The Value and Necessity of Visitation
Pastoral visitation is a time-honored tradition in the life of the church. The concept has biblical roots and in some form is an expected part of community life in most church fellowships. The practice provides opportunity to express care, discover needs, encourage spiritual growth, and strengthen the bonds of fellowship in the community. That is not to say that it looks the same in every culture or church tradition. In fact, the nature of pastoral care has taken on a distinct character in the wider charismatic movement. This is marked by several features:
1) the role of the home group or small groups in providing pastoral care,
2) the recognition of the plurality of elders as functional pastors in the church, and
3) emphasis on ‘body ministry’ and the use of the gifts of the priesthood of believers.
While the practice of pastoral visitation by staff pastors remains a staple of many smaller churches, it is handled in various ways by larger congregations. These congregations may have adopted any of several models; some leaning toward lay leadership, others toward a more institutional, staff-driven model.
Many non-denominational churches have adopted a cross between a lay-led home group model and an elder-led pastoral care model. In other words, the body of ordained elders is the pastoral care team of the local church assisted by non-ordained home group leaders. Many interpret this as a return to a more biblical model which recognizes the role of elders to be primarily pastoral rather than an administrative or advisory role as is common in some traditions. It is also rooted in the understanding of charismatic gifts in I Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. That is, the entire body is gifted to express care for itself under the oversight of the eldership.
Peter expressed the unique role of the elders in terms of pastoral care: So I exhort the elders among you… shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (I Peter 5:1-3).
In the same manner Paul exhorted the elders of Ephesus to see their ministry primarily as pastoral – instructive, familiar, and protective:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears (Acts 20: 28-31).
The Biblical Rationale for Visitation
The idea of visitation is related closely to the Greek word for bishop. A bishop’s primary role is the visitation of God’s people, whether in corporate or more intimate settings. The root word for bishop and visitation is episkopos. It is important to note that the term bishop and elder are interchangeable in the New Testament. That is, the New Testament elder exercises pastoral care by virtue of oversight (episkopos) of the flock. One aspect of this oversight is visitation.
This term and its derivatives in classical Greek carry the meaning, “to look upon, to consider, to have regard to someone or something.” It can mean “to inspect,” and in a religious sense “to look graciously upon, to care for, or to watch over, to examine, to submit to investigation,” also, “to visit,” as in visiting the sick. In the Old Testament it is used to translate words which indicate “to investigate, to search, to find out about something, to care for something.” When used in reference to Yahweh, “to visit,” may mean in blessing or judgment (Zech. 10:3). It also may mean to appoint. (Jer. 6:15, 10:15, or Is. 10:3). It carries the sense of office in Num. 4:16 (The above definitions are based on the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II).
In rabbinic Judaism the term carries the pastoral and charitable concept of visiting the sick, caring for the poor, helping the newly married poor, comforting the sorrowing and attending funerals. Jesus uses this term to describe visiting the sick and in prison.
In the NT it carries the meaning of “being concerned about someone or something.” (See Acts 15:36; Heb. 12:4; Luke 1:48). Episcopate as office is seen in Acts 1:16 and I Tim. 3. The offices of bishop, elder and pastor are shown to be interchangeable in Act 20: 20ff. and I Peter 5:1-4. Later developments in church history contribute to the separation of the offices and roles.
The Minister’s Service Manual published by Baker Books in 1958 instructs pastors to be present in the home at times of hardship and tragedy, particularly after a death in the family. This meets the biblical concept of visiting those in distress.
It was Samuel’s habit to make a circuit visiting the cities of his region on a regular basis. Though Samuel was a prophet and a judge, his practice was still episcopal in nature – the visitation of an overseer. Though this kind of visitation was probably done in the more corporate setting of larger gatherings, such a practice would afford many opportunities for meaningful one-on-one interaction. His visits carried weight. He was asked by the trembling leaders of Bethlehem, “Do you come in peace?” Pastoral visits intended to correct are rare in our culture, but are clearly a significant part of the biblical tradition.
How is visitation carried out?
The purpose of visitation is to provide a pastoral presence in life’s challenges, but also in the normal rhythms of everyday life. Such regular personal contact creates a strong bond which will prove essential when an actual crisis such as death or illness, or when family, employment or financial stresses occur.
It seems reasonable that several specific practices should be common in local churches. The first is systematic communication with members and attenders of the congregation. The second, is special attention to those under the peculiar stress or crisis of illness, job loss, or some other difficulty in life. This also entails being sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit when there is no actual presenting problem. Like many illnesses some crises incubate undetected before presenting in painful or obvious symptoms. Thirdly, it is important for those responsible for pastoral care, whether staff, elders, or lay leaders (such as home group leaders or Stephen Ministers) to communicate regularly about their sense of the health of individual members of the flock.
Simply being present in homes or at major life-events such as weddings or funerals will surface matters requiring further ministry attention. In their classic study of business practices, In Search of Excellence, Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman identified a practice of effective executives which they dubbed “management by walking around.” This habit of ‘just dropping in’ was identified as a best practice of effective leaders. In a pastoral context, management of the flock by walking around, depending on the grace of God to open ‘ministry moments,’ will lead to effective outcomes.
As a solo pastor in my first small-church pastorate it was my practice to regularly visit homes and home groups. Pastoral presence is still a needed ingredient in healthy church life today. There are some challenges in a 21st century culture, however. Simply put, many people are resistant to having pastoral visits in their home, either because they are too busy, perhaps embarrassed, or just unaware of the value of the transparency fostered by visitation. There is a sense that sometimes a request to visit by a pastor is viewed as an overreach, an intrusion; viewed in a similar manner as a site-visit by a social worker. In fact, there is a counter-expectation of being left alone. This is a strong current in the culture at large and will require concerted effort to re-shape, or more likely the development of alternative practices to get similar outcomes. Larger churches require a team approach to visitation and presence. This was alluded to in the opening paragraph. Elders, lay leaders, and staff pastors must combine their efforts to effectively shepherd Christ’s flock. That said, there is a place for recognizing the value and availability of staff pastors to carry out the ministry of presence implied in the word visitation.
Some Practical Recommendations
So what do we do? Specifically, what do we do in our context of a culture which is changing? In more rural or small town settings, there are expectations of classic pastoral visitation as an integral part of church life. By that I mean staff pastor visitation as opposed to lay and elder led pastoral care. But there is also resistance to this model in more than a few cases. I would propose the following remedies.
First, continue to establish effective pastoral care through the founding of new home groups and small groups and task-oriented ministry groups, as well as the nurture of existing small groups.
Second, encourage elders to systematically be in touch with those listed on their elder care list. This includes the elders who are staff pastors. In addition, staff pastors because of their position must be willing to bear some additional responsibility for both systematic and crisis visitation beyond the confines of their list. Discussion and prayer over pastoral care needs should be a regular part of elder meetings and ministry.
Thirdly, it must be recognized that the primary focus on proactive home visitation may be limiting the means by which pastoral care can and should be carried out in the culture as it now is. In light of the personal habits and expectation of many people, I would propose a multi-faceted means of carrying out pastoral care. Being in the home will still be an important element in the mix. Added to that should be meetings in public places such as coffee shops, use of electronic and social media such as e-mail and Facebook, as well as the simple tools of texting and telephone. Another important means of gaining rapport and insight into the needs of people is the extension of hospitality in our own homes. The overseer (bishop) must be…hospitable (I Timothy 3:2). This is also an important and biblical means of establishing strong pastoral bonds. All of these methods will require proactive and aggressive efforts to ‘keep in touch’ with the various members of Christ’s body.
Finally, in order to strengthen the expectation and actual practice of personal pastoral visitation, it would be good to simply extend an invitation to the congregation by means of the regular organs of congregational communication such as the weekly bulletin or e-mail. This would take the form of a simple announcement about our availability to visit and an invitation to the congregation to request a visit from pastoral staff. Paying attention to ourselves and all the flock over which the Holy Spirit has appointed us is more than a full-time job for the leaders of the church.