Tag Archives: pastoral visitation

5 Facts about a Pastor’s Visiting drawn from Church History: Visiting and the Pastor, Pt 3

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!

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(1) Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology, Harper San Francisco, 1983, p. 178

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…But Someone Has to Do It: Visiting and the Pastor, Pt. 2

The question we are asking of the history of the Church in this post is, “What place has regular pastoral visitation held in the practice of the church?”

Starting at the beginning, the Apostles, including Paul, went “house to house” preaching and teaching the Gospel. (1)  And in the couple centuries following the New Testament time, many writers, including Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, the writer of the Apostolic Constitutions, Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, and Augustine, spoke about people needing more than the public times of teaching, but private instruction as well. (2)

As the Church came to emphasize the sacraments as the means of grace in the middle ages, the focus of pastoral work shifted to “the glory and power of the mother church rather than the spiritual development of the members.” (3)

ConfessionalThe private confessional, which began in the monasteries and spread throughout the church by 1215, became the main contact point of the individual and the priest/pastor.  It’s purpose was to make an obedient congregation worthy of the mother church. (4)  In the words of Peter De Jong, “Every Roman Catholic manual on pastoral theology speaks at length of the confessional and it’s place in the life of the church. It is the heart of the spiritual care which the church exercises over the lives of her members.” (5)

The Reformers rejected the idea of the priest mediating forgiveness and turned away from the practice of the private confessional.  Eliminating that “heart of spiritual care” they replaced it with the apostolic practice of going house to house.  In doing so, “Protestantism devised an effective replacement for auricular confession that preserved the best aspects of personal pastoral dialogue, yet tended to protect it from familiar medieval abuses.” (6)

Naturally, such a practice was also very useful in spreading the teaching of the Reformers and correcting the practices they were purging from the Church.

John Calvin and the leaders of Geneva visited each family four times a year in preparation for receiving communion.  They distinguished between family visitation and discipline. Visitation was not to “pry into the hearts…but rather to exhort and stimulate the believers to a life of sanctification,” unlike in confession. (7)

English: Title page of The Reformed Pastor

The Protestant teaching visit reached its peak form in Richard Baxter, the English Puritan, who wrote The Reformed Pastor, one of the standard readings for seminary students of all stripes.  In that book, Baxter lays out his program of visitation.  He believed that a church should be no bigger than what was possible for the pastors to visit once each year, which he estimated at about 800 families (!).  Each week he and an assistant would set aside two days to visit with families for an hour each.  Baxter would invite families to come to him in the town.  The assistant would go out to the country.  Together they would visit with 14 families a week.  The purpose of each visit was to catechize, to instruct the families, usually continuing what has been publicly preached, and to inquire about their spiritual life as a family.  Baxter makes a point to emphasize that such visits were always voluntary, but he never had a family refuse. (8)

That, in brief survey, is what I could ferret out about the history of pastoral visitation.  It’s hard to pin down the practice, which isn’t always described, but the overall path from Gospel-proclaiming to sin-confessing to Bible-teaching is a telling one.

But more on that next time…

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(1)  Acts 5:42 & 20:20

(2)  Peter Y. De Jong, Taking Heed of the Flock: a study of the principles and practice of family visitation, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1948, p. 21.

(3) ibid

(4) ibid

(5) De Jong, p. 22.

(6) Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology, Harper SanFrancisco, 1983, p. 175

(7) De Jong, p. 24.

(8)  Andres Purves, Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition, Westminster John Know Press: Louisville, 2001, pp. 111-114.