“And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” —Matthew 25:39
You don’t need to be a pastor to make pastoral visits. And the act of visiting someone in the name of Christ can have a powerful impact, for both you and the person you visit.
The power of showing up
At lunch recently, one of my closest friends reminded me of something that happened more than 20 years ago. At the time, Steve was the head deacon at the church and asked to come with me on a pastoral visit. I had just been approached by someone in the community requesting I visit her brother, so I had Steve come along with me. The woman had told me that he had ALS and was searching for peace. What she did not tell me was that he could no longer speak. Steve and I found that out only on the day of the visit, when we were introduced to him by a caregiver. It’s hard to put into words what transpired over the next hour, but we communicated—the three of us “laughed” and cried and prayed, and God’s grace and love filled the room.
“You know,” Steve reflected, “that was one of the most powerful things I was ever a part of, and all I did was show up.”
Perhaps there is no greater ministry than visiting someone in the name of Christ. It reenacts the central mystery of our redemption, the Word becoming flesh, visiting and sharing our space and humanity (John 1:14). It is also something that almost everyone can do. It has the power to transform the lives of both those visiting and those visited. For the early church, the care and visitation of the most vulnerable of the Christian community was the essence of true religion (James 1:27). All that is required is a willing heart, a little bit of time, and perhaps some training.
Pastoral visits don’t have to be daunting
It may seem strange that one needs instruction on how to engage with another human being since we have literally been doing it since we were born. But it has been my experience, going back to my early days in youth ministry, that what is perfectly natural in our normal social settings can be daunting in the context of an intentional ministry task. It is probably a good sign if you feel a little intimidated. There is a divine gravity in sitting in the presence of another child of God.
Beginning a visitation program is often the hardest part. A natural place to start is with this important question for the elders or leaders in your church: “whether any members of the congregation are in need of special care.” After a list of people possibly needing visits is compiled, a process for coordinating visitations should be determined. This can be done by a deacon, an elder, a church administrator, or a responsible volunteer.
In some congregations, it’s expected that every active elder and deacon visit people, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Visiting members engages the “great consistory”—elders and deacons not currently serving—in ongoing ministry and offers meaningful opportunities for other volunteers in congregations.
Here are four guidelines for visiting other members of your congregation:
1. Make contact before you visit someone.
The visit begins with your first contact either by phone or email. Even if someone else sets up the visit, you should have some interaction with the person you are going to see. It’s also important to confirm the visit either the night before or the day of the visit.
2. Do a little research on the person your visit.
When possible, if you do not know the person, try to talk to someone who does or who at least knows something of the person’s story. Not only does this give you some ideas about what to talk about, but it also prepares you for issues you may encounter.
3. Go visit.
Greet the person warmly. While you’re there, encourage conversation by asking open-ended questions and listening actively. Be patient with obstacles to communication; the person may find it hard to hear or concentrate, and you may encounter lulls in the conversation. Accept gestures of hospitality, like offers of coffee or tea. Be flexible about the length of the visit—but don’t stay too long. When it’s time to go, close with prayer and Scripture.
4. Follow up.
If you are part of an ongoing visitation ministry in your church, share notes and make plans for any possible follow-up or a next visit. If there are any concerns (health, living conditions, change in behavior, signs of neglect or abuse, etc.), it’s important to make appropriate contacts with your pastor or whomever is in the best position to help. It is not gossip if it is part of the solution.
Pastoral care is the responsibility of all ordained officers of the church. And pastoral visits are an important part of pastoral care. But more importantly, it is an opportunity to deepen the bonds of our life together with those who cannot always gather together with the rest of the congregation. The writer of Hebrews encourages us to show hospitality to strangers because we may be “entertain[ing] angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2, KJV). I cannot vouch for the angels, but I know the presence of Christ will be there waiting in the one you visit.