The best-kept secret, I maintain, is not the Coca Cola formula but ministers’ reservations about the value of visitation. Their reluctance to talk about this is partly due to a feeling that they could never get laymen to understand their misgivings. Visitation is probably the most sensitive spot in lay-clergy relations. Murmurings by church members often have to do with apparent pastoral neglect. If this point of friction is left unattended, serious discontent could set in and hinder his ministry.

In seminary, misgivings about pastoral visitation are only lightly, if ever, touched upon, lest the seeds of cynicism that lodge in seasoned workers be injudiciously planted in eager aspirants. But once on the job the new pastor may soon learn that door knocking doesn’t cause the church to grow. Pastors have been known to make 1,000 calls a year and at the same time witness a decline in church attendance. This experience would certainly give a pastor second thoughts about visitation, and his own effectiveness.

One reason for pastoral dissatisfaction with visitation is that often a visit never rises above the level of a social call. The conversation naturally starts with immediate factors—the weather, activities of the moment, an amusing anecdote. When the pastor tries to shift to a serious matter, such as knowing the Lord, the conversation may stall. Probing and pressuring are resisted. The atmosphere may become tense, and the person may try to change the subject. When he leaves the pastor feels they have been on a merry-go-round: they got off where they started, and though the ride has been pleasant they have gone nowhere.

Another cause for pastoral discontent is that the house call consumes a lot of time. Driving out to see rural families or fighting traffic across town takes up valuable time that could be used more productively.

The most irritating consumption of time comes when the pastor gets caught in a conversational trap. He feels like Winnie-the-Pooh in the story by A. A. Milne “in which Pooh bear goes visiting and gets into a tight spot.” (Poor pudgy Pooh got stuck in Rabbit’s front door for a week!) Not wanting to seem rude, the pastor finds it hard to break off conversation with a parishioner whose tongue is stuck in high gear. John Henry Jowett (1864–1923), whose eminence allowed him to reveal his true feelings, said pastoral visits tend to be “a tragic waste of a strong man’s time.”

A third cause of difficulty may be temperamental preference. A pastor may seem to revel in talking, since he chose preaching as his occupation. But this assumption isn’t necessarily true. Compulsion is behind the call to preach. Some preachers do love to hear themselves talk, unfortunately. But others crave solitude and time for reflection. I have heard numerous pastors say that for them visitation is the most difficult and exhausting aspect of the pastorate. Hours of conversation can be more taxing than preaching.

Article continues below

A yellow caution light flashes at the intersection of church duty and family needs. A too demanding congregation can indirectly hurt their pastor’s relationship with his family. He shows good sense when he draws the line on persons who demand (rather than require) an unreasonable amount of his itme. I have known preachers whose marriages ended in divorce primarily because the husband-pastor paid more attention to stray sheep than to his affection-starved wife. And if the pastor leaves fathering to mother, the children gain the impression that their father cares more for others or for his own success than for them. How to divide attention between the family and the church family can become a major area of tension. Laymen need to realize this and try to help their pastors work it out.

Some pastors decide to limit rather than eliminate visitation. Cutting back this practice may arouse protests. Jonathan Edwards “went in response to special needs, not as a routine exercise” (Ola Winslow, J. Edwards, p. 125), which lost him support. Joseph Parker, the poetic preacher of nineteenth-century London, had a similar philosophy. After serving five years at his first pastorate, he was called by Cavendish Chapel, Manchester. In his acceptance letter he made the following statement part of the official records:

As a pastor I cannot visit for the sake of visiting. At all times I am glad to obey the calls of the sick and the dying, or to guide the truth seeker; but in continuous rounds of so-called pastoral visitations I do not believe, and such cannot promise [Life of Parker, p. 55].

Few laymen would accuse doctors of cold professionalism because they do not make house calls; people realize that most ailments are not critical, most patients can come to the office, and house calls are an inefficient use of the doctor’s time. Cannot laymen also believe in the pastor’s deep interest in his people when he limits house calls and encourages office consultation?

Poll the average Protestant congregation and I wager you will find a veneration of visitation. Geoffrey Chaucer’s parson would be much to their liking:

Article continues below

Wide was his parish, houses far asunder,

But never did he fail, for rain or thunder,

In sickness or mischief [sin], to visit

The farthest in his parish, small and great,

Going afoot, and in his hand a stave.

The claims made for visitation are nearly as outlandish as those made in television commercials: a visit activates the sluggish, cures whole families of Sunday absenteeism, and charms away their well-established reluctance to make deep commitments.

On the positive side is the experience of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In 1961 the congregation numbered 17; now it is over 2,000. It has an intensive visitation program, which has worked.

Two things ought to be noted: (1) This visitation program is primarily one of lay witnessing. Each week 300 or more members go out to meet and greet people in Christ’s name and with his Gospel. (2) The callers aim at sharing the story of God’s love in Christ.

Pastors or church members who are dissatisfied with the state of pastoral visitation would do well to suggest a candid discussion of the matter. The pastor and concerned laymen could scrutinize together the demands, the dangers, and the opportunities of visitation. These are some points that might merit discussion.

1. Pastors might be able to make the time they spend in visitation more effective if they did not have to play the numbers game. The monthly visitation score sheet with a total in three figures looks impressive, but what is more important: the number of calls or what was accomplished in them? Some church boards wisely leave visitation patterns up to the pastor’s discretion.

2. A pastor may see visitation as a temptation to be diverted from his primary calling: preaching. The traditional call to the ministry and the standard ordination services emphasize the public proclamation of the Scriptures. Pastoral care is part of the call, to be sure, but a heavy stress is on the pulpit.

The house-to-house circulation of the apostles in Acts (2:46; 20:20) must be understood as formal proclamation sessions. As P. T. Forsyth wrote, “Teaching from house to house meant for the apostles not visitation, but ministering to the church gathered in private houses” (Positive Preaching, p. 59).

3. The minister may feel that vigorous visitation will give him the image of being out to further his own future. Certainly the gleam in a salesman’s eye is based more on the potential commission than on interest in the well-being of the client. It is easy for a pastor to slip into the desire to collect new members instead of being content to share the Gospel with those who won’t come to church.

Article continues below

4. The demands of the pastorate chew up days and nights without letup. Laymen cannot take the pastor’s place in the study, but they can help him in contacting people. The visited person may not wish to confide in a layman; he may want a trained counselor. Yet the lay visitor can break down barriers and form friendships.

Laymen sometimes regard pastoral visits as a proxy fulfillment of an obligation they don’t want themselves. They assume the preacher is paid to do this and that they don’t have to help. But laymen should pitch in and play a supportive roll.

One step in getting laymen to lend a hand is to get them to realize that they do visit, every day. Comments at work, conversations on coffee breaks, telephone calls to neighbors, and letters to friends are forms of communication. Speaking for Christ is not a task limited to the pastor; every Christian is to testify to what God means to him and what God has done for him in Christ. Bible study is a preparation; prayer is a propellant. The two together will help us to represent Christ.

Pastor and laymen can complement each other in the visitation program. Laymen may have the advantage of being more able to relate to other laymen and the disadvantage of being untrained in giving well-rounded, well-rooted presentations of the Scriptures. In many churches lay visitation is a once-a-year semi-frantic activity that veers off course. A balanced program of visitation should involve pastor and people year round.—The Reverend JOHN LEWIS GILMORE, Worland, Wyoming.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.