lord’s Day, with the application made on that original occasion. That helps to enforce what has been taught, or keep those unable to attend in the spiritual emphasis of the Church. Such personal application can be useful in encouraging those who are somewhat slow in grasping what is being taught. Certainly in our praying we can show how dependant we are upon the grace of God, and show our concern for the needs of the people we have in our congregation.
3) Here is an opportunity to keep people abreast of what is going on in the Church. What particular prayer requests have been made but not published in the bulletin, or family or church needs which are not widely known but not secret. Church members love to be connected to each other, and elders often are the only ones who really know what is going on. For those unable to attend worship due to providential circumstance, such information convinces them that they are not forgotten.
4) Every visit must convince those visited that we have a profound concern for their souls. That, after all is our business, and such visiting helps many to realize what pastoring people really means.
Over the years, so many people have said to me that they have never had a pastoral visit in their lives. They have been healthy, able to attend the means of grace, and never feel that they have been held accountable for what they believe or do. This must not be allowed to simply drift on. Pastoral visitation is both time-consuming and tiring but its rewards are seen in the affection and fellowship of the Church, and the love and interest that members have in each other and most of all in the progress of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus.
Irfon Hughes is Pastor of Hillcrest Presbyterian (PCA) in Volant, PA. USA.
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