So, having had some time to mull over the lessons of history regarding the place and practice of regular home visitation in the pastor’s work, here’s what I have learned:
1) Home visitation, or at least personal visitation no matter where it occurs, has always been an important part of pastoral ministry. Public gatherings for worship and teaching, however frequent and regular, just aren’t enough if the goal is spiritual development. Pastors have always gone to their people. It is, without much exaggeration, what makes a pastor a pastor, and not solely a teacher, preacher, or theologian.
Ideas about what needs to happen during a regular visit, and what furthers spiritual development, have varied over the years. The Apostles taught the Gospel, presumably in ways that mirrored their writings in the New Testament. The priests of the medieval church grew more concerned about exacting confessions and prescribing penance to preserve the glory of the Church. The Reformers and Puritans seemed most concerned about catechizing, instructing in basic doctrine, and encouraging the flock to live out the teaching. In more recent years, in this age of psychology and informality, it has taken a more therapeutic shape of semi-counseling, or simply a social visit.
In trying to determine my own stance in visiting practice, I appreciate what Thomas Oden says in his wonderful Pastoral Theology: “Visitation runs the dual risk of either turning in the direction of an overbearing inquisition or reducing itself to an awkward routine of social trivia. The first error prevailed in the seventeenth century; the latter in the twentieth.” (1)
In order to avoid both of those errors, and yet to take seriously the heritage of pastoral ministry, I make these further observations:
2) Spiritual development, sanctification, discipleship, or whatever else you would like to call it, is the point of a pastor’s visiting. If there is no attempt to further that development than it may be a visit, but it is not pastoral.
3) There needs to be a plan to visiting. The pastor needs to develop a plan that will encompass the entire congregation he or she is responsible for, providing for a regular routine of visiting, whether it is once a year or four times a year, or some other frequency. And like other non-urgent but important things it needs to be fit into the weekly schedule with intention, letting other duties fit into place around this commitment.
4) Visiting should focus on the needs of the person being visited, not the needs of the pastor or the Church. The Medieval Church’s shift of focus to the confessional was also a turn away from the value of the individual Christian and a turn to what best serves the glory of the Church, i.e., an obedient people. Perhaps this is best symbolized in the intentionally anonymous confessional booths with its partition between priest and parishioner. While such confession may have its place (there’s a future post here!), it is not enough to replace regular visitation, which properly focuses on the whole of a person’s spiritual development.
5) If we keep regular pastoral visitation from becoming limited to the sacramental act of confession and penance, then others besides the pastor can join in the work. As we have seen, Calvin visited along with the elders of the church of Geneva and Richard Baxter divided his parish with an assistant. While this work is the special call of the pastor, and he may direct others in their visiting, it is more important that the work gets done than who does every visit. So share the load, and make it happen. The “pastoral” part is in its purpose, not in the title of the one who does it.
All of this is mostly a confirmation of what I already thought, with an greater sense of the importance of regular visitation in my own work. It needs to get into my weekly schedule first. Because of my difficulties in visiting, which I shared in the first post on this subject, I find the emphasis on making a plan and defining the purpose of such visiting helpful. I am also challenged to try to bring other leaders into this work. But it is hard to train others in something you find a challenge yourself. And training is necessary if we are to avoid the errors of visiting that Oden pointed out above. Bringing others into this work can also help provide better care for those members of the congregation who, for whatever reason, don’t exactly get along with the pastor. In those situations, crisis visits are rarely awkward because the need is so great, but routine visits can be uncomfortable for all parties.
Regular pastoral visitation. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. And the more the merrier!
(1) Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology, Harper San Francisco, 1983, p. 178