Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Pastoral Visitation

Last months The Lutheran magazine had an intriguing article entitled "Forfeiting opportunity: Pastor house calls a relic of past?"

It was a good read all things considered, but a few red flags quickly were hoisted.

You might wonder why this might be so, after all, aren't pastors supposed to be in the homes of their parishioners, visiting with them, getting to know them, caring for them, etc., etc.  Well, yes. We are.  Pastoral visitation and house calls are part and parcel of the job.  I enjoy them.  I usually make one or two house calls per week.

"Only that?"  You might say.  "You should be making more."

Well, you have to understand my personal way of making calls.  I don't spend 10 minutes shooting the breeze.   For yours truly, a house call/home visit/hospital visit usually lasts at a minimum an hour.  Sometimes, I've spent a good two hours talking with someone.  One visit will take up almost an entire afternoon given driving times in the country.  A 10 minute visit might be o.k. for some, but I have found such visits rarely progress past, "How's the weather?"  To get through the superficial conversation and into deeper ministry issues requires time and effort--much more than a brief hello.

Now that this is out of the way, back to the article. 

There is something impressive about a congregation packed to the gills because, as the author seems to indicate, the pastor is working his tail end off to minister to his flock.  It seems the author tells us, "If you, as a clergy, would just visit your people, you would have a congregation full of people." 

The real explanation for the attendance would be revealed over the next couple of years when I discovered that the pastor had a secret. He made calls ... and calls ... and calls.

If a visitor came to a service, he was on their doorstep within a week. If a member missed a couple of Sundays for which he did not know the reason, he visited them. And when members lost loved ones, he placed the dates on his next-year's calendar and made a call on the anniversaries of the deaths, knowing it would be foremost in their minds.

Perhaps the author is correct.  Perhaps if people know the clergy person cares for them, they will show up and endure 30 minute sermons on systematic theology.  Perhaps, if someone is gone a week or two and the pastor shows up at their doors, whatever is bothering them--if anything is--can be worked through and resolved, and the person will return to church on a regular basis.  Nothing is wrong with this.

Until the pastor leaves.

Then, who is going to call upon the people who are missing for a couple of weeks?

Who is going to call on the shut ins?

Who is going to check up on those who visited the congregation?

In a very real way, the responsibility for maintaining and holding the congregation together has fallen upon this particular pastor.  He is the glue which is holding things together, and when he's gone, what happens?

In most cases, the congregation falls apart.  Why? 

Honestly, it's because folks have lost the understanding of what the Church is supposed to be.  It's not supposed to be the pastor/priest doing all the "stuff" of the Church.  There is only one time the word pastor appears in the entirety of the Bible, and it's in the book of Ephesians chapter 4:

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

The pastor's job is to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

Repeat: the pastor's job is to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

If a pastor is doing his/her job correctly, he/she isn't doing all the work of the congregation.  He/she is assisting, teaching, helping others realize the importance and helping them to do the things which keeps a congregation together.

The pastor not only visits the sick and shut in, he empowers members of his flock to do the same thing.

The pastor not only calls on visitors and helps them feel welcome, he empowers the members of his flock to do the same thing.

The pastor not only teaches his flock, he empowers them to teach others as well.

This way, when the pastor leaves, the ministry of the congregation continues with only a small hiccup in worship and preaching.  Otherwise, everything moves onward and forward as members are cared for by other members.  The ministry of a congregation then, isn't pastor centered, it's people centered.

How many congregations practice such a thing today?  And what would happen if they did?

1 comment:

Kathy said...

As usual, this is a very good and thoughtful commentary. I think... your statement sums up the last 500 years of church history: "Honestly, it's because folks have lost the understanding of what the Church is supposed to be."

Of course, the congregation is not centered on the personality of the pastor/priest! This only causes misery for the pastor and eventually the congregation falls apart.

My larger question is: Is the church a democracy? -- or a hierarchy? Does it work for regular lay people to get together and vote on issues -- or is there a better system? Should a congregation, in its infinite wisdom, choose its pastor, or is there a better system?

As I awakened this morning I saw the church in the fire of a crucible -- gold tested in a fire. From what I have read, the Episcopal Church has collapsed, and the ELCA is not far behind. The Catholic Church endured a horrible sex scandal, but has reformed, patched up its wounds, and is moving forward.

I hear the word "Progressive" a lot. Well, what is true progress?