It can be difficult for young pastors to develop pastoral antennae, that is, a sensitivity to and awareness of needs in his congregation that he should follow up with a call or a visit.

Seminary can be partly to blame for this as students have usually dedicated three to four years of their lives to a necessarily self-focused life of reading, papers, lectures, etc. Then they come out into the “real world” (or “real church”) and it can often be difficult to switch on to the needs of others and focus on serving people again. Books and studies can seem much more appealing than people and their problems.

If the student has kept actively involved in a local church throughout his studies and taken on internship opportunities, this can mitigate the stunting or numbing of pastoral antennae. But in even the best of cases, help is often needed to develop pastoral awareness and devote oneself to serving others, if needy people are not to feel neglected or forgotten. Here are some suggestions for growing and sensitizing pastoral antennae–for young and old.

1. Develop a systematic program of visitation

The pastor should develop a plan for how to regularly visit his whole congregation. If it’s a small congregation (say under 50 households), perhaps he could aim to visit each household twice a year. If it’s 100-120 households, the aim should be once a year. Although that may sound too ambitious, it only works out at two to three home visits a week, while still allowing for the pastor’s vacations and other weeks when extra workload or emergencies might make visitation impossible.

2. Read the church bulletin

The church bulletin should not be viewed just as a source of information but as a motivator of action. The young pastor would do well to carefully read the bulletin every week to identify any pastoral needs that have been sent to the bulletin secretary. It might be a sickness, a bereavement, an impending operation, a student moving to study elsewhere, a military deployment, a birth of a child, a special anniversary or birthday, and so on. The pastor should read the bulletin each week with a view to identifying such needs and opportunities and following up with at least a phone call, and ideally a visit.

3. Scan the church directory

When I was a full-time pastor, at the beginning of every week, I would scan the congregational directory of members and non-members attending the congregation. This would often jog my memory to follow-up on a visit or remember a need I had perhaps forgotten. I would also be praying for the Lord to lay on my heart any person or family that he would have me to visit, recognizing that the Lord knows things that I don’t.

4. Keep notes

Pastoral needs will often be identified in a passing conversation at the church door, or in the car park, or while visiting others in the congregation. I could never rely on my memory to make sure I followed up on these and therefore always carried an index card in my shirt pocket where I would write down any people that I should call in the following days.

5. Consult with colleagues

Elders and deacons should automatically inform the pastor as needs arise in their districts (assuming that the congregation has been divided in that way). If that’s not happening, then the pastor should be in regular touch with deacons and elders asking if they know of anyone who should be visited. Hopefully, that will begin to breed a culture of automatic communication as needs arise.

6. Clarify responsibilities

I’m part of a pastoral team now, with two of us part-time and one of us full-time. As it can be easy for confusion to arise and for needs to fall through the gaps in a team ministry, we decided that our full-time pastor would take full responsibility for pastoral visitation. We’ve also communicated this to the congregation so that any pastoral need goes straight to one pastor to decide what action to take. He can call, visit, or assign the visits to either of us two part-timers. We also let him know of any needs we have heard of and any visits that we would like to make.

7. Keep in touch with Titus 2:3-5 women

There are usually a handful of older women in the congregation who have their finger on the pulse of the membership, especially the women members. The pastor would be wise to encourage these women to communicate to him any needs they become aware of so that they can decide together what kind of pastoral involvement would be helpful, possibly with the help of his wife.

8. Mingle widely on Sundays

After church is a great opportunity to keep in regular contact with a wide range of people in the congregation. The pastor should avoid gravitating to those they are most comfortable with and seek to cultivate relationships throughout the range of people in his church. As he does so, he should be listening and watching for pastoral needs which are then followed up with a call or a visit.

If the pastor prayerfully follows these suggestions, over the years he will develop strong and sensitive pastoral antennae, enabling him to shepherd his sheep wisely, skillfully, and enjoyably.

For more on pastoral visitation see A “normal” week of pastoral ministry and A “normal” pastoral visit.

  • Matt Mitchell

    Thank you for these 8 action points for tuning pastoral antennae! Totally needed for every pastor. I’ve been at it for nearly 19 years, and this is still one of the most difficult parts of pastoral ministry to get right.

    I’ve noticed something recently that has made it harder is social media. Because I’m connected to many in my congregation throughout the week online (a good thing most of the time), I can have a false sense that (1) they know that I’m tracking with them pastorally and (2) that because I know what’s going on with them that they have been connected to the church family (when they actually may not have been a part of church in some time).

    Consequently, I’m not cutting back on social media connection as a pastor, but I’m also not using it as a barometer of whether or not I’m pastoring people well. I’ve gone back to relying more on the tools you’re talking about in this article.

    • David Murray

      Very good assessment of social media and its challenges/opportunities.

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