In this article, I’d like to talk about the practice of family visitation, and by family visitation I am referring to the practice of the elders and the pastor making regular visits to the homes of parishioners. In many traditions, that’s done on an annual basis, but during recent years that practice has fallen out of favor with many churches. I think there are several reasons for that. First, there is the constraint of time. Pastors, elders, and parishioners live busy lives, and so it’s difficult to find time for those kinds of visits. Then there is the difficulty of parishioners living further and further away from the churches they attend. So we have a lot of commuter congregations where traveling becomes an issue in making those visits.
However, I want to write about family visitation because I believe it’s an important part of pastoral ministry. I believe it’s an extension of the ministry of the Word, the preaching of the Word, and at the root of the practice is an attempt to assess, on the part of the pastoral leaders of the church, the effectiveness of the preaching ministry in the lives of God’s people. One can look at the Bible and see a precedent for this sort of practice in the public ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ not only preached in public settings but also taught and preached in the synagogue. He preached in the open, but he also made visits to people’s homes. He healed the sick. He spoke with Zacchaeus, and there are many other instances where there was personalized ministry. In the apostolic period, the Bible tells us, it was the practice or the expectation that not only the apostles but also elders would make a practice of visiting people from home to home. The apostle Paul, for example, mentions to the Ephesian elders that he had gone from house to house (Acts 20:20). So not only did he preach in public, but also he applied that preaching ministry and teaching ministry in the context of home visits. In Hebrews 13 we have the exhortation to elders to do their work well and to shepherd God’s people because they will have to give account to the Lord for their work.
When we think about pastoral visitation and family visitation, the imagery that seems to stand out is the imagery of the shepherd and the sheep. We call it pastoral ministry. We refer to it as a shepherd ruling in the name of Jesus Christ, the chief shepherd, ministering to God’s people, who are often referred to as God’s sheep. To do that well, one has to be involved in the in the lives of God’s people. I think it’s important, for example, to make sure that the elders, the leaders of the church, get to know the congregation well. If we limit that time to what takes place on a typical Sunday, the knowledge of the congregation, of the struggles they go through, of the challenges they face, of things that are happening in their lives, will be limited. Sundays are busy, not only with worship, but also with educational ministry and fellowship as a congregation.
But there is a place for individual visitation, and so when one thinks of a shepherd watching over his sheep, it speaks of the kind of personalized care that the Lord calls elders and pastors to do. That care ought not to be neglected because many things can happen in people’s lives that will remain unknown to the elders or to the pastor unless there is personal contact. There also seems to be in the history of the church at least a precedent for this sort of thing—we read, for example, of Clement of Alexandria, of Cyprian, of Ambrose of Milan. All make reference to the fact that it was the practice for the first several centuries of the church’s history to have leaders in the church make regular visits to the sick but also regular visits to the parishioners to address any specific needs that arose.
What began to change was the rise of the Roman Catholic view of the sacraments, particularly of personal confession, where one goes to the priest to confess one’s sins rather than having confession as part of congregational worship. One begins to see the decline of the practice of pastoral visitation in the home. That decline took place over many centuries, until by the time of the Reformation, it was almost unheard of that pastors made those kind of visits because so much was done by way of looking to the sacraments as the means by which God’s grace was conveyed. So one participates in the Lord’s Supper (the Mass), goes to confession, makes penance. But the idea of ongoing spiritual care, of applying the Word of God in the context of a person’s ongoing journey in the Christian faith—that was unheard of until that practice was renewed during the time of the Reformation. We read of not only Luther and Calvin but also others who made a practice of visiting parishioners and attending to their spiritual needs.
In terms of the purpose of visitation in assessing the effectiveness of preaching the Word, it ought not to be understood as a negative practice. It ought not to be understood as looking to criticize the pastor or the preaching of the Word in a local congregation. It’s a means of determining if the Word is having an impact upon the lives of God’s people. Are the people in the congregation growing in godliness? Are they making use of the Word in their homes? Are husbands and fathers, for example, being good pastors in their own homes, leading by example but also leading in terms of the reading of Scripture and talking about Scripture, praying with and for their families? How is that being done? Those sorts of things cannot be assessed unless there is personal, individual contact with the family. Visitation also lets pastors and elders see what has been going on in the lives of the members of the congregation in terms of what their struggles are in the Christian faith. Are there things that they wrestle with? In terms of biblical teaching, what has the Word to say about the events of their lives? Visitation can challenge and encourage members of the congregation to participate in the communion of saints. We look at the church as the body of believers, made up of many parts with many different functions. Yet they all serve a common purpose, and that is to build up the body and to glorify Jesus Christ. And so home visitation can be an excellent opportunity to challenge and to encourage members, whatever their age group, to see how they can use their gifts in ways that are edifying to the body as a whole and to make use of opportunities available at the church to grow in their faith and to minister to others, not simply in terms of educational ministry but ministries of service. Ministries of the deaconate need ministries of evangelism and missions, and those can all be excellent opportunities to encourage the growth of the congregation.
Visitation is also an opportunity to see how well the congregation understands the Word that is preached. Is it clear? Is it obvious to the elders that the preaching of the Word on a regular basis is effective in terms of the preaching of the gospel? Is the gospel clear, is the gospel received and understood? Assessing this is important in family visitation.
We could also talk about assessing the vitality of the family in terms of their relationship one with another. Does the family appear to be harmonious in terms of the relationship between husband and wife? How about the relationship between parents and children? That often can be a fruitful discussion in terms of the stresses and strains that every family has to face; how are they dealing with that? How are the children growing in their understanding of the gospel? Is there a challenge, perhaps for young people to make a public profession of their faith? How are they responding to the educational ministry? Are they growing in their understanding? Are they responding positively to the message? When those things are done well, it ultimately enhances the overall ministry of the Word and develops the spirituality of the local congregation in terms of becoming more Christ-like, more mature in their faith.
The insights gained from visitation assist the pastor in identifying specific needs that must be addressed from the pulpit again. Sometimes those things have to be carefully sorted through, but perhaps there are growing concerns spiritually that are being expressed in these visits, things that perhaps the pastor should address, perhaps things that should be prayed about. Perhaps there are follow-up visits that should be required as well.
Regardless of the specific situation, when that kind of visitation is done well, it will help the pastor. It is not designed to criticize him or to put him on edge, so to speak, in terms of his ministry. It can be an opportunity for a pastor to reflect upon things that he perhaps should change, revise, or improve. I can speak as a pastor when I say that we often have gaps in our ministry, blind spots. We too are fallen creatures, and therefore we need that kind of input from others, from parishioners and from elders in particular, about what we need to work on to improve our overall ministry. We are always learning, always growing, and we ourselves are maturing. And so it’s important for us to have that kind of feedback as a means of enhancing the effectiveness of our ministry. From the most basic point of view, especially for a pastor who may be new to a congregation, it’s a great way for a pastor to get to know the members of the congregation, to get to know the sheep that he must care for. If, as a minister of the Word, he’s unfamiliar with his people, it will limit the effectiveness of his pastoral ministry.
In terms of the development in recent years of much larger churches, much larger ministries we call mega churches, one of the challenges is that it’s difficult if not impossible for a pastor to get to know all the members of the congregation. Certainly there are cell groups, small groups that meet, where there is accountability. Spiritual edification takes place, but pastorally speaking, it is well-nigh impossible to get to know people and what’s really going on in their lives. If one has so many people, one does not have time to make all those visits. I remember a number of years ago attending that kind of a church where two people were welcomed into the fellowship of the church as new. And the pastor got their names reversed. He was not even aware who they were, and that struck me as a sad thing in terms of a pastor not knowing the congregation well. He didn’t have time to get to know hundreds if not thousands of people in the congregation. So there is great benefit for a pastor getting involved personally in the lives of his people and for them to get to know him as well: someone they can look to for guidance, for help, someone they can reach out to in a time of difficulty or trouble. The last thing we want to convey to people is that we as pastors are too busy to help the people of the congregation. At any time, a pastor needs to be prepared to reach out and make that visit when necessary.
This article is adapted from “Family Visitation: The Why,” a podcast with Rev. Paul Ipema and Jared Luttjeboer. This podcast (episode 172 of Mid-America Reformed Seminary’s Round Table) and others can be found at midamerica.edu/podcasts.The How:
Elders often don’t know how to conduct a visit properly. Over the years, I’ve made it a practice to spend time at elders’ meetings or council meetings to explain different aspects of pastoral ministry: why and how we do what we do. But I have also made it a practice to set times of training for office bearers. In two of the churches I served, the requirement was that if one was serving as a deacon or an elder for the first time, one was required to go through a course of training. Training can be done in the local church, or, if there are a number of similar churches in a given area, it would be a great opportunity for churches to do that together. They can pool their resources so elders and pastors can share their wisdom with those who aspire to the office of elder or deacon and give them the proper training.
With that in mind, I’d like to consider the practice of family visitation.
1. How much should the pastor participate in family visitation? Some churches prefer that the pastor not participate or that he focus on other aspects of pastoral ministry, but in one congregation, a smaller church planting, I was involved extensively in family visitation. There’s no set rule for the extent to which the pastor should assist the elders. There’s benefit for the pastor and for the elders; if the pastor goes with the elders, not only does the pastor get to know the congregation face to face, and at home, but also it can be an opportunity for a pastor to train especially newer elders on how to do that work well. Oftentimes we assume those who are newly elected to that office know how to do that work. It’s incumbent upon us as pastors and leaders in the church to devote ourselves to training the leaders to do that work well. It’s important that elders understand their role in terms of family visitation, and that pastors conduct some of those visits. Much may depend upon the pastor’s schedule or other pastoral work that must be done, such as counseling or visitation of the sick or the elderly. But it’s something a body of elders should discuss and seek their pastor’s input. There are times where a pastor may want to make those visits, even if the elders think perhaps that should be done almost exclusively by the elders.
2. Preparation for family visitation is key to a successful visit. If elders and pastors are winging it, so to speak, when they go to a person’s house or a family’s house, they shouldn’t expect the visit will produce the kind of results they want. It’s important, for example, for elders at least on an annual basis to highlight the things they want to address in the course of the year. What are some of the key issues or key concerns that need to be addressed? Some churches will use a program or a theme for the year, such as statements in the epistles of the New Testament and how they could be applied to a family or to the life of the local congregation. These include “bear one another’s burdens,” “love one another,” “greet one another,” that sort of thing. There can be variations, but a theme keeps us on track in terms of what we’re trying to do with visitation. It’s not merely a social visit. It is a pastoral visit. It is an extension of the pulpit. It is an application of the Ministry of the Word in the lives of God’s people and an assessment of how effectively that’s being done.
3. In preparation, I’ve encouraged elders, pastors, and seminarians to think long and hard about how they’re going to conduct that visit. What sort of questions are they going to ask? If necessary, they can write out questions about different topics that could be addressed. They also need to make sure they go in with a strategy. They should include a passage of Scripture that they would read, preferably at the beginning of the visit, so that the conversation stays on course. It’s easy for an elder or for a family to sidetrack the discussion and make it merely a social visit. But if we start with the reading of Scripture and talk about that Scripture and how it applies to the nature of the visit, it can be a good way of keeping everyone on track and reminding them of the spiritual and pastoral purpose of that visit.
4. Before an elder team or a pastor and an elder enter a house, it’s important that they offer a brief prayer asking for the Lord’s blessing, for wisdom, for discernment, asking that they demonstrate a pastoral heart for the members of the congregation they’re about to visit. I’ve had that experience with elders who are thoughtful about that, and I’ve appreciated the encouragement that takes place through that kind of prayer before a visit.
5. As a way of preparing for the visit, make sure the elders and the pastor know the names of all the family members, especially the children. It’s easy for pastors and elders to think only of the adults in the room, but there are children as well, and those children are part of the visit. They need to be addressed. They need to be thought of. And so it would be appropriate not only to know their names but also to speak to them and to assure them that they are to be shepherded as well as the adults.
6. After the introductions are made and the Scripture is read, what we want to talk about are questions relating to the effectiveness of the preaching ministry. I encourage elders and pastors to ask questions that don’t require simple yes-or-no answers, but ones that lead them into a further discussion or questions about what is being addressed. So, for example, I would not ask, Has the preaching been helpful or effective or useful in your spiritual life? I would ask, In what ways has the preaching ministry in our church been helpful in your spiritual life? Give the person or the people an opportunity to address that. Also, talk about one’s devotional life, one’s spiritual, personal life, or what some call family worship.
7. Address some questions to the children. My father, who served as an elder for many years, was accompanied by an older elder for a number of years who, regarding family worship, would address those questions to the children. So, he asked, Is the Bible read every day? Is the Bible read at dinner time, and is there a time of family devotions? He knew little children would give a yes-or-no answer, whereas an adult might be tempted to skirt around it or say, For the most part, or Yes. The children always gave an honest and straightforward answer.
8. It is appropriate for elders to talk about how the family is functioning in terms of their harmony, their unity as a family. Are there struggles they face in terms of work, or of a spiritual nature, or any other things that are going on in their lives? Perhaps there are problems with the extended family that impinge upon the life of that family. An elder would be wise to discern that, talk about that, and offer resources for help. An elder might say, We can talk about that further sometime, or, If you’d like to speak to the pastor about that, we would encourage you to do that.
9. It’s also important for the elders to talk about participation in the life of the local congregation. What sort of ministries are members involved in? If there is no involvement, it will be a time of encouragement, or maybe even stated more strongly: We believe it’s important for the life of our congregation that we try to be involved as much as we can, realizing that we have many other commitments in our lives. But for the life of our church and the life of our families, it’s important that we try to be involved in that. We use our gifts. The Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21, talks about the variety of gifts that God gives to his people and how we are to use them for the building up of the body of believers. Thinking of Ephesians 4, how are we doing that? If one isn’t able to attend, say, Bible studies, are there other ways one can serve God’s people? Or maybe people are serving, and the elders are not are not aware of that. It could be an opportunity again to encourage and strengthen members, to show them the needs of the congregation and opportunities for them to enhance the life of the congregation.
10. Visitation is an appropriate time to talk about opportunities for serving as a council member. Depending on the husband’s age and where he is in his Christian faith, maybe he should be encouraged to aspire to the office of deacon or the office of elder. Is there a desire to do that? Many men are reluctant to serve, for a variety of reasons, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for our churches to find enough men to serve as elders and deacons, elders in particular. In the pastorate I’ve encountered men who say to the elders, I don’t want to serve. Maybe visitation is an opportunity for further discussion. Or maybe the conversation needs to take place without the children present, concerning the reasons and the legitimacy of not wanting to serve.
11. Find out what’s going on in the children’s lives. Do you know where they’re going to school? What sort of things are they involved with? If they’re high school age, what are their plans after high school? Are they involved in the church’s youth ministry? Talk about how catechism classes have gone. Who is your teacher? What book is used? Again, these things measure and assess how effective the Ministry of the Word is. It’s a great opportunity also to challenge those of junior high age to at least start thinking about making a public profession of faith. If they are in high school and have not made a public profession of faith, talk about that again. This is not to pressure them to do something they’re not prepared to do, but at least get them to think about how they respond to the promises made to them and to their parents at their baptism. I’ve often addressed that as a pastor, not only in visitation but at the beginning of the catechism year. It was my practice for many years to begin the catechism year by bringing my students to the baptismal font and explain to them what took place at their baptism, that it was a sign and seal of the covenant and that God had made a promise to their parents and to them regarding his covenant. That promise also implies a duty to respond to respond in faith and obedience of commitment to Jesus Christ, as one who has been consecrated by the covenant relationship that we have. There also ought to be opportunity for the family to bring up any concerns they have or any struggles they face and request the prayers of the leaders.
12. Use caution about entertaining or looking for criticism, particularly of the pastor or the preaching. This is not to say that the pastor is above criticism, but it is unwise, for example, to ask, Do you have any complaints about the preaching of the Word?, or, Do you have complaints about the pastor? That sort of concern ought to be addressed in terms of, are there things about the preaching of the Word that you could bring to our attention? Are there matters that concern you, matters that you struggle with? Are there things about our preaching and teaching ministry that we could improve? Things that we’re not addressing that we should be addressing? By framing the questions in this way, criticisms are not aimed personally at the pastor. Instead, this can be an edifying discussion rather than opening an opportunity to lay out one’s criticisms, complaints, or grievances. And if there are grievances or complaints, a wise elder will not circle the wagons but will address them in a wise and loving way. When that concern is expressed to the broader body of elders at the next elders’ meeting, the elder can do so in a way that protects the pastor and the integrity of his office.
13. The elder can end the visitation with a reading of Scripture, a call to serve one another and love the Lord Jesus Christ. He can then offer a closing prayer asking for the Lord’s blessing upon that family and their involvement in the local church.
14. Without proper preparation, one can let visitation degenerate into a social visit or an airing of grievances. We want to avoid both of those extremes and make visitation something truly edifying and worthwhile. After all, the elders are taking a night out from their week. The family is carving out time from their schedule to meet. Let’s make it worthwhile. Let’s make it productive, and ultimately we want to do it in a way that honors Jesus Christ and builds up his church.
This article is adapted from “Family Visitation: The How,” a podcast with Rev. Paul Ipema and Jared Luttjeboer. This podcast (episode 173 of Mid-America Reformed Seminary’s Round Table) and others can be found at midamerica.edu/podcasts.
Rev. Paul Ipema is assistant professor of ministerial studies, director of the ministerial apprenticeship program, and dean of students at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.