Thom Rainer, president of Lifeway Christian Resources, is a servant of the Lord for whom I am thankful. Though I recognize we have some differences in philosophy of ministry and church growth, I have benefited from many of his blog posts and appreciate the energy he puts into helping leaders evaluate themselves and their churches. In the past year, I have shared several of his articles with our church staff. Therefore, it is not easy for me to express my deep disappointment with his recent article Fifteen Reasons Why Your Pastor Should Not Visit Much. Frankly, I was startled by it.
Let me make it clear right away that I do not believe the lead pastor should do all the visitation in a church even if he is able to do so. In many cases it would be a hindrance to the overall health of the church and the growth of every-member-ministry if the pastor made all the visits, especially if he made them in the traditional, solo way. A plurality of elders is the biblical pattern of shepherding for a good reason; there are more soul care needs than there are men to meet them. This will always be the case for any church of any size; therefore, I am a strong advocate of training a team of men and women to regularly carry on visitation ministry (I have written on this in the past). In my church, I am blessed to already have multiple staff as well as members who are gifted and faithful in this important demonstration of one-another love.
To be fair to Thom, I should point out that the word “much” in his title surely indicates he does not believe the pastor should not do any visiting at all. Nevertheless, I remain very concerned about the overall message his article sends and find most of his reasons unfounded and unconvincing. In short, I do not believe this is the counsel today’s churches and pastors need. With that said, here are 15 reasons I believe in pastoral visitation.
- Because it is biblical. Some of God’s harshest rebukes were for shepherds who did not “attend” to their flock (Jer. 23:1-4) or “strengthen” the weak sheep (Ezek. 34:4). As a pastor, I don’t ever want to be on the receiving end of such a rebuke.
- Because it edifies members of the body so that they are better equipped for their one-another ministry in the church. The personal contact of pastors with their church members encourages their growth in Christ, which leads to the building up of the whole body (Eph. 4:12-15). For this reason, whenever possible, I bring another member along on visits.
- Because it gets the pastor out of his office/study. Pastors who are committed to the faithful study and exposition of the Scriptures may be tempted to spend too much time in the church office. Visitation gets him out of the church building and into the lives of his people, which helps him understand their world and makes him more approachable. Sheep need the care of a shepherd. As one of a plurality of elders who is called to shepherd the flock of God the pastor needs to do his part in caring for the sheep (1 Pet. 5:2).
- Because it keeps pastors from becoming inward in their ministry focus. Avoiding visitation may keep pastors aloof from their flock and, as a result, they will miss out on key moments to be ministers of God’s grace and truth. Rather than being aloof, pastors and elders are to remain among the flock (1 Pet. 5:2).
- Because it enhances sermon preparation. Visitation helps the pastor keep a finger on the spiritual pulse of his congregation. God called the shepherds of Israel to feed His people both knowledge and understanding (Jer. 3:15). This understanding strengthens the public ministry of preaching.
- Because it provides an example to the flock. Visiting the flock provides opportunities for the pastor to lead others in becoming compassionate caregivers. He does this by skillfully leading suffering believers to the God of all comfort who gives them the comfort they need, which they will in turn be able to bring to others in the church (1 Pet. 5:3; 2 Cor. 1:3-5).
- Because pastoral ministry requires both the personal and public ministry of the Word. The apostles admonished believers both publicly and from house to house (Acts 20:20). Some soul care can only be carried out through the personal ministry of the Word, which is an indispensable part of admonishing believers toward being completely mature in Christ (Col. 1:28). Visitation easily and naturally facilitates this personal ministry.
- Because church members are so appreciative. In my 24 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve never had a church member respond to a visit with anything less than gratitude. Rather than breeding feelings of entitlement, my observation has been that visits leave members feeling humbled, affirmed, and valued—especially if they are among the “less honorable” (1 Cor. 12:23).
- Because a pastor is a shepherd, not a CEO. The Greek word translated “pastor” is poimen (Eph. 4:11), which emphasizes the attention to spiritual care that pastors provide to God’s sheep along with the other elders. Visits are priceless opportunities to nurture, admonish, and pray with the sheep.
- Because it helps balance out task-driven pastors. Some pastors more easily gravitate toward setting goals and finishing tasks, rather than intentionally being with people. One reason I’m thankful the Lord put me into the ministry is that I am challenged daily to love outside of my comfortable, naturally introverted self; and place others above myself (Phil. 2:3-4).
- Because it often gives church members the timely encouragement they need. A word of grace spoken at just the right time by a caring shepherd can make all the difference in the world by bringing hope to a person who desperately needs it (Prov. 25:11; Eph. 4:29; Col. 4:6).
- Because it keeps a face on the Great Commission work that is needed in our city (Acts 1:8). Last year, while visiting a member in the hospital, I was starkly reminded of the false doctrine many people believe. Her hospital roommate was sucked in by every prosperity preacher on TV who promised divine healing if she would just have enough faith (and send them money). So deceived was this poor woman that she refused to sign the paperwork required for the medical treatment which would remedy her situation and send her home to a bunch of little kids who needed a functional mother. This visit led me to pray not only for our church member’s healing, but also for her personal gospel witness to her gullible roommate.
- Because it helps pastors to learn the names of church members. This strengthens the assurance of love and follows the example of the Good Shepherd (John 10:3). I have found that the personal ministry of the Word and prayer makes pastor/sheep connections more memorable to both.
- Because it strengthens the church’s confidence in pastoral leadership. The Gospel of John indicates that sheep will not follow the voice of a stranger, but they will follow the shepherd whose voice they recognize (John 10:5). Though this is clearly about Jesus, the Good Shepherd, pastors are undershepherds of Christ and, therefore, should take their cues from Him.
- Because it helps to keep preaching pastoral in nature and delivery. Delivering seminary lectures from a pulpit without pastoral tone and care flowing from the heart of a shepherd is not biblical preaching. As believers are strengthened by the loving care of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who knows our names, so pastoral love brings security and assurance of the love of God to His children (John 10:1-4).
One of the surest signs of the blessing of God upon His people is the gift of spiritual shepherds who faithfully care for His flock (Jer. 3:15). If local churches need anything in this present age of pragmatism it is a new generation of pastors who will minister the Word through faithful preaching and personal soul care. Of course, they cannot and should not do this alone, but they need to lead the way. May the Lord raise up this new generation for His glory!
My top recommended resources
- Visit the Sick by Brian Croft, which is part of the Practical Shepherding resource series from Zondervan
- The Shepherd Leader by Timothy Witmer
Also, Kevin Carson and I co-authored a chapter on the unbreakable bond between the personal and public ministry of the Word in Counseling and the Church: God’s Care through God’s People.