I was stunned and shocked when I read Thom Rainer’s recent blog post Fifteen Reasons Why Your Pastor Should Not Visit Much. It wasn’t just what was written but who wrote it—Thom Rainer! I’ve never met Thom, but I feel like I know him because of how much I’ve learned from his books and blogs on all things related to leading churches. I’ve linked to his blog often and will continue to do so.
When I read this post, at first I thought he’d been hacked because it seemed so out of character with everything else I’ve read of his. As it’s still up there some days later, I’ve got to assume that he wrote it and meant it.
While Thom is right to highlight the potential danger of too much pastoral visitation eventually damaging a minister’s preaching ministry due to lack of time to properly prepare, I’ve only ever known one minister who over-visited to this extent. By far, the greatest danger today, and the complaints I hear wherever I go, is of pastors who visit way too little. The results are pastors and sermons that are dry and distant from the real lives of real people. It’s impossible to shepherd from one’s armchair.
To be sure, Thom does not advocate no pastoral visitation; rather he’s insisting that pastoral visits be reserved for serious and emergency needs and that other church members be trained for “ordinary” pastoral visitation. But, in doing so, he not only overstates his case, he commits a huge historical howler by arguing that “‘Visitation of the members’ became a common job description of pastors about a century ago.”
I haven’t done the research that could confirm or deny whether this duty was only added to pastoral job descriptions in modern time. But even if he’s right (and I seriously doubt it), it’s a huge logical jump from that to conclude that it’s never been a core component of shepherding. It’s much more likely that the formal addition was made because churches were beginning to encounter the strange phenomena of shepherds who did not visit the sheep and felt the need to put the requirement in writing.
One thing’s for sure, as any cursory survey of pastoral theologies prior to the 2oth century will reveal (and every modern one I’ve read too), regular and systematic pastoral visitation of the flock was a given. It was as much a part of pastoring as preaching.
Team with a Chief
Sure, the pastor will want to build a team of visitors and train others to help in this task, but he never stops being a shepherd himself, and always acts as the model and inspiration for others. For Thom to state that “the pervasive mentality in many churches is the pastor is the chief visitor in the church” and that this is “a key sign of sickness” and “a clear step towards death” seems to condemn not just the Apostolic ministry, and the ministry of most pastors through the years, but even of the Good Shepherd himself.
I sincerely hope Thom will re-consider at least some of this article, as I believe such a post by such an influential and usually reliable church leader could unintentionally result in damage to many pastors and their congregations. You can easily make the good points that pastors should not visit so much that it damages their sermon preparation and evangelism, and that other members (especially fellow-elders) should help with pastoral visitation, without going to this extreme overstatement.
I sometimes want to ask, “If pastors are not visiting their flock—the healthy as well as the sick—what are they actually doing?” Let’s look at an average congregation of 70-100 people.
Let’s say a pastor works 45 hours a week on average. If a pastor is preaching two sermons a week (most American pastors are only preaching one a week), and we allow 10 hours preparation per sermon (the average for experienced pastors). That leaves 25 hours per week.
Let’s give 5 hours a week to administration, meetings, and leadership development. That still leaves 20 hours per week.
Let’s give 5 hours a week to evangelism (most pastors do very little direct evangelism). That leaves 15 hours a week.
Let’s allow 5 hours per week for personal development/reading, etc. That leaves 10 hours a week.
Let’s say 5 hours a week are spent in visiting the sick and in counseling. That still leaves 5 hours a week for regular pastoral visitation. That means 2-3 households/families a week and over a hundred in a year.
That’s hardly going to lead to burnout. In fact, I think most pastors would be rejuvenated by the regular spiritual encouragement of visiting the healthy and thriving Christians in their congregations.
I’ve also found it one of the best means of personal evangelism to the unconverted in a congregation, as the Gospel can be applied more directly, and questions and objections answered in ways impossible when the shepherd is in the pulpit and the sheep in the pew.
For more on the essential duty of regular pastoral visitation:
Invisible Pastors – Place for Truth
Have You Ever Had a Pastoral Visit? – White Horse Inn Blog
Pastoral Visitation: The God-Given Responsibility to Shepherd – Reformation21
The Lost Work of Pastoral Visitation |Reformation 21
Professor John Murray’s installation charge | Westminster Seminary
Pastor, Why Not Visit Their Workplace? | TGC
A “normal” week of pastoral ministry| HHH
A “normal” pastoral visit | HHH
And if you want to do some further research, have a look at Jeremy Walker’s excellent and extensive list of pastoral theology books, both modern and ancient. If I was a betting man (I’m not), from what I know of the books on this list, I’d be willing to bet that every single book that deals with pastoral visitation would undermine Thom’s claims and arguments from Scripture, history, and common sense.