Contexts, cases, and core of the work
Previously we have thought more broadly about this vital matter of pastoral care expressed in and by visitation, and considered who it is that is making the visit. In this third blog we will take a look at a variety of situations you will find yourself in and types of pastoral visitation you will undertake.
A kaleidoscope of contexts and cases
Whilst it is important that the pastor does not limit himself to crisis visitation the fact is that many crises arise in the lives of his flock. Just as in his own daily life (Jude 3-4). The cry “who is sufficient for these things?” is true generally in ministry. It is especially so in the many and varied pastoral cases that crises can and do arise and demand urgent attention (2 Corinthians 2:16; 3:5).
In making some comment here I am acutely aware that there are many aspects to all of these cases and there are helpful resources available. I want to highlight some things arising from experience and observation. As you face such matters you will inevitably need to go into more depth and will only grow by experience (Job 5:7)
Visiting the sick in the Hospital (Matthew 25:36)
Perhaps one of the most common settings, nevertheless a special case, that requires wise handling. Try to be involved as quickly as possible without creating a sense of intrusion. Do your homework about the condition, possible outcomes and the practicalities that may be involved, not to play the doctor but to informed, sensitive and realistic. Be in touch with the family and alert to their needs. It is better to keep these visits reasonably short and avoid over taxing the one who is sick. Pastors are often allowed to visit outside visiting hours but should liaise with the hospital staff—they are usually helpful and appreciative. Always show them courtesy, respect and appreciation.
Visiting the sick in the home.
There is some overlap here with hospital visitation but important differences. Be sensitive to the family situation as a whole and be considerate in setting up visits/times/duration. There are of course less distractions at home than in a busy ward so conversation and prayer will generally be easier in the home. Seek to apply Scripture prayerfully and wisely. It can be helpful to ask the person in what way you can pray specifically for them. Be willing to offer or arrange practical help from the church where it is genuinely needed. Always follow up.
Reflecting on the challenge to this work and the Lord’s enabling for it, Mike Mellor writes:
It is plain to see how God has fully equipped us for this incredibly important work. We have a heavenly Father who sends us into this broken world he so loves. We have a Saviour who, by his death and resurrection, provides all we need in order to be messengers of forgiveness, comfort and hope. And we have the Holy Spirit who empowers us and provides all the compassion, strength and wisdom we need for the task. Clearly, we have no excuse not to go! 1
Mellor’s valuable and eminently practical book will repay careful reading.
Bereavement (John 11:21, 32)
This is one of the most challenging settings of all, yet so important for the pastor to “be there”. I know of a pastor who whilst taking the funeral of a church member was approached by a non-Christian in the same family. Warmly and appreciatively, the lady said to the pastor, “you are always with us in our troubles.” No doubt an encouragement to him but also a good indication one aspect of the value of the task.
A very basic question is, “when should I go?” I would recommend that you err on the side of immediacy. You can call as soon as you know and make it clear you are there for them, but if it is not the most convenient time then leave, making it equally clear you will gladly call again as soon as it is suitable (Romans 12:15). Such a prompt visit approached in a very non-pushy way shows love and concern, but it gives the person or the family the option to delay if that is what they need. To hesitate unduly can easily give the wrong impression.
Whilst thoughtful, quality reading on the subject will serve you well, you do not need to be a specialist bereavement counsellor. It is surprising what a good instructor genuine love and compassion can be. It will be to your advantage to have passages like Psalm 90 & 103, John 11, 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 4 in your bloodstream and at your fingertips. Where the deceased is not a Christian you will need to pray for great wisdom on how to walk carefully with both compassionate sensitivity and gospel urgency.
Depression (Psalm 42)
Make no mistake the “black dog” stalks some in your congregation. This of course is a particularly difficult area of pastoral ministry. It is wise to do some serious and detailed study on the matter. But remember that in this case there is a place for the friend and not only the professional, though both are also needed and valuable. Talking (if and when the person is able to) is an important part of dealing with the matter. Sometimes too there is a spiritual edge or dimension to the affliction, and a caring and wise pastor can be of significant help in addition to or even beyond the medical professional. Those who live with a person suffering from depression themselves often need help and support so be alert to that. A short book which offers big help in this area is Living with Depression by Elaine Brown.2
Marriage Problems (1 Corinthians 7)
Sadly, it is often the case that by the time a pastor becomes aware of a marriage in difficulty, the problem has gone some significant way along its downward, destructive path. A further problem arises in that at least one of the partners may be totally unwilling to meet and talk. You need to acquire, responsibly, what you can by way of information and background. There is a place for speaking to the parties individually and where at all possible together. You must be ready for the difficult and the unexpected. Be aware that there will be situations where you spend a considerable amount of time for very few apparent results. Thankfully, there will be times when a marriage is restored and that joy is worth all the efforts expended.
Ultra-careful listening and reading between the lines are skills you will need to develop. A genuine and well-established relationship with couples and families in the normal run of church life will be of great help in this matter.
Redundancy (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12)
This is a subject little talked about but the impact financially, personally and spiritually can be profound. Willingness to give some time to listening carefully is very important here. Scripture’s commendation of the importance and value of work (Genesis 1:27-28; Exodus 20:19; Psalm 104:23), can be a troubling pressure point for those out of work. Remember daily work is a huge part of people’s lives and when things go badly wrong such is the damage that help and support are needed. The period out of work may last for quite a time so patience and perseverance in pastoral help are important.
Being alert and aware
There is almost an endless range of possibilities where particular problems can arise and it is important to be aware that they can. For example: problems with the children, newlyweds hitting early unexpected difficulties, families facing a situation where another family member has behaved criminally or in some bizarre fashion. In the church, quite serious disputes over trivialities. Do not dwell on what might arise but do not ignore the fact that something very unusual will probably come your way at some point. Perhaps sooner than you think.
Social work or spiritual work?
Whilst the miscellany just cited will reflect the pastor’s experience the question naturally arises – what about the spiritual work, what about one-to-one teaching of the Word, feeding the sheep and the lambs? Thankfully, many visits will indeed directly involve that (Acts 20:17-38).
For example, preparing for baptism and church membership. Answering questions someone may be grappling with or correcting an important doctrinal misunderstanding. Helping new believers grow in their faith and into their life and involvement with church. Working on the recovery of some poor saint who has fallen badly and is struggling with the realisation that they are sinners after all.
Assisting a young couple who are preparing for marriage. Studying with someone who is looking for much needed biblical help on some personal crisis involving a tricky ethical matter. Helping with the healing of wounds inflicted by another church member or facing a particular assault of the evil one. Giving support to a believer who is experiencing bad treatment because he or she is a Christian at home, work, school or college. Listening to and helping a church member who is a carer and all the challenges surrounding that. Explaining the gospel to someone who is really beginning to seek the Lord. As Derek Prime correctly and encouragingly notes, pastoral work/care can be “the most demanding and yet the most rewarding of the pastor’s duties.” 3
Thankfully in my earliest days of pastoral visiting I had the support of faithful elders around me who were wise and willing confidants and counsellors. It is so important for the pastor to work with his fellow elders, and if that is limited, to have the friendship, counsel and support of other pastors he knows and trusts.
Bielsa and Baxter
In the informative biography of the colourful and much talked about Argentinian football manager Marcelo Bielsa, he says he always learns more from failures than successes. Every pastor has made mistakes and this is often a step to improvement. You will make mistakes even if you do your best to anticipate them—accept and learn.
Although it is the emotional and spiritual equivalent of going twelve rounds with Anthony Joshua, Richard Baxter’s rightly famed Reformed Pastor, based on Acts 20:28, is invaluable reading. He is dealing with a very specific aspect of pastoral work and it is set in a particular historical culture and context, but with some adaption and modification it is a great resource for a pastor’s thinking. In part of the dedication, he writes of pastoral work,
I imagined the people would scorn it, and none but a few, who had least need, would submit to it, and I thought my strength would never go through with it, having so great burdens on me before; and thus, I long delayed it, which I beseech the Lord of mercy to forgive. Whereas, upon trial, I find the difficulties almost nothing (save only through my extraordinary bodily weakness) to that which I had imagined; and I find the benefits and comforts of the work to be such, that I would not wish I had forborne it, for all the riches in the world. 4
1 Mike Mellor, I Was Sick and You Visited Me (DayOne, 2016), p. 22.
2 Elaine Brown, Living with Depression (Christian Focus, 2005).
3 Derek J. Prime, On Being A Pastor (Moody Publishers, 2013), p. 150.
4 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Banner of Truth, 1974).