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From his column Pressing Onpressing-on-03-15-1

I sat on the edge of her pristine paisley-print couch, wondering what was next. I was a young pastor making a visit—because that’s what pastors do. I had worked hard to get past the dog, and now I was working equally hard to get past the awkward silence. The cordial greetings were behind us. I even initiated the, “Look at those pictures—you have a beautiful family” conversation. Out of words, I glanced at my watch. I had been there an entire 90 seconds. The dear lady sat across from me staring at her muted television. Other than letting me in the door, she never gave any indication she wanted me there and probably wondered why I was there. Frankly, so did I.

Pastoral visitation is one of the most peculiar parts of our vocation. Once upon a time, doctors and salespersons showed up on people’s porches alongside clergy. But these days, we are virtually the only ones tapping knuckles on screen doors for visits, and our numbers are diminished.

There are several reasons why there are fewer visits from clergy than in generations past, but in spite of evolving ministry models and today’s highly privatized and secularized culture, pastoral visitation still has a place. Whether it’s in the home, school, workplace, hospital, or nursing home, and whether it’s to the sick, newcomers, shut-ins, grief-stricken, or unchurched, the act of pastoral calling still bears significance. Regardless of church size and ministry demands, no pastor is completely released from the responsibility to visit people.

An important question is: Why do pastors visit? Answers vary. When we are at our worst, we visit because we are peddling our agendas, drumming up church business, or satisfying religious consumers. Some of us visit simply because it’s the cultural norm. We saw our pastors visit, and we were taught to visit, so we visit. Some visit because we genuinely enjoy connecting with others. Most of the time, our motives are pure. We sincerely desire to be faithful to the work to which we are called.

In Acts 15, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing” (15:36). While much is made of them parting company afterward, we can find insight into their reasoning for visitation. In Paul’s mind, visitation follows proclamation. The personalized call works in conjunction with the preached Word. The chapter ends by telling us churches were strengthened as a result. Their visitation resulted in the strengthening and sanctification of the congregation. Thus, the purpose of pastoral visitation should be no different than the purpose of any other pastoral practice. The goal is formation in Christ-likeness. We visit as agents of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in other’s lives, and in the life of the Church as a whole.

Pastoral visitation is priestly work. We enter into someone’s personal context, representing the God who does not stay put or remain detached. He has entered into our space. Thomas Oden reminds us that pastoring in the name of Christ “cannot be done at a sterile distance.”1 By its nature, pastoral ministry is relational, intimate, and incarnational. Bearing Christ’s presence is most evident when we bring the Eucharist into the setting. We trust that our presence mediating His presence becomes a critical component of their formation in Christ-likeness.

We come, not only bearing presence, but also bearing speech. There are times when, under the discernment and guidance of the Spirit, we speak a personal word into their context. Our speech, whether directed to them or to God, is not transactional or therapeutic. Rather, we bear witness to God’s presence and activity in their lives. We recognize that God was at work before we arrived, and will be at work after we leave. We speak words of life, grace, and truth. Whether they realize it or not, parishioners need to be reminded of how God is already at work amid the complexity of their lives. Our speech, then, becomes a means for their formation in Christ-likeness.

I have ventured on hundreds of visits since the first time I sat on the edge of that paisley-print couch. That’s a lot of dogs and awkward silences. On many occasions, I walked away feeling like something fruitful happened. Then, there were occasions when I wondered if I simply wasted my time and theirs. Regardless, I am reminded, as in every practice of pastoral ministry, God often works in spite of me to bring His people toward fullness in Christ.

Daron Brown lives and pastors in Waverly, Tennessee.

1Oden, Thomas C.: Pastoral Theology: Essentials In Ministry, San Francisco: Harper, 1982, p. 171.

(All scripture references NIV)

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