Years ago, I read a book by the Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-1691) called The Reformed Pastor. This book challenged me in several ways, particularly in the area of pastoral visitation.
Baxter writes, “We spend Monday and Tuesday, from morning almost to night, in the work, taking about fifteen or sixteen families in a week, that we may go through the parish in which there are upwards of eight hundred families, in a year.” He goes on to state, “It is the duty of the minister not only to teach the people committed to his charge in public, but privately, and particularly to admonish, exhort, reprove, and comfort them upon all seasonable occasions, so far as his time, strength, and personal safety will permit.”
His vision has inspired countless pastors in the generations since Baxter penned that text. Few, however, have had the energy or skill to follow through.
The practice of visitation has fallen on hard times in recent years. It was trending that way before Covid, but then during the pandemic, pastoral visitation all but disappeared. When things started to settle down, most pastors struggled to find their visitation groove again. Many people hesitated about visitors, even if that visitor was “the pastor.”
In the fast-paced, crazy-busy world of pastoral ministry, things like visitation often take a hit. To top it off, the pastor must navigate the differing expectations of congregants. Some don’t want it. Some insist upon it.
The pastor must settle it in his mind that his main business is preaching, teaching, and prayer. As the apostles declared, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). The pastor must give himself wholly to these primary tasks.
That said, visitation remains a crucial aspect of the pastor’s ministry. In an age where some are discarding the practice altogether, I strongly discourage you from doing that. Texting, calling, and emailing are great but don’t stop there. You don’t have to follow Richard Baxter’s rigorous method, but every pastor should aim to find avenues of personal connection, including that of home visits.
Here are 6 tips to enhance pastoral visitation.
1. Divide up the membership
You can’t do it alone! You need help. Even among smaller churches, providing care for the whole body of believers can still be a burden. If you are not doing this already, take your membership list and divide it up among your fellow leaders – elders, deacons, and pastoral staff (depending on your polity and the size of your church).
Pastors are equippers (Ephesians 4:11-12). Having a care team in place is great, but it needs to start with your leaders and those God has directly called to “shepherd the flock” (1 Peter 5:2). As the pastor, you want to have personal contact with as many of your people as you can. For those who pastor large churches, that is not possible. But God never expects us to carry the burden alone (Acts 14:23). Lean into the fellow leaders God has placed around you.
2. Look for other avenues of visitation
One pastor admitted, “Some of my best pastoral care happens in the 20 minutes before service starts.” That approach is limited and should never be the sum of the pastor’s visitation ministry, but it is surprising the opportunities that emerge in the moments before and after services, meetings, Bible studies, small groups, etc.
Visitation isn’t just about home visits. Visitation happens over campfires, in the coffee shop, at men’s breakfasts, at lunch meetings, when hosting people in your home, and in a hundred other settings and circumstances.
As a pastor, you want to make yourself available. Do what you can to be a listening ear, and let your people know you care.
3. Don’t just “shoot the breeze”
While visitation can happen virtually anytime and anywhere, visiting people on their home turf can be particularly effective. First, it is often a bigger audience. Instead of just meeting with another man, you can meet with his wife and sometimes even his kids. Additionally, there are generally fewer distractions, which is essential when talking about serious, spiritual matters.
If you have half an hour with a couple, don’t spend 15 minutes talking about the Cowboys and another 10 minutes talking about politics. Yes, you want to be sociable and relatable, but you are in the business of soul care. Your time is valuable. So is theirs.
Having said that, don’t launch into a mode of “tell me about the state of your soul” the moment you arrive. Ask how they are doing. Inquire about what is going on in their lives. And as they start to share and open up a little, it will lower the tension. It will also afford you opportunities to point them to the gospel and the goodness of Jesus. Help them see how Scripture is relevant to their life circumstances, no matter what they are going through.
4. Take someone else along
Consider taking someone else along if you have a hospital or home visit. It could be a fellow elder or a pastoral intern if you have one. Not only will they get to see you in action, but you can chat with them on the drive there and back.
This works in tandem with my first point about sharing the load. Taking someone else along on a visitation trip is a simple way to equip others to do the work of pastoral care.
There will be situations where you want to take your wife along. My wife is a gifted counselor and a valuable asset, particularly when meeting with another woman needing counsel.
5. Read a passage from Scripture
As a pastor, some of your flock will throw you into heart-wrenching situations where you are at a complete loss for words. Thankfully, God has equipped His servants with the Bible. The best words are always the sacred words of Scripture.
When you do visitation, crisis or not, you always want to bring God’s Word to your people. It will minister to them in ways far beyond your ability to comprehend. There are many scriptures that are relevant to visitation. You will want to familiarize yourself with those passages and have a plan going in as to what you will share.
6. Close in prayer
Prayer is critical for pastoral visitation and is a natural and fitting way to conclude your time together. Just like you, your people are in a spiritual battle, and they desperately need the grace of God.
A pastoral visit will remind them that you care about them. More importantly, the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3) is by their side and will never leave them nor forsake them (Hebrews 13:5).
It is true that the way you can reach the most people is through preaching and teaching. But visitation is an effective, even necessary, way of ministering to your congregation.
These are just a few pointers. The key is to find a system that works for you and run with it.
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