I think about my past ministry and the home visitations I used to make at my first church in Minneapolis. I think about the many pastoral visits as chaplain at the State Reformatory in St. Cloud, Minnesota, as well as in clinical training and ministry in San Bernardino, Calif. and Port Townsend, Wash. And finally, the countless hours I spent in sessions as the Director of the Presbyterian Counseling Service in Seattle for thirty-five years. There were times when I knew exactly how important all these pastoral contacts were in the lives of those I touched, and at other times, probably took it all for granted just a little too much.
These days, here in my retirement home in Florida, Linda, one of our home health specialists puts me to bed at 8:30 p.m. in the evening with a slide board. I know I will be waking up at 2 a.m., but no one will be around to move me, so I will lie there and think a lot. Peripheral Neuropathy has robbed me of strength in my legs so that I cannot stand up or walk. On this night, after five or so hours of sleep, my mind is going again. I am thinking about the “pastoral call” from the other side now.
Chris is the associate pastor of my church and he visited me yesterday. Because of my years ordained, he feels free to share with me as a brother in ministry. Since the senior pastor position has been vacant, this work of visitation has fallen entirely on his shoulders. He talks openly with me about his hospital and home calls, committee meetings, and presbytery responsibilities. I value the time spent with him as once again I share with a colleague.
So as I lie here awake, I wonder about a plan for the church. Could we create a more formal program whereby members help with the calling, making the church more present with those whose physical needs are being met but who long for substantive and meaningful contact with Christian brothers and sisters? What if Chris selected six elders and six deacons and trained them for Church-Wide Visitation? Each of the twelve could make a call a week. They would be given a card with the name, address, phone number and number of family members. The Sunday bulletin and church newsletter could introduce members to this new program and alert them to coming visits. The visitors would call in advance and explain the reason for the visit.
Each Sunday, after the visit, they would return their cards to the church office, writing appropriate comments, especially if there was a need for prayer or for pastoral follow up. In a congregation of 500, it is unrealistic to think that the pastor can know every need. Often, people who might know of a need say nothing until it has occurred, or sometimes has already been resolved, and think that the lack of a pastoral visit is evidence of an uncaring attitude. But this is seldom true.
For instance, I have known a Cuban couple who have been in our church for six years. My wife, who was born and raised in Brazil could converse with them, so we got to know them better than most. The woman became ill and wanted the pastor to call, but couldn’t communicate the need that well, so she received none. My wife wrote a note and put it in the offering plate on Sunday telling of the couple. The pastor called immediately and returned the next day with communion. Later he called to thank us for giving him a heads up and described how wonderful the contact had been.
Member-to-member-calling is a program that just does not happen out of the blue. It takes training. There needs to be role playing, guided by professionals. Those who do the visiting need to know how to conduct themselves while the TV is going full blast and no one volunteers to turn it down, or off. They have to know how to respond to such comments as: “The church just wants money” … or, “I don’t like the hymn selection on Sunday morning.” There are many scenarios that can be played out, but people can learn how to respond to the underlying needs that bring these comments forth. The caller need not have all the solutions, and just sharing in the concern might be half the solution in and of itself.
I do not doubt there are churches out there with such programs that are working well. Perhaps this article can open a dialogue of sharing, so that pastors and congregations like mine can get the best ideas from those whose programs have been successful.
These thoughts find their roots in that first congregation in Minneapolis. Every afternoon I spent time calling in the hospital and in homes. Sometimes in the evenings I went to visit with the folks who worked during the day. I recall a woman with two youngsters saying to me: This is the first time the Bible has been read and a prayer given in our home.
In all my pastoral experience I found that folks had a story in their life they wanted to share but needed a listener. At the Reformatory in St. Cloud, the residents wanted the comfort of being able to share their stories without judgment. When training at the psychiatric hospital in San Bernardino, the patients wanted to know they could tell their story without being told they were “crazy.” At the diagnostic and treatment center in Port Townsend children wanted me to listen to their stories like a caring parent.
In my many years of pastoral counseling, for folks off the street, as well as clergy from throughout the presbytery and synod, clients often needed to be confident that they could share their marriage, family, or vocational upheaval and have a listening and non-judgmental ear. Neighbors and folks from the church will often ask, with caring hearts: “How are you?” By the time I say: “OK” (which is all they really want to hear), they are already on the move. Even my doctors spend only five minutes with me.
The number of these occasions in the lives of those in such need are increasing in a society where the “Baby Boomers” are now aging. Pastors can and do much of the heavy lifting, but there are many times when they cannot do it all. As this need increases exponentially in the next few decades, the Church needs to be more attentive to how, with the proper insight and training given by pastors, it can develop a more consistent approach to pastoral visitation. And I know only too well: Those who now visit will become the visited sooner than they think.
As part of my “ministry” these days, I have been financially supporting young pastors in Kenya as they graduate from seminary and begin their ministry in villages and cities throughout that land. Charles, one of the young pastors I have supported, recently wrote these words in an e-mail to me: Dear Neal, I hope you are fine and doing well. I am fine here in Kenya, and my family is doing well. My daughter is 5 months old and she is growing beautifully well. I am doing well in ministry, and am now doing door-to-door evangelism from morning to evening. It is really wonderful to walk and meet people who are willing to receive the Word of God.
Half a world away, and yet this young minister knew exactly what I knew so many decades ago in my first church in Minneapolis: Pastoral visitation is an art, and in many ways, the heart and soul of ministry. For those who know that and make it a regular part of ministry, I say: Carry on, good and faithful servant. For those who think it too daunting a task, for whatever reason, I say: Revisit the idea of visitation. If it is a struggle for you as a pastor, equip the saints to help you with this important ministry. In a society where someone like me, with an array of physical challenges, encounters people who only have time for my clinical needs, it is a breath of fresh air to have caring hearts from my congregation come calling simply because they know I too am a child of God.
Neal A. Kuyper is founder and director emeritus of the Presbyterian Counseling Service in Seattle, Wash. Neal was also a regional President of the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, and a leader in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, which named him one its “Pioneers of Pastoral Counseling.”