The Lost Work of Pastoral Visitation

Editors' Note: This is the second of a two-part series on pastoral visitation. The first article may be found here.

My first pastoral visit was the first one I made as a young pastor. By that time, I had been in the church eleven years. My case was not unique then or now. I am certain that many of you identify with my experience. In fact, many readers will not recognize that they are being deprived of something that was an essential part of church experience. In our day, the work of the pastor is greatly neglected. Many would-be pastors fill up their lives with administration or study so that they have little time for the people of the flock. Others have churches so large they cannot begin to pastor the members of their congregations. Increasingly, such men are adopting the Chief Executive Officer approach to congregational oversight. But even in our smaller reformed churches the minister often neglects the important work of pastoring. Many church members only receive a visit when they are ill (if then). We cannot know the condition of our flock or minister effectively to them without carefully doing the work of family visitation. Furthermore, this work is necessary for the cementing of truth and its results in the lives of our people.

Historically, pastoral visitation was part of the expected work of the reformed pastor. Our fathers in the faith took this part of ministerial work very seriously; Calvin, the Puritans, the Scottish ministers, and the American Presbyterians and Baptists all were committed to the work of pastoral visitation. With respect to the Puritans, Packer wrote, 
[K]nowing the ways whereby the Spirit brings sinners to faith and new life in Christ, and leads saints, on the one hand, to grow into their Saviour's image, and, on the other, to learn their total dependence on grace, the great Puritans became superb pastors. The depth and unction of their 'practical and experimental' expositions in the pulpit was no more outstanding than was their skill in the study in applying spiritual physic to sick souls. From Scripture they mapped the often bewildering terrain of the life of faith and fellowship with God with great thoroughness (see Pilgrim's Progress for a pictorial gazetteer), and their acuteness and wisdom in diagnosing spiritual malaise and setting out the appropriate biblical remedies was outstanding.(1)

They fleshed out their theology of pastoral care in the Westminster Directory of Worship:  
It is the duty of the minister not only to teach the people committed to his charge in publick, but privately; and particularly to admonish, exhort, reprove, and comfort them, upon all seasonable occasions, so afar as his time, strength, and personal safety will permit.

He is to admonish them, in time of health, to prepare for death; and, for that purpose, they are often to confer with their minister about the estate of their souls; and, in times of sickness, to desire his advice and help, timely and seasonable, before their strength and understanding fail them.(2) 

A more modern proponent of the necessity of pastoral visitation, John R. Stott wrote, "There are four ways in which human beings learn: by listening, discussing, watching and discovering. One might call these audition, conversation, observation and participation. The first is the most direct, mouth to ear, speaker to hearer, and of course includes preaching [which in the context Stott asserted is the primary means of grace]. But is it not by any means always the most effective. 'Most people find it difficult to understand purely verbal concepts...'"(3) In an earlier book, he fleshed out that pastoral visitation was one of the ways a minister bridged the gap with his congregation and secured the truth they heard in the pulpit: "And we shall let the people talk to us. There is no quicker way of bridging the gulf between preacher and people than meeting them in their homes and in our home. The effective preacher is always a diligent pastor. Only if he makes time each week both for visiting people and for interviewing them, will he be en rapport with them as he preaches." (4)

The primary text demanding pastoral oversight is Acts 20:28. Paul, in the context of his own example of teaching privately house to house, charged the elders: "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28).

The church has traditionally interpreted this command to include family visitation. Richard Baxter has given us the classic application of this text in his work on family visitation, The Reformed Pastor. Baxter (1615-1691) was a pastor par excellence, whose ministry God greatly blessed. He pastored the parish of Kidderminster in 1641, 42 and again after the English Civil War from 1647-61. Kidderminster was a town of about 800 homes and 2000 people. For the most part, the people were spiritually destitute. Packer describes the effect of his ministry among them:
They were 'an ignorant, rude and revelling people' when Baxter arrived, but this changed dramatically. 'When I first entered on my labours I took special notice of every one that was humbled, reformed or converted; but when I had laboured long, it pleased God that the converts were so many, that I could not afford time for such particular observations...families and considerable numbers at once...came in and grew up I scarce knew how.' 'The congregation was usually full [the church held up to 1000], so that we were fain to build five galleries...On the Lord's might hear an hundred families singing psalms and repeating sermons as you passed through the streets...when I came thither first there was about one family in a street that worshipped God and called on his name, and when I came away there were some streets where there was not past one family in the side of a street that did not so;...'  Later Baxter could write: 'though I have now been absent from them about six years and they have been assaulted with pulpit-calumnies, and slanders, with threatenings and imprisonments, with enticing words, and seducing reasonings, they yet stand fast and keep their integrity; many of them are gone to God, and some are removed, and some now in prison, and most still at home; but not one, that I hear of are fallen off, or forsake their uprightness (Baxter is describing what took place during the Great Ejection).' When, in December 1743, George Whitefield visited Kidderminster he wrote to a friend: 'I was greatly refreshed to find what a sweet savour of good Mr Baxter's doctrine, works and discipline remained to this day.(5)

Amongst other duties, Baxter twice a week conducted family visitation. He also taught and encouraged his people to come to him with their problems. And Baxter sought to inspire other ministers with his vision.  

The members of the Worcestershire Ministerial Association invited Baxter to address them on parochial catechizing and visitation. Because of illness, he was unable to speak on the appointed day, so he expanded the messaged and published it in the book The Reformed Pastor. He uses the word "reformed" not to refer to doctrine, but ministerial repentance and renewal. He wrote, "'if God would but reform the ministry and set them on their duties zealously and faithfully, the people would certainly be reformed.'"(6) The treatise is based on Acts 20:28. His doctrine was, "The pastors or overseers of the church of Christ must take great heed both to themselves, and to all their flocks, in all parts of their pastoral work."

In the Dedication of his book he lays out the grounds for the duty of pastoral care:
1. That people must be taught the principles of religion, and matters of greatest necessity to salvation, is past doubt among us.

2. That they must be taught it in the most edifying, advantageous way, I hope we are agreed.

3. That personal conference, and examination, and instruction, hath many excellent advantages for their good, is no less beyond dispute.

4. That personal instruction is recommended to us by Scripture, and by the practice of the servants of Christ, and approved by the godly of all ages, is, so far as I can find without contradiction.

5. It is past doubt, that we should perform this great duty to all the people, or as many as we can; for our love and care of their souls must extend to all. If there are five hundred or a thousand ignorant people in your parish or congregation, it is a poor discharge of your duty, now and then to speak to some few of them, and to let the rest alone in their ignorance, if you are able to afford them help.

6. It is no less certain, that so great a work as this is should take up a considerable part of our time. Lastly, it is equally certain that all duties should be done in order, as far as may be, and therefore should have their appointed times. And if we are agreed to practise, according to these commonly acknowledged truths, we need not differ upon any doubtful circumstances.(7)   
If you have not read the book, I encourage you to do so. As I mentioned, Baxter set aside two days per week, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, to perform this work. Copies of the Westminster Shorter Catechism were distributed to all the families in the parish (about 800). The session clerk would go around the week before to contact the families to be visited with the times and place for the visit. In this way, Baxter would visit about 15 families a week.  

From Baxter's approach, we learn a number of particular lessons about pastoral care. First, we must organize our churches for this work. This organization consists both of the instruction and the division of the congregation. The congregation needs to be instructed in the benefit of this work. Baxter pointed out that we must train our "people to submit to this course of private catechizing or instruction; for, if they will not come to you, or allow you to come to them, what good can they receive?" (8)  This training begins with the minister conducting himself in such a manner that the people of the congregation know he loves them and they love him. When this mutual affection is established, preach on the necessity and benefits of pastoral visitation.  

The minister needs as well to enlist and train the elders in this work. The failure to involve the ruling elders was a weakness in Baxter's method. He did not utilize the ruling elders, but they too are shepherds of the flock who must answer to God for their stewardship. A biblical ruling elder is much more than a decision-maker; he is a shepherd. We need to motivate and train them for this work. This training should consist of explaining the biblical duties and principles with instruction in how to conduct a visit. Ministers should take elders with them on visits in order for them to learn how to conduct a pastoral visit.

We also learn from Baxter the need for a congregational plan. He systematically worked through the parish annually. We too should divide our congregations into groups for elder oversight. God establishes the principle of assigned oversight in Exodus 18:13-26. The pastor is responsible for the entirety of the congregation and should try to be in each home annually. The elders may further divide the congregation among themselves so that each elder may exercise a more intimate oversight of a part of the congregation. In session meetings, the elders should report on their visits, thus building in some accountability. Also the session should publish a regular schedule so the people will know when they will be visited. Publish it in the bulletin or church's newsletter. This further builds accountability.

For those whose congregations are too large for the pastor to get into each family residence annually, take a hint from Baxter and have the families come to your study. This way you do not lose all the time in travel and can make more efficient use of your time. Or, if you have an associate, divide the congregation in half and alternate halves each year.

With respect to the visit itself, keep in mind that it is pastoral. The pastor should visit in the homes of his people socially, but the pastoral visit is to inquire into the spiritual well being of the family. Begin the visit with prayer and scripture reading. If there are children in the home, visit with each of them first, inquire if they are trusting Christ and seeking to obey him. Do they read their Bibles and pray? Are they wrestling with particular sins? How are they doing in their schoolwork? Be sure to ask them catechism questions. You might dismiss the children with a brief exhortation and prayer, before you begin talking with the adults. As with the children, we should inquire of adults, are they making good use of the means of grace? Are they faithful in Bible reading and prayer? Does the father lead the family in family worship? Are they catechizing their children? What books have they read recently? Are they profiting from the sermons? How are they spending the Lord's Day? What are their particular struggles and temptations? How well to they relate in the family (husband and wife; parents and children)? Do they have any concerns or questions about the church? Conclude the visit with a brief scriptural exhortation and prayer.

Remember to keep records on each visit. This record will help you pray more specifically for each one and jog your memory the next time you visit them.

A word to ministers. We hear much today, and rightly so, of churches committed to simple means of grace. I suggest that if your ministry does not include systematic family visitation, you are neglecting an important means of grace. I challenge you to rethink your ministerial philosophy. If you have not been doing regular pastoral visitation, I encourage you to repent and seek God's grace to start immediately. God warns in Ezek. 34:1-10 that He will hold accountable the pastor who fails to shepherd the flock (cf. Jer. 23:1, 2; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Also, train your elders to join you in this important work. Some object that home visitation is not acceptable in our culture. The question we must answer is "Is it a biblical requirement?" If so, then train yourself, your elders, and your congregation.

If you are a member of a congregation and have not received a pastoral visit, I encourage you to request one. May God see fit to restore this lost ministry to our churches today.

Dr. Joseph A. Pipa, Jr. is President and Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. He has pastored churches is Mississippi, Texas, and California and is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is Galatians: God's Proclamation of Liberty (Christian Focus, 2011).
1. J.I. Packer. A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 1990), 29, 30.
2. Ibid, "The Directory for the Publick Worship of God," 388. 
3. John R.W. Stott. Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co, 1982), 76.
4. John R.W. Stott. The Preacher's Portrait (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1961), 88.
5. Ibid, 11, 12.
6.. Richard Baxter. The Reformed Pastor (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 14.
7. Ibid, 42.
8. Ibid, 231.