It’s not just the visit that’s important, but the visitor, not just what you say but how you say it.
Perhaps you never received many visits from your pastor yourself, so you feel you have never had a model or a mentor. You have little to work on and feel largely uninformed and unschooled in the matter. Having discussed the more general picture of pastoral visitation (see previous blog), what would I say to my younger self if he were sat opposite me in my study? What practical help could I highlight?
What sort of a man are you?
During a visit someone said to me, “I want to know what sort of a man you are.” A friend told me of the pastor of a previous church that she had attended who would call for a visit, keep his coat on, sit on the edge of the chair, say very little, and be gone fairly quickly. The way you dress, the way you carry and conduct yourself, how you listen and respond will all have a bearing on the visit. It is possible to be serious without being formal and to be cheerful without being inappropriately light. As you go about the work think about these things and be ready to keep learning.
We are all different personalities, and some things will come easier or harder than others. The more serious and intense type may need to learn to lighten up a little, the more jovial to tone it down. Small talk can indeed at times lead us nowhere but it can also lead, helpfully, to big talk. The person you visit has a life, so show some interest in it! A man’s character is reflected in his carriage and demeanor and has the potential to help or hinder. We know what an emphasis is put on the elder/pastor’s character in Scripture (1 Timothy 3, 2 Timothy 2, and Titus 1).
We do not need to be obsessive about it, but we do need to remember that body language speaks before and after your lips do! As Allen Ruddock writes, “Your body communicates as well as your mouth. Don’t Contradict yourself.” I am reminded of Spurgeon speaking to prospective pastors. Having examined and humorously dispatched virtually every type of posture, action, and gesture, he announces that above all they should be themselves. He is of course dealing with preaching, but there is something here relevant for pastoral visitation. Be your natural self, albeit with a few things helpfully pruned and tuned by ongoing experience and application.
A healthy balance of godly earnestness coupled with some common-sense warmth and cheerfulness can go a very long way to useful visitation.
Look, listen, learn!
There is no doubt, you can learn more about a person by a brief visit to their home than by several discussions at the end of service. Don’t misunderstand me, those after-meeting chats are often very important, but I have found that people can be very different on their own territory. As I write one person springs to mind, at church always ultra-quiet, reserved, even rather cold, at home warm, welcoming, and happy to converse. This pattern persisted over many years. Once I had learned this, I felt more able to deal with “both” persons in both settings (Proverbs 27:23-27).
While it is true there are many varied situations, we will find it is also true that things often repeat themselves. You learn that people tend to be on their best behavior when the pastor calls (unless of course they want to take him to task on something!). You can learn to recognize this tendency as you engage in the work. A few questions wisely and sensitively put can open things up or indeed shut things down. It is interesting to observe how many times the Lord used questions to alert attention and arouse interest (see for example: Matthew 19:4, 16-17; 20:28; John 4:7-9).
The point here is that most visits can teach you things for future visits—keep your eyes and ears open, have your mental, or even literal, notebook always to hand. Cliché or not it is true that experience is still one of the best of teachers. The book of Proverbs has considerable counsel on listening and speaking (for example Proverbs 16:21, 24). The general instruction in “wisdom” (skillful living) that we want to receive ourselves will also aid us in teaching and directing others (Proverbs 15:23).
It is a sad fact that the pastor’s work can expose him to peculiar and powerful temptations. Ignore this at your peril. The climate we live in now requires even greater vigilance. Think beforehand about the setting into which you are heading on a particular visit. Ask yourself what are the possible dangers that lurk there and what can you build in to make it more secure? A sensible degree of anticipation and preparation could go a long way to avoiding potential ruination.
Compassion and Care
“Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). We might say also say: love compensates for a multitude of inadequacies. We know, or should, something of our limitations and weaknesses, but if we love people and show real care, consideration, and help, it will take us a long way. Pastoral work, faithfully carried out, will bring you into many difficult situations. You will often be usure of exactly the best steps to take, but true compassion is difficult to hide and people, generally, recognize and respond to it.
Do you recall the touching scene in Acts 20:36-38 as Paul is preparing to leave Ephesus? “When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.” I have no doubt that this included their anticipation of the loss of his teaching ministry, but I think we can safely conclude that he had shown great love and concern for them and they valued and returned that love.
Help them find strength in God
While the man you are is very important as we have shown, you are there above all as a fellow disciple and a servant and under-shepherd of the Lord. As you visit, you cannot but bring the Lord with you. As David Short helpfully writes:
At a period of David’s life when he was constantly on the move, a fugitive from the murderous designs of King Saul, we are told; “Jonathan went to David at Horesh and helped him to find strength in God” (1 Samuel 23:16). Undoubtedly Jonathan’s friendship in itself would have been an encouragement. As a friend he could have encouraged David by logic and argument pointing to his skill in evading capture, or by promising to do all in his power to protect him from the King. But we are told he “helped him to find strength in God”. How exactly he did this is not spelled out, but it could well have been by reminding him of God’s promise implicit in his anointing as God’s chosen king. God’s promises are utterly reliable, and the most valuable service we can render to those we visit is to help them find strength in God, by leaving with them a relevant promise or statement from God’s Word. The same applies to correspondence whether by post or email. The word of God is a seed Luke 8:11.
Steven Bowers serves as a pastoral support worker at the Pastors’ Academy of London Seminary. This post first appeared on the Pastors’ Academy blog.
 Pastoral Visitation – A Pocket Manual (Christian Focus), pp. 7-8.