I was just preparing to leave the home of a couple I was visiting this week when the wife turned to me and said, “Pastors don’t visit any more. At our last church our pastor never came and saw us. He said he didn’t believe in it.” I was really saddened by her comment. If there was any truth in what she said – even an ounce of truth, then God’s church is all the poorer. And such pastors ought to be – well in my mind, rebuked.
When Jesus commissioned Peter to lead the people of God he said to him, “Shepherd My sheep” (John 21:16). Many years later, Peter said the same to those who would continue his work; “Shepherd God’s flock among you” (1 Peter 5:2). Paul, in his final words to the elders at Ephesus said, “Shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). It seems quite obvious to me: the primary work of the pastor/elder is shepherding. Shepherds spend time with their sheep. Shepherds know their sheep. They know which ones are strong and which are weak; which need more care and which don’t. This is a personal, rather than acquired knowledge.
Now I realize some pastors have very large churches and it would be unrealistic – if not impossible, to expect them to personally visit every member of their church. But they still need to ensure that pastoral care is happening. And they need to model it to their fellow leaders. They need to demonstrate what a loving and caring leader looks like.
While training for pastoral ministry, I attended a church of 8-10,000. There’s no way I expect the Senior Pastor to know me or visit me. One day I met him in a stairway in the church. I gave him a friendly greeting. He not only greeted me back but stopped and talked to me and asked all kinds of questions about me. He was a very busy man, but he took an interest in me. I wasn’t just another face. I was a person; I was one of God’s sheep. That brief encounter had a lasting impact on my life. It also taught me one important thing: pastors care about people. You’d think that was a given. Unfortunately in so many cases, it is not.
Richard Baxter was a puritan pastor in a little town called Kidderminister. His visitation ministry had such an impact it caused a revival. He wrote a little book called “The Reformed Pastor” that has become a standard text in many seminaries. This is what he wrote:
We must labour to be acquainted, not only with the persons, but with the state of all our people, with their inclinations and conversations; what are the sins of which they are most in danger, and what duties they are most apt to neglect, and what temptations they are most liable to; for if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians.
Here are some of the benefits that I have gleaned over the years from regular, weekly visitation:
1. You get to know your people better. You learn about their lives. You learn about their past. You learn about their family. You learn about their hopes and dreams and setbacks and disappointments. Knowing someone’s past helps you shepherd them well in the present. It also often explains why they act (or don’t act) the way they do. I was in a home of a couple recently who I knew were very capable ministry leaders. But they are not serving. I always wondered why (and perhaps judged them unfairly because of this). It turns out the husband was abruptly removed from a ministry position in their last church. And it wasn’t done well. They left feeling very hurt and never really recovered. Those are the kind of things people will divulge in the safety of their own living rooms, not in the foyer of the church on a Sunday morning. And it helps me shepherd them better.
2. You get to go beyond the superficial. People consider it a privilege to have a pastor in their home. They don’t want to frit the time away talking about rugby and the weather. They want to talk about real life. And they are interested in finding out more about you. So the conversations tend to be deeper, richer and more meaningful than what you get on a Sunday morning. Every time you cross paths with those individuals in the future, the conversations you have with them are at a deeper level. Looking into their eyes you see a lot more than just a familiar face. You see a life.
3. You get the opportunity to speak into people’s lives. This is where the real work of shepherding takes place. You listen, you interpret, and then you speak into their situation. In this process, I am in utter dependence on the work of the Spirit of God. I can’t do this on my own. The Spirit of God knows the human heart like no other and if we are listening to his voice, he will direct us to know what to say. Often times when I am listening to someone I will be praying silently, “Lord, please help me respond wisely to this. I don’t know what to say. Give me your words, bring to my mind Scriptures that will edify, encourage or correct. May I be your mouthpiece in this situation.”
4. You get a gauge on how well you and your elders are leading. Sometimes it is difficult in pastoral leadership to know how well you are leading your flock. People don’t want to criticize (as least to your face!). Ask for feedback and you’ll likely only hear positive things. But when you are in someone’s home and they give their perspective on how well things are going (or not going) in your church, you get a reality check. It doesn’t matter how great the rhetoric is from the stage on Sunday. What really counts is what is going on in the hearts and minds of your people.
5. You get to be ministered to by others. This is the unexpected bonus. I don’t go visiting so I can be encouraged and built up. I go to encourage and build up others. Seldom do I leave such visits however without being encouraged and built up myself. This is the way things work. This is the way God designed things in his church. The Spirit of God ministers to both the giver and the receiver. When Paul spoke about his desire to visit the church in Rome, he said this:
“For I want very much to see you, so I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, to be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” (Romans 1:11–12)
Listen to the story of someone’s faith and you will be encouraged. You will be encouraged by God’s faithfulness in their lives. You will be encouraged by their perseverance through trials. And you will be encouraged by their words of affirmation and thankfulness to you, for being their pastor.
If you are a pastor or an elder, and you are not active in visiting your members, make it a new goal for next year. You’ll be all the better for it.