“And when they had come to him, he said to them: ‘You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.‘” (Acts. 2:18-21)
At one time in Presbyterian history it would have been considered obvious that Pastors and Ruling Elders should visit the members of their flock in their homes on a regular basis. How else could they get to know them and their spiritual needs, and how else could they establish the familiarity and true fellowship that promotes honesty and accountability in pastoral relations? In fact, the Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God asserted that it was not just a good idea, but the duty of the minister to be often engaged in this process of visiting:
“IT is the duty of the minister not only to teach the people committed to his charge in publick, 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.
He is to admonish them, in time of health, to prepare for death; and, for that purpose, they are often to confer with their minister about the estate of their souls; and, in times of sickness, to desire his advice and help, timely and seasonably, before their strength and understanding fail them.” – The Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God, 1645
Today however, Pastoral visitations have become more of an exception than a norm. Several members of my congregation who have been longtime members of Reformed churches have told me that my first visit with them was the first time they ever received a pastoral visitation. Sadly my own experience as the member of a very large PCA church mirrors theirs. Not once in four years did we receive a visit from the elders at our home, and as a partial consequence I can honestly say we did not really know our elders, neither did they know us or our spiritual needs. Some might argue that there are ways to get around the need of regular Pastoral visitations, but I believe that Thomas Murphy, a 19th century Presbyterian pastor, was quite right when he wrote of regular pastoral visitation with the members of the congregation as irreplaceable and of critical importance to Pastoral ministry:
“The fact is, that in order to perform the duties of his calling with any measure of fidelity the pastor must come near to his people – nearer to them than he can possibly get in the pulpit – near to them as individuals. In the pulpit he must treat hem in the mass, but never will he be able to influence them as he should until he gets into personal communion with them. Dr. John Hall has presented this thought in an impressive manner: “The experience of the Church is that that pastor effects the most in the end who comes into closest personal contact with his charge. No amount of organizing, no skill in creating machinery and manipulating committees, is a substitute for this. Who feels the power of a tear in the eye of a committee ? The minister who would be like the Master must go, and like him, lay the warm, kindly hand on the leper, the diseased, the wretched. He must touch the blind eves with something from himself. The tears must be in his own eves over the dead who are to be raised to spiritual life.” – Thomas Murphy, Pastoral Theology
Not only will his visitations be of great spiritual benefit to the members of his church, they are of great value in persuading visitors to become a part of the church as they set before them a critical difference between this church and others, and do more than a host of programs to persuade them that this ministry is a place where the sheep are genuinely loved and cared for by their shepherd. Therefore, I would recommend that every OSP church planter begin with the express intention of visiting the members of his flock at least twice a year. To help you in doing this I will list some materials where you can receive solid instruction about how to visit your flock, but in the meantime here are a few tips that may help you on your way:
1) Let the members of your flock know when visitations will be occurring and give them options in choosing which day you will visit.
2) Emphasize to them this is not a social call, but something more akin to a doctor’s house-call and that they do not need to prepare food, or spend hours cleaning up their house and artificially prepping their children. Emphasize you want to see them in their normal setting and that this will help you far better to get to know them as they really are. I usually tell the congregation that all I need is a glass of water or coffee and a place to sit down and talk for an hour or so.
3) Do not go by yourself if you can avoid it. Take a Ruling Elder with you whenever you can. Initially let your elders learn how to visit by watching you, but eventually they should become contributors to the visit themselves. Regardless, NEVER visit single members of your congregation by yourself. If you have no elders to accompany you, consider having them come to your home or take a mature male member of your congregation with you.
4) Have a plan for your visit. I like to begin with prayer and a brief meditation on some relevant subject from scripture. Then I like to speak with and question the children about their spiritual lives, and then dismiss them and speak with their parents. Whatever you do, do not ask highly personal and potentially embarrassing questions to parents – especially about their marriage- in front of the children.
5) Strive to avoid that which makes all Pastoral visits unprofitable, and gives those looking for a chance to avoid difficult spiritual questions a chance to escape. Don’t fill the time of you visit with small talk and fluff. A little small-talk is ok, but move beyond it as quickly as you can. R.M. McCheyne bitterly lamented his wasted time with his congregation, and I wish I did not know exactly how he felt when he wrote in a pastoral letter:
“One error more has been in my private labors among you How much fruitless intercourse have I had with you! I have not been like a shepherd crying after the lost sheep, nor like a physician among dying men, nor like a servant bidding you to the marriage, nor like one plucking brands from the burning! How often have I gone to your houses to try and win your souls, and you have put me off with a little worldly talk and the words of salvation have died upon my lips! I dared not tell you, you were perishing, I dared not to show you plainly of the Savior! How often I have sat at some of your tables and my heart yearned for your souls, yet a false shame kept me silent! How often I have gone home crying bitterly, ‘Free me from blood–guiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation!’” – Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne in a letter to his congregation
Therefore heed well the warning and advice of W.G.T. Shedd about the manner of the pastors visit:
“…let him visit as a clergyman, and go into a house upon a purely and wholly religions errand. Much time is wasted by the pastor in merely secular, social intercourse, even when going the rounds of his parish. Ostensibly, he is about the business of his profession, the care of souls; but really be is merely acting the part of a courteous and polite gentleman. Even if he gives the subject of religion some attention, it is only at the close of his interview, after secular topics have been discussed. It may be that be shrinks from a direct address to an individual upon the concerns of his soul, and therefore, as he thinks, prepares the way, that he may broach the difficult subject indirectly. He enters into a general and miscellaneous conversation; and if he comes to the subject of religion at all, it is only late, and after the energy and briskness of the conversation have flagged. Moreover, the person to be addressed is quick to detect this shrinking upon the part of his pastor, and if really unwilling to be spoken to upon the subject of religion, will adroitly lead the conversation away into other directions. The man who is averse to religions conversation and who, therefore, specially needs to be directly and plainly addressed, is the last person to be surprised into such a conversation. His eyes are wide open, and the only true way for the pastor, when the proper time for it has come, and the pastoral visit is made, is to look him in the eye, and speak directly and affectionately upon the most momentous of all subjects.” – W.G.T. Shedd
Other Materials on Pastoral Visitation Available on the Web and in Print:
The Pastor In The Sick Room by John D. Wells (a must for Hospital visitations and visits to the elderly)