Thanks to Chris Roberts for his follow-up questions to my post on getting the right balance between preparing sermons and pastoral visitation.

I think the best way I can answer is to describe a “normal” pastoral week for me. Obviously “normal” can quickly become abnormal if you have a death in your congregation. And what was “normal” for me in my situation may not suit you in your situation. In my last congregation I had about 130 homes (some families, some couples, some individuals) to visit. About 75% of them were located in the small town of Stornoway, where I also lived, with the rest scattered in very rural communities north, south, east and west of the town. The furthest home was about an hour away. While the congregation had a good mix of ages, there were probably more elderly people than a “normal” city congregation due to many island folks being drawn back there for retirement, and many students having to leave to study on the mainland.

1. My target was to visit every home in the congregation at least once a year. Allowing for vacations, special church meetings, funerals, etc, I reckoned I would have about 40 “normal” weeks in the year, which meant at least three pastoral visits a week.

2. In addition to annual pastoral visits to every home in the congregation, there were five other types of visit.

a. The sick in hospital. I tried to visit both before and after operations, as well as a visit when the person returned home. I usually spent no more than 20 minutes with a sick person.

b. The elderly in their own homes. I had a number of seniors who were not well enough to come out to church, but were still living in their own homes. I would try to visit them once a quarter (which was never enough!). Visiting time between 30-60 minutes.

c. The elderly in nursing homes. I would also try to visit them every quarter. However, as they were surrounded by other people and tended to see more visitors, I would tend to visit the elderly in their own homes more than this group. Visiting time 30-45 minutes.

d. The emergencies. “Stuff happens,” and so maybe once or twice a month I would have to make unplanned visits to homes with problems or special needs. Visiting time up to 2 hours.

e. Non-church-goers. In the course of living in a small town and visiting other homes, I would often come across people who were not going to church anywhere, and so I would ask them if they wanted a pastoral visit. Maybe 25-40% said yes. Sometimes that resulted in people coming to church. Usually not. Visiting time about 1 hour.

So, adding it all up, I probably did about 10-12 visits a week.

3. Every Saturday I would decide which homes to visit the following week, based on need and geographical proximity. I tried to visit homes that were close together to minimize driving time between visits. I usually arranged the day and time of the visit at church on the Sunday.

4. If a person or couple could be visited in the afternoon, that’s when I would visit. That left my evening visiting times for those who were working through the day.

5. I usually set apart Wednesday to do most of my visits. Why Wednesday? Let me set out my week to explain

Monday. On Monday, after Sunday’s exertions, I was good for nothing. From the beginning of my ministry my wife “forced” me to take Mondays off with her and our family (who are home-schooled). I’m glad she did, because the Pastor needs a “sabbath” too. I think there were only two times in my ministry when I decided to work on Mondays, and by the end of the week I regretted it, as I ground to an inefficient halt (but that’s another blog post).

Tuesday. Fully rested, on Tuesday I was raring to go again. However, as visiting exhausts me, and I did not want to run down my gas before the week even started, I usually did not visit on a Tuesday. Instead I worked on reading, writing, and lecture projects on Tuesday morning, catching up on administration and phone calls in the afternoon. Evening spent with my wife and family.

Wednesday. After a few hours in the study, I would usually leave the house about 11am to begin my visiting. I would begin with visits to the elderly at home and in nursing homes. After lunch on the go, I would then do some hospital visits (not in the morning because nurses and doctors are usually busy with patients then). By mid-afternoon I was on to my annual pastoral visits of those who were at home in the afternoon. After returning home for a quick evening meal, I would then be out again for the first of two evening visits (usually two of the annual pastoral visits). I would schedule these for 7 pm and 8.30 pm. Initially I tried to squeeze three in, but with traveling time between visits, that meant I was sometimes in a home for less than an hour. I found 90 minute visits to be the best length of time. Any longer and conversation would become more social than pastoral. Obviously if any major issue came up, then I would promise to return. Most of my congregation knew that I was on a tight visiting schedule and so they did not really expect visits to last the whole evening. I also found that if people knew you had another visit planned, it was easier to end the visit on time. I usually returned home before 10.30pm.

Thursday. I’ve worked on building sites in Eastern Europe in sub-zero temperatures, and yet I found pastoral visitation far more draining!  So on Thursday I would usually take an extra hour or so in bed, before getting into the study to prepare my message for the midweek prayer meeting and Bible Study. That would take me 4-5 hours. Late afternoon I would catch up on administration, and maybe begin “looking for a text” for my two Sunday sermons. Evening at the midweek meeting, often followed by a deacons or elders meeting, or maybe a counseling visit.

Friday. Day in the study preparing for Sunday sermons. Often I would have to go out late Friday afternoon to visit someone who had taken ill since Wednesday. As I had not spent an evening with my wife since Tuesday, and as Saturday and Sunday evenings were taken up with preparation and preaching, I would usually reserve Friday evening for her and my family.

Saturday. Preparing for Sunday sermons. I usually tried to be finished sermon prep by late Saturday afternoon so that I could go for a long walk on the beach to loosen up study-tightened body, listen to some sermons from Sermon Audio on the texts I was going to preach on, read a bit, go over my sermon, etc. I would never visit on a Saturday unless it was a real emergency.

Sunday. VERY BUSY. No visits unless ultra-emergency. All energies devoted to preaching the Word.

Concluding thoughts

1. Again, please do not take me as a norm. As I look back, I think I should have visited more. On the other hand, I do feel my preaching and family life would have suffered if I had. You need to find the right balance for you and your situation.

2. I had a great team of 10 elders and 12 deacons who also visited their designated areas regularly. That took a lot of pressure off me.

3. Start as you wish to continue. Don’t start with three hour visits or people will be disappointed if you only visit for two hours the next time. Let your congregation know that they can expect at least one visit a year. My first congregation was much smaller (about 30 homes) and I tried to visit them twice a year.

4. Pray before you go, as you go, and after you go. Pray especially that the Lord would give you His loving shepherd’s heart. We do not want to be doing pastoral visits in a legalistic, Mormon-like spirit.

5. Get organized. Make sure that you keep a record of your visits so that you don’t miss anyone, and so that you can defend yourself if a forgetful elderly person says to the elders “He never visits me!” (it will happen). Also, although I started each year with the mountain of 130 homes to visit, if I was “ticking off” 3+ homes a week, I could relax knowing that I would get to the top of the hill eventually.

6. Ask parents to make sure that their children will be present for the visit.

7. A death in the congregation will throw your schedule out for week or more (I’ll return to that another time).

8. Remember your wife and family. The ministry can devour all your time…and your family. If you let it.

  • S. Christopher Oberholtzer

    Dr. Murray, Thank you so much for this practical and pastoral post. While I do understand it can not be the rule is is quite helpful. If you might sometime discuss (if you have not somewhere already done this) the kinds of questions and other interaction you have had during pastoral visitation I would be grateful. I will also take this opportunity to thank you for the sermon audio presentation you did on the preparation of sermons. I have watched it multiple times and have found it very helpful. God bless.

  • Ryan Phelps

    Dr. Murray-Thanks for your words here. They are challenging, to say the least.Serving the Lord in New England as I do, pastoral visits are something of an anomaly. Especially for the non-sick/non-elderly, getting a visit from their pastor would be akin to getting a visit from a mortician. It’s not that they don’t desire our presence. But New Englanders are an extremely private people (for no good reason) and scheduled visits could be off putting. My question is (and forgive me for asking it) what does one do at a pastoral visit? I’ll leave it at that. Thanks very much.-Ryan Phelps

  • Stephen Walton

    Sounds like New England is very like Old England! My experience here (Church of England, rural area in Cheshire, on the border of Wales) is that people expect to be visited by the vicar, but don’t take kindly if he talks about the Gospel. I’d love to here something on Ryan’s question- what do you do on a pastoral visit?

  • David Murray

    Chris, Ryan and Stephen: I’m working on a post about what to ask/say on a pastoral visit. I’ll probably post next week.

  • Jeff Brewer

    Is it “next week” yet? Still working on a post about what to ask/say on pastoral visits? Can’t wait to read your post!

  • David Murray

    Sorry, Jeff, I haven’t had a “normal” week for a while. Will you let me stretch “next week” to next week?

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