A few weeks ago, in response to a question, I posted a rough outline of a “normal” week of pastoral ministry. Since then I’ve been asked a few times to describe a “normal” pastoral visit. So, with apologies for the delay, and with the usual caveat that what’s “normal” for me may not be “normal” for you, here’s my answer.
First, I prepare for visitation with prayer. I take a few minutes or so to pray for the family I am about to visit. During that time I make sure I know the names of both the adults and the children, I remind myself of what each is doing in their lives, and I make a mental note of any special needs or concerns that we had previously talked about.
Second, for the first 15 minutes or so of the visit, I try to chat to the family about what’s going on in their lives: how’s the job, the kids, school, etc. If there was some important local or national issue we might talk about that as well. Obviously, this sometimes stretches quite a bit beyond 15 minutes. And sometimes it is difficult to change the topic to something more “spiritual.” However, I like to “break the ice” in this way.
I know some pastors disagree with this kind of approach, preferring to get straight to the “spiritual” by starting with Bible reading and prayer. In some of the Dutch Reformed churches, the people have been trained to expect that from their pastors, and that’s great. However, probably for most of us, getting people to talk about their souls is not an easy matter, and it is best to “warm” the conversation up a bit first.
I don’t think this is pragmatic or manipulative. As a pastor, I am interested in the spiritual welfare of my flock above everything else; but I am also interested in every area of their lives. I enjoy hearing about their vacations, their jobs, their schools, their friends, etc. I enjoy seeing and savoring the different personalities and characters. Often, issues arise in these conversations which we could never have predicted, taking us into the Scriptures in a very natural way (I’m always looking for opportunities to relate God’s Word to the person’s world). Usually it just helps everyone to relax a bit and makes it easier to move into more directly “spiritual” issues. I agree with the old saying, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
Sometimes I find it helpful to share a bit from my own life and family. I try to show that I have a normal family life with all its joys, worries, and sorrows. Obviously you have to be careful here. You don’t want to “let it all hang out,” and you don’t want to spend too much time talking about yourself. However, some people find it easier to open up if the pastor himself is prepared to do so.
Third, the main aim of a pastoral visit is to have a conversation about spiritual matters. Sometimes that’s very easy, as mature Christians especially will be used to pastoral visits and will probably have some spiritual questions to ask, or some spiritual topics they want to talk about. But, for the sake of this post, let’s assume that you are visiting people who are not used to spiritual conversation. How do you guide the conversation to produce a profitable discussion? Until now, I’ve never sat down and thought about what questions I ask people. But I’ve tried below to list some questions that have been helpful. It’s important to ask these questions in a friendly and natural way, rather than in an accusatory or “clipboard” way. Sometimes I find it easier to direct some of these questions to the children initially, as they often talk much more freely about spiritual matters.
- Is there anything you would like me to pray for?
- What have you been reading in your Bible? Anything that’s helped you or puzzled you?
- What do you find difficult about reading the Bible?
- What do you feel burdened about in prayer?
- Is there anything you would like to hear a sermon on? Any verses you would like explained?
- Are there any sermons that you’ve found helpful… confusing… challenging?
- What did you think about the sermon on…?
- Would you say you are going forward spiritually, or backwards?
- Are you reading any good Christian books? Is there anything you want to share from it?
- Have you found any verses that are helping you to live life and prepare for eternity?
- What gifts do you think the Lord has given you? Do you feel the church is making most use of your gifts?
- How would you describe yourself: Unsaved, saved and sure of it, or not sure?
- Do you think much about death and life after death? Do you feel prepared for that? How are you preparing?
- What is your hope of heaven? What reason will you give for being admitted there?
- What do you think of Jesus Christ?
- What would you most like to change in your life?
- What is your greatest fear?
- Are you facing any difficult challenges?
- Is there any one thing that stops you from following Christ?
- Children, what have you been learning in Sunday School?
- Do you have any questions for me?
Maybe only one question will be required to start a profitable conversation. The ultimate aim is to find out where people are spiritually, and how you can help them either to be saved, to be sanctified, or to be of more service to the church.
Fourth, finishing the visit can sometimes be difficult, especially with older and lonely people who have lots of time on their hands. You need to keep good track of the time (with unnoticed glances at a watch or clock), especially if you have another visit arranged. I usually let people know when I arrive that I have to be somewhere else at a certain time. That helps to focus the visit a bit, and also avoids people thinking you are bored with them, when you eventually have to draw the visit to a close. You can always arrange to return, if necessary.
And even if you don’t have anywhere else to go, don’t overstay your welcome. If you start to detect cues that it’s time for you to go (people obviously looking at watches, some members of the family disappearing, longer silences, etc), then go!
But not without prayer and reading of the Bible.
During the course of the conversation you should be making mental notes of matters for prayer. And in the concluding prayer, try to gather up these various pieces of information and pray about each of them – even trivial matters raised by young children. Also, try to pick a relevant chapter of Scripture to read, a chapter that speaks to their needs. Try to show how prayer and Bible reading should impact ordinary life. Maybe ask the children questions about the passage?
Fifth, pray about the visit in the car on the way home or when you get home. Maybe take notes about anything you should follow up on with a note in your diary to phone again in a few weeks. Also, maybe think about how a sermon might be able to help that family.
Finally, I don’t know any pastor who thinks he’s a great pastor. Most of us are very well aware of our shortcomings, our failings, and especially our fear of man which shuts our mouths. So, end every pastoral visit by returning to the Great Shepherd of the sheep to seek His free and full forgiveness.