The traditional institution of family visiting has fallen on bad times. Elders are not always eager to make these calls; parishioners are not always eager to receive them.
But the New Testament speaks highly of the practice of visiting. Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56). Jesus made a sick call to Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14-17), and he visited Martha and Mary (John 11:17-44). Peter visited the saints in Lydda (Acts 9:32). Paul and Barnabas visited believers in the towns where they had preached before (Acts 15:36). And visits made to the needy play a crucial role in the end-times (Matt. 25:36).
Church members have a great need for personal, spiritual care. Perhaps if pastoral visits were more empathetic—more heart-to-heart and less formal—they would be more welcome. Elders and pastors will find few of their obligations as fulfilling as calling on parishioners. But there is also wonderful talent in the congregation that should be put to good use. Many churches now have calling teams, and their ministry has generally been met with a warm reception.
In making a pastoral call, you may find the following three-step approach helpful:
Your foremost concern is this party’s well-being. Begin with, “How are you doing?” Most members have needs that are pressing. They’d like to tell a sympathetic, trusted listener. Probe gently: how are they doing amid life’s concerns of health, work, relationships, family, and resources? Enter thoughtfully into their story.
Solicit an emotional response. You may ask: “How did that make you feel? Were you scared . . . offended . . . worried . . . angry . . . happy . . . relieved . . . guilty . . . thankful?” Such questions as “Did you lie awake because of this?” or “Can you forgive this person?” may prove catalytic in helping this person express her or his inner feelings. Pay careful attention! Don’t interrupt.
This is the right time to bring God into the picture. Do so modestly, kindly, gently, naturally, but without excuses. Assure your party of God’s forgiveness upon confession. Affirm this member in God’s love for the burdened. Our God is an accepting God. Mention God’s promises. But be ready to listen. Your sympathetic listening affirms people.
Here are some further guidelines:
- Keep the conversation on track. Don’t let the conversation drift into unproductive directions. Avoid being a problem solver. Resist the tendency to talk about yourself. You are here to hear this person’s story. Don’t interrupt. Don’t argue. Don’t show disapproval. Don’t change the topic too quickly. Don’t be result oriented: your visit itself is ministry. Don’t teach. Avoid discussing issues. Be slow in advising. Maintain eye contact. Conclude by reading some Scripture verses and praying—it’s always appreciated.
- Visit alone. Should you go as a team of two? It’s now generally agreed that visiting alone has advantages: you can keep the discussion on track, and trust is more easily given and received. Is there such a thing as an ideal place for visiting? Not really. Let your party choose. Breakfast in a quiet restaurant? Great! A room in the church? Fine too. Single people will probably find those alternatives more comfortable.
- Prepare yourself for each visit. Do some personal soul-cleansing, pray for the person you will visit, and rehearse background facts. When being invited in, focus discreetly on this person: what do you notice about his or her demeanor and setting?
- Consider visiting the sick of prime importance. But keep some additional rules in mind: When entering the room, remain standing until invited to sit down. Shake hands only after the patient extends his/her hand. Allow the person to explain his/her symptoms; don’t probe. Discreet inquiries are fine, but keep questions to a minimum. Don’t tell stories of other people’s illnesses. Don’t talk with other visitors. Don’t stay long. (And, of course, you wouldn’t even think of sitting on the bed or of giving medical advice.) Read a brief passage from Scripture and say a short prayer. Sickness often comes with problems and worries. When the patient lifts the veil even a bit, do some extra attentive, affirmative listening. Remember these concerns in your closing prayer.