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Have You Ever Had a Pastoral Visit?

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Have you ever had a pastoral visit?  What about a visit from your elders? 

The answer to that question is an indicator of whether you belong to a “celebrity church” where the big man up front is too burdened by the size of his congregation (or its “satellites”) to be your shepherd.  He has too many gifts, too many people who acknowledge his gifts, too many burdens and books to read, to be your pastor.

If that’s true, then maybe you’re not really exposed to the rich benefits that Christ has provided in the pastoral ministry.  I grew up in contexts where you sometimes knew the pastor, but in many other cases did not.  He may have greeted you on the way out of the church, but even that’s increasingly rare. By the way, “celebrity church” doesn’t mean that your pastor is well known in the broader church.  It could mean that you’re in a little Reformed, Lutheran, or Baptist church whose pastor is simply out of touch.  He may even use “confessional integrity” as a magic wand to dismiss you from his presence.

One of the things that I love about The Gospel Coalition is that there is frank conversation.  Younger pastors with little background or experience in Reformed church practices are interested in learning about “the old paths.”  Recently, they hosted a discussion where former Covenant Seminary president and now pastor Bryan Chappell talks about this ordinary practice that seems remote from contemporary experience.

When my colleague Kim Riddlebarger and I were ordained in the Christian Reformed Church, our parishioners (nearly all either new Christians or coming from non-Reformed backgrounds) were often surprised when a pastor or elders called to make an appointment for a “house visit.”  It’s not books, but “boots on the ground,” that tell you what really matters when it comes to the shepherding care that Christ provides for his sheep.

Those reared in the medieval Roman church would have understood this anxiety.  “What’s the priest doing at my door?  Do I have the plague?  Is it time for last rites?”  Those today unfamiliar with “house visitation” may offer a similar response.  Why can we do door-to-door evangelism, but we can’t talk to our own parishioners in their homes?  Why can’t we ask people how they’re doing spiritually?  Why is it seen as some sort of threat to “their personal relationship with Jesus”?  I suppose it’s because we have a problem with being cared for spiritually.

Luther knocked on doors and discovered that his parishioners didn’t know even the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer.  Some were not even prepared to receive Communion.  What should a pastor do about congregants like these?  Well, he should get to know them in concrete situations.  He should go to them.  He should basically evangelize his own congregation.  When Luther did this, the result was the Small and Larger Catechism.

In Reformed circles, too, Calvin—arguably, a busy guy—taught his Genevan Catechism to the youth.  Consequently, they understood that the faith they were learning from Calvin and other pastors in Geneva was the same faith that their parents and others held in the church.  They weren’t simply passed off to a “youth ministry” that had little connection with the regular life of the church.

Pastors today aren’t as busy as Luther.  Yet Luther said that it was the pastor’s duty to teach the catechism to the people, and he did so.  He did it for the young people. And he taught them on personal visits.

This view of the pastor was carried over into Reformed practice also.  Right down to today, pastors and elders make it a point to visit every family in the congregation—at least once a year.

This is church discipline at the most concrete level.  We’re all under discipline.  I love it when our elders come to our home to ask us how we’re doing in our Christian walk as a family.  In every instance, I see areas where I need to improve as a father and husband.   I need it.  My wife needs it. They encourage me as they read the Scriptures and pray.  Our children speak up about how they are growing in the faith—and what they wish to improve.   “Seriously?” I think to myself. “Why didn’t you tell me that?”  But they told their church officers.  That’s great.  And I learned something in the process.  It’s simply a part of the shepherding that we all need in this present age that seeks to distract us from the story of Christ.

Many Christians today don’t have any idea of this visitation practice.  It’s odd, unfamiliar—to pastors  and to the congregation.  This is especially true where the “preacher” the congregation sees on a Jumbotron screen is someone other than the person they meet and encounter as their own spiritual leader week-in and week-out.  That’s just wrong.

With wisdom and humility, Bryan Chappell, formerly Covenant Seminary president and now a PCA pastor in Peoria, Illinois, challenges the “New Calvinists” to rediscover some of the practices that the “Old Calvinists” knew as a regular part of their ministry.  In an age of celebrity preachers and gifted teachers, the recovery of visitation is a key component of any restoration of office and reformation of the church in our day.

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  • Guest - RM

    I think my old church (Dutch Reformed) did have this practice of visitation. I had been absent from church for years untill finally someone showed up though. I had been on the member's list all this time; I was even planned in with other people for cleaning or something like that. Yet, no one ever called, or came by to see why I didn't show up.
    The visit, like I said, came after many years and I had a choice between one person or my own aunt. I opted for my aunt, since I knew her a little better. At this point I was already pretty opposed to God and church. The talk didn't do much to help that.

    Nowadays, in my baptist church, I wonder who even is the pastor. It is true that the person who delivers sermons is not going to visit the people. We don't even call these people pastors. They are hired workmen and it even feels like that. Not that they're not involved, but there definitely is some distance.
    I'm not even sure if visitations are delegated or not. There is however a pastoral taskforce. If you're not doing too well, you have to call in yourself.
    Small groups may be the replacement for pastoral visits, now that I think about it. It is at small group meetings where we have to share our pains and questions and whatnots. Of course most people in your group do not have the shepherding qualities required and are not able to support you in a Biblical way, most of the time.

    An American friend of mine told me how her pastor meets people and has lunch with them and all that. This is something I would very much appreciate. I need to know who is my earthly shepherd, in that sense, and I need that shepherd to do his God-given work. Now it feels like I'm on my own and I have to just help myself whenever I need it. Problem is that I sometimes don't know when I need help; a pastor might be able to ask the right questions to help find out.

    I guess I am a sheep without a shepherd :D

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  • [&] Have You Ever Had a Pastoral Visit? Many Christians today don’t have any idea of this visitation practice.  It’s odd, unfamiliar—to pastors  and to the congregation.  This is especially true where the “preacher” the congregation sees on a Jumbotron screen is someone other than the person they meet and encounter as their own spiritual leader week-in and week-out.  That’s just wrong. [&]

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  • Visitation is a good and essential thing for pastors, elders, and all members. But perhaps the way we think about it is triggering some of the negative "invasion of privacy" responses.

    I'm an elder in a small community church in a small town. The pastor and elders visit members (and sometimes non-members), but we don't treat visitation merely as a church function or duty (i.e. when we leave, you can consider yourself "Visited"). When we visit other believers, either at their homes, a restaurant, or wherever, it is about fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. There is encouragement, prayer, discussion of the things of Christ, as well as personal issues and struggles, fellowship, and mutual love.

    Occasionally a visit may come about because of sin that needs to be dealt with - especially one that affects the church or our witness. But those are the exceptions. We don't visit just to 'pry'. Those in our community know this and like to be visited.

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  • Guest - Dave Sarafolean

    I'm a little surprised at the comments about invading privacy. That's not at all what pastoral visits are about. The main goal of pastoral visits is to find out how God's Word is functioning in that household. Do parents discuss the sermon with the children? Does the family have any sort of devotional practice? Are the children being catechized? Is Scripture being committed to memory? All of these are ways of ascertaining how well the family is applying God's Word. These visits are also a good opportunity to listen to the members of the church and find out their concerns, questions, and ideas. Finally, these visits ought to include asking for prayer requests. Often people will share very deep things in such a visit - things they would never say at church.

    Another excellent book on this subject is With a Shepherd's Heart: Reclaiming the Pastoral Office of Elder by John R. Sittema. Our elders read this and began applying the ideas from this book three or four years ago. It is very helpful and down to earth with lots of practical examples.

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  • Guest - Monica

    I've been thinking a lot about this issue, and am glad Dr. Horton raises it. I have mixed feelings about family visitation - I grew up in a Reformed church that did practice family visitation once a year, but it was more or less a formality verifying that we did in fact have our Reformed ducks in a row - my family was dealing with serious issues of abuse and neglect, and such issues were never addressed in or outside of family visitation. Despite the small size of the church, the elders never talked to us or invited us to their homes the rest of the year, so our family with our struggles was still largely left on our own. On the other hand, in the Reformed church I joined a few years ago, family visitation is practiced more on a "need basis". The pastor makes more of an effort to get to know me than my church ever did, but I have a friend who grew up enduring years of emotional abuse by a hoarder who spent his time filling the house with stuff instead of attending to his family's needs, and no one ever had any idea. I see one of the primary purposes of family visitation of everyone to be able to have an eye out for serious family problems and children who need to be cared for, but in neither Reformed churches I went to that happened. I think family visitation needs to become a standard practice again, but I also worry about it replacing getting to know a family outside of visitation, as it did in my childhood church.

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  • Guest - jean

    My pastor came over after my husband had surgery supposedly to get to know us. My husband only attended this church with me when a man decided he wanted to date me, and wouldn't leave me alone. Other than that, he doesn't want anything to do church as his parents so browbeat him over it as a child that they poisoned his attitude towards it. I honestly thought the pastor would be happy to find out that I'm a very devout Christian, but he appeared to not give a hoot. My husband was offended at being put on the spot, and I was taken aback that the pastor had no interest in me. I have to say it was the most miserable hour since the last pastoral visit 22 years ago.

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  • Guest - Jean

    I might add I'm a member of the CRC. I agree with all the comments about how miserable the pastor's visit was.

    I have a question for all you pastors: do you REALLY care at all about the people in your congregation, or just the popular people in your clique? I ask because I miss a lot of church due to long-term health problems that prevent me from attending, and not one member of the council--elders or pastor thought enough of me to let me know that church was now meeting earlier outside and I had to bring my own chair if I didn't want to sit in wet grass. I wrote the pastor about how appalled I was. This will mean I miss even more church. To tell all you pastors the truth, I wouldn't be the slightest bit surprised if they throw me out. I don't think they want to be bothered dealing with anyone but their best buddies--at least that's my impression. Sad....and I'm a very devout Christian who takes church membership seriously, but what do you do when the pastor and elders can't be bothered with members who aren't in everything due to health issues. If I didn't truly believe God is in charge, I'd despair. Maybe this is a blessing to get me out of there as it appears they're implimenting the purpose driven movement stuff. They set up the small groups, but I wasn't important enough to be asked if I wanted to be in one for at least 18 months. How would you respond to a member who was treated like that? Please be honest. I don't think my pastor gives a hoot.

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  • Guest - Jean

    I wrote to my pastor and the council, and have come to a satisfactory resolution in the above matter. I commend them for understanding how upsetting it is to be forgotten, and overlooked, and it sounds like they're going to make an effort to make sure no one else is overlooked. I'm very grateful they responded in such a godly manner as my husband and I were in an extremely abusive church where a pastoral visit meant you were being suspended from church. I think if my pastor [who is very young--this is his first church] will make a concerted effort to care for those God has entrusted to him, that He will bless the congregation with growth. It's refreshing to have a pastor who wants to resolve things, and I look forward to a good relationship with him and the elders for many years to come.

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  • Guest - Melynda

    Thanks for a great article. Really helpful.
    What advice do you all have about how to do pastoral visitation with single women? I try to meet regularly with our single women, and pray with them, but I am not their pastor/elder (my husband is one). Our best solution has been having women over to our home for dinner or dessert, which is an enjoyable opportunity to practice hospitality but sometimes tricky with our young children. My husband has also met with women during the day (eg Starbucks near their office), but I know some of them don't feel comfortable meeting with a married man 1-on-1. Any other thoughts? Some ideas we are missing? Thank you.

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