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The lost art of congregational visitation

There are several reasons why congregational visitation is no longer a priority; the difficulty of arranging it; members are busy; pastors are busy; and we are not sure what it accomplishes.

There are several reasons why congregational visitation should be a priority. It meets people where they are; it facilitates contact with members who seldom are seen; and it can renew the church.

There are several reasons why congregational visitation is no longer a priority; the difficulty of arranging it; members are busy; pastors are busy; and we are not sure what it accomplishes. There are several reasons why congregational visitation should be a priority. It meets people where they are; it facilitates contact with members who seldom are seen; and it can renew the church.

Pastors call on members of the church when they are in the hospital. Pastors faithfully tell the congregation during worship who is going into the hospital, who is in the hospital and who is home from the hospital, and often mention them by name during the morning prayer. And pastors even make long jaunts to distant cities to visit members in the hospital, often spending several hours of the day to make the contacts.

These are commendable actions. We are encouraged to visit and pray for the sick. But virtually confining congregational calling to visiting the hospital tends to limit God’s activity in the world to the infirm and sick. Those who are in the hospital are the only ones mentioned during worship and the only calling the pastor faithfully does. The skeptic might even question its effectiveness because of the ambiguity of results.

If we are to have contact with those who are well, we expect them to come to church. Only a relatively small part of the congregation does so. Those who do not, in time, tend to be classified as less active or inactive. Should a pastor take the initiative and call on them where they are instead of expecting them to see the pastor on the pastor’s turf — in the church building? Overworked pastors need to alter their schedules if this is to happen.

A congregation will undergo a substantial transformation when it makes calling on the healthy as important as calling on the sick. In fact, the pastor may well spend more time visiting the healthy, making it a priority in ministry. What then, would a pastor’s schedule look like?

A pastor would focus on calling on members at home and at work. These are the two primary areas of ministry for members — where they spend their time and where they get their identity. These are the areas where they make their contribution in helping to make the world a better place — where they help to bring the kingdom of God to Earth.

Home Visitation

First, let’s look at calling on members in their homes. A friend said that in the 25 years she has been a member of her congregation no pastor has called on her at home. And she is not alone. She may be the norm in most congregations.

Let’s suppose that a pastor of a church of 200 members has approximately 150 homes to visit. If that pastor calls on each member at home annually (five home visits a week for 30 weeks), it could be done by setting aside two nights a week for calling.

Once again, this would mean a change in the pastor’s schedule. A pastor’s evening would not be spent going to committee meetings, but visiting parishioners. (The pastor could meet once a month over breakfast with each committee chair to go over the agenda of that committee and not meet with the committee before the session meets.)

The initial home visit might include a blessing of the house. It would continue the Jewish tradition of affixing a mezuzah on the doorpost as a sign of the family’s faith. A brief service could be read, including a reading of Deuteronomy 6:4-9. A congregation could adopt an appropriate mezuzah, perhaps in the form of a refrigerator magnet that would remind the family of their faith and covenant.

Habitat for Humanity recently sent out a mailing that included a keepsake with the words “Bless This House” on it. They suggested it be put on a key ring to remind people of “the wonderful good you can create in the lives of less fortunate families.” The same might be done for more fortunate families. A mezuzah on the refrigerator door can remind a family of their joys and commitments.

Work Visitations

Second, let’s look at calling on members in their place of work. In a congregation of 200, pastors can call on the entire congregation in 40 weeks by making five calls a week.

When I was a pastor I visited members in their office and on the factory floor. Seldom was I turned down. It made me see members in a new way and appreciate the tensions and the fulfillment they found in their work.

Presbyterian minister Henry Mobley agrees. He writes:

[Rather recently,] I discovered the value of visiting our people in their places of work . . . . The visits were not long, of course, but somehow these visits created a bond I had not experienced in other pastorates . . . . In law offices, in hospitals, in retail stores and industrial parks, in schools and farms, the visiting pastor has been welcomed. And believe me, the visits opened the pastor’s eyes to where and how people spend their waking hours, where they endure pressure (and sometimes anxiety), and where they find fulfillment.

I had never before felt closer to people where they lived nor understood their motivations, their interests and the quality of their faith, which met tests almost every hour of their working lives. And perhaps of more significance, it was quite plain that those who receive a visit felt closer to the church because of the experience. (Monday Morning, March 22, 1999, pp. 16, 17)

Work is a much-neglected area of the church’s ministry. It is a primary area where members can make a difference. Pastors visiting a member at work and then lunching together can provide opportunity for pastors to connect with the lives of members in a different way. The pastor can see the pressures and moral choices they face; where they find fulfillment and satisfaction. As a result, pastors and congregations will begin to see members primarily as lawyers and carpenters, instead of as church school teachers and elders.

Being able to call concurrently on all families in a 200-member church in 30 weeks and members at work in 40 weeks, leaves several weeks free to do necessary tasks. Pastors would have time to vary their schedules some weeks to teach a new-member class or a confirmation class, or to officiate at a wedding or funeral.

The ideal number for this approach is 200 members. When churches become larger, say 400 members, an additional staff person would share in the calling instead of being called to administer a church program.

A new emphasis on congregational visitation will mean:

1) pastors relating to the whole congregation instead of to the relatively small portion who are involved in church activities;

2) pastoral visits to members at home and at work being announced in the Sunday bulletin as well as committee meeting schedules;

3) the prayers of intercession including members being called on at work and at home as well as those in the hospital.

The end result would mean the renewing of the church with every member being active, and seeing themselves as ministers of the congregation.

 

Gustav Nelson, a retired Presbyterian minister, is director of Project 21 in Des Moines, Iowa.

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