Knock and it shall be opened to you… Pastoral visitation

There can be little doubt that the Lord and his apostles did much good through their visits to people’s homes (for example Luke 10:38-42, Acts 20:20). The opportunities were used for friendship, understanding and care. Pre-eminently it was a means of close and careful instruction and was often life changing. In looking at a variety of writing on the subject I see very different perspectives and contrary opinions on the matter. There are diverse and opposing views even as to whether it should be done, quite apart from how it should be done!   

Can we set out a clear picture and establish some principles and guidelines on how we approach the matter? I believe we can. We need them because the church settings in which pastoral visitation takes place are so varied. The size of a church, the particular make-up of the congregation, the history and culture of a church, the neighbourhood in which it is located and the personalities and experience of the leadership – all these have a bearing on how the task is to be carried out.   

Many pastors labour in churches and circumstances that are far from ideal and require support and direction in this as in other areas of ministry. A new pastor can often find the matter daunting. The pastor of a small church faces both limitations and opportunities. Whilst I am thinking particularly of the smaller church setting, there are some things that may be useful for a pastor in a larger church to ponder. 

What exactly do we mean by a ‘pastoral visit’?   

Beethoven wrote a ‘pastoral symphony’ – no it was not a pleasing tune for pastors to listen to whilst they study! Apparently, the great man loved nature and the countryside and wrote his 6th symphony to capture something of its delights. There is in fact a clue here in that the ‘pastoral symphony’ concerns the rural setting. In particular here we are thinking of the care of sheep. It is the calling of the shepherd to be pastoral! In the agricultural setting it is not merely a pastime with woolly animals but it’s about produce, such as wool and meat. But it is also about disease and threats. It all points to and involves hard work.

The term can be variously understood but a pastor is by definition a ‘people person’ just as surely as a shepherd is a ‘sheep person’! In caring for a flock, a shepherd may lead them as a group to some rich pasture or at times he must seek the wandering sheep, or again tend to the injured sheep in some pen by itself.   

Leading, feeding, protecting, tending, caring are the things he does! The pastor preaches pastorally – to guide and feed the sheep. He prays pastorally out of care and concern for the sheep. He goes looking for the wandering sheep. He visits them at home pastorally – that is, to carry on the work of leading, caring, feeding, protecting (1 Peter 5:1-4). 

The Lord is our Shepherd and the model for shepherds.  

Meditating on John 10:1-17 will take us literally into rich pasture on the subject. The Lord Jesus is the true and the good shepherd. The chapter is set against the background of stealing, killing, and destroying by false shepherds. The matter of protecting comes up immediately in the chapter and later it goes on to show that the shepherd himself was exposed to danger.   

The sheep know him, trust him, recognize his voice. His aim is to guide and nourish them, to give them life abundant. He wants to enlarge his flock and he is ready to die for his flock.  This is a significant theme in many parts of the Bible. It is a very poor pastor/shepherd who thinks he is the good shepherd and a very foolish pastor/shepherd who cannot learn from the Good Shepherd, the Chief Shepherd, and the Great Shepherd. 

In his work on the “Especial Duties of Pastors and People”, John Owen captures the spirit and scope of the shepherd’s work.  His words have a tenderness about them that is engaging and enriching:  

It belongs unto them, on the account of their pastoral office, to be ready, willing, and able, to comfort, relieve, and refresh, those that are tempted, tossed, wearied with fears and grounds of disconsolation, in times of trial and desertion. ‘The tongue of the learned’ is required in them, ‘that they should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary.’  

One excellent qualification of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the discharge of his priestly office now in heaven, is, that he is touched with a sense of our infirmities and knows how to succour them that are tempted. His whole flock in this world are a company of tempted ones; his own life on the earth he calls ‘the time of his temptation;’ and those who have the charge of his flock under him ought to have a sense of their infirmities, and endeavour in an especial manner to succour them that are tempted.  

But amongst them there are some always that are cast under darkness and disconsolations in a peculiar manner: some at the entrance of their conversion unto God, whilst they have a deep sense of the terror of the Lord, the sharpness of conviction, and the uncertainty of their condition; some are relapsed into sin or omissions of duties; some under great, sore, and lasting afflictions; some upon pressing, urgent, particular occasions; some on sovereign, divine desertions; some through the buffetings of Satan and the injection of blasphemous thoughts into their minds, with many other occasions of an alike nature.  

Now, the troubles, disconsolations, dejections, and fears, that arise in the minds of persons in these exercises and temptations are various, oftentimes urged and fortified with subtle arguings and fair pretenses, perplexing the souls of men almost to despair and death.” (Works, 16:85–86)

The purposes and value of the work 

The aims of preaching—a call to repentance and faith, biblical instruction, nurture in the faith and growth in the Christian life—can be very helpfully assisted by time spent with people in their homes, one to one or with couples and families.  The pulpit ministry can thereby be sharpened and strengthened.  The call to love can be clearly shown in pastoral interest and care as people are visited in their homes or other spheres in which they move. 

Prayer, such an important part of the pastor’s work, can be informed, enriched and deepened by the knowledge and understanding gained in pastoral visitation. Evangelism can be carried out in this way as it enables the pastor to deal with very specific questions, objections, obstacles people may have in the most appropriate way. 

Visiting and being among people is an important way to get to know people well. This knowledge can deepen love and, in some cases, reveal the challenge there is to actually loving them! They get to know the pastor and a relationship can be established and developed. This can open up pastoral opportunities for encouragement, help and instruction. It can also render people much more open and receptive to the preaching ministry.  Clearly the counsel of Paul to Timothy and Titus would require a good knowledge of the people in order to be faithfully carried out. 

Doing the work 

Of course, so much depends on a particular congregation itself.  How many people are in the church? What are the numbers of different age groups, married and single people? Who is very involved in the life of the church? Who is on the fringes? Some congregational analysis needs to be carried out, followed by some careful planning.   

It is good to begin with modest aims and not try and do everything at once. Slow and steady in fact suits this work by its very nature. As you go about these things, crises will occur and you will have to attend to those, taking them as you find them. Often a crisis presents you with something you have never faced before and will demand thought and prayer. Even when faced with something never encountered before, lessons from other situations may well be of some advantage. We must be ready for the unexpected by expecting it! 

Churches are so diverse it is unwise to try to legislate or standardise. We need a broader framework which can be adapted to different situations. I will not single out prayer but rather say that each of the following should of course be approached prayerfully:

Know the people 

Do some congregational analysis. The membership, the fringe, more distant contacts. The general spiritual condition of those in regular attendance – as far as you can see. Note the categories, age, family circumstances, employment. Consider the mature, the gifted, the committed. Notice the range of people in 1 Thessalonians 5:14. 

Know your resources 

Assess your own responsibilities and commitments. The particular challenges and expectations of your own pastorate. Consider who else in the church could assist you in pastoral work. The Lord does not expect you to do the impossible – you can leave that to Him (2 Corinthians 12:19).

Listen to and learn from others 

There are some great examples from church history ancient and modern. There is an aspect of Charles Spurgeon’s ministry that is not too often mentioned. As a young pastor in London, he was faced with a Cholera epidemic. Such was his diligence in visiting the sick and dying that people began to be more attuned and responsive to his preaching! 

You will have other colleagues who are pastors, some of whom will have great experience. You can talk over with them how the have approached the work and what they learned – good and bad. Some honest practical discussion at a local fraternal on the matter could be really productive. 

Be creative 

Such are the variations from church to church that no ‘one size fits all’. Every pastor is different and whilst a pastor may excel in one gift, say preaching, the other aspects of the work ought not to be neglected. This all requires a creative approach. As your knowledge of the congregation grows, as you assess your resources and as you listen to and learn from others you can begin to work out how you can go about your pastoral work.   

Life under lockdown has forced many pastors to become creative. Some of the ideas hatched then may well have some transferrable value after lockdown. Do not be afraid to try different approaches. If necessity really is the mother of invention, then become inventive.  Paul’s life and letters bear witness to “thinking” as part of his hard work. 

Work hard but accept limitations and imperfections 

To engage properly in pastoral visitation is to work hard, though what is hard for some will be easier for others. The ability to listen, to ask questions, to be patient, to be wise in the timing and application of Scripture will vary.

By all means play to your strengths, but be willing to stretch yourself and develop in those areas you feel you are weaker. Remember there are many limits within and around every pastor. Like every church, the pastor is imperfect and a work in progress – accept that and press on. 

Some difficulties of the work 

It requires time, patience, and wisdom. It will in fact be an opportunity for the pastor himself to develop as a man and as a preacher. It can be difficult to begin and set up meaningful relationships. We know people are all different, some are reserved and almost closed, some are open and others too open! If not planned properly it can be very time consuming and tiring. Do not give up. If a particular visit goes badly use it rather as reason for prayer and a readiness to learn.   

Be ready to encounter many varied and difficult situations: illness, bereavement, depression, marriage difficulties, redundancy, family challenges and so on and on. There are books available that can inform you on many of these things. You will always find that there will be aspects unique to every situation – so you will need to pray constantly for wisdom (James 1:5; 2 Corinthians 2:16). 

Some objections to the work 

It’s not of part of the pastor’s work.  This is perhaps a more extreme and less common objection but I fail to see it. Yes, in a large church a pastor may have to be fairly strategic in what he does but surely, he must do it? A large church presumably will have a good-sized eldership so partnership in the work should be readily available (Acts 20:20).

It’s time consuming/never ending.  Well of course it can be time consuming. But it can be time well-spent and can contribute much to the good of the flock and the growth of the under-shepherd. It is indeed never ending. While a man is in a pastorate he will need to attend to this work. Although the work is never done it can nevertheless be done (2 Timothy 4:5)!

It distracts from study.  The busy pastor must fight against many distractions. The very work of study itself can easily send the preacher off on some trail that he may enjoy but is not immediately relevant to the matter in hand! J.C. Ryle wrote that in addition to being a student of scripture the pastor must study the human heart. Being alongside people in their homes is an ideal place for that important pursuit. As Andrew Roycroft puts it: ‘The fulfilment of being able to carry the fruits of study into a visit, and the (anonymised) fruits of visitation into the pulpit cannot be overstated. So, visitation is part of our preparation to preach, not apart from it.’

It only increases expectations.  Any duty of the pastor’s that is carried out well can increase expectations. That can be dealt with in different ways. Good planning and clear communication can help level expectations. 

It will contribute to burn out. Again, any task within the range of the pastor’s duties can cause this. Good time-management in this area as in others is the key. Undoubtedly there will be seasons when a lot of things call for attention at once. But again, it will have to be managed carefully, constructively by the sorting out of priorities and the acceptance of limitations and imperfections. 

So, consider the work, and, relying on the Lord’s help, go about it, noting again some wise words from Andrew Roycroft: we need to avoid ‘the danger of allowing our sense that we can’t do everything to make us believe we can’t do anything’.1

Passages with a bearing on visiting:

Matt. 10:11-14; 19:29; Mark 5:18-20; Luke 9:58; 10:5-7; 10:38-42; 14:1.

Visiting those in need: Job 2:11; Matt. 25:36. See also Job 42:11; Matt. 25:39-40.

Visiting the sick: 2 Kings 8:29 (2 Chr. 22:6); 2 Kings 13:14; James 5:14.

Visiting the bereaved: Gen. 37:34-35; 1 Chr. 7:22; John 11:19, 45. 

Visiting individuals: Titus 3:12; Acts 28:15; Phil. 2:25; 3 John 13-14.

Visiting prisoners: 2 Tim. 1:16-17; 4:9-13; Phlm 12-13; Heb. 13:3. 

[1] The two quotations from Andrew Roycroft can be found on his blog here