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.

Historical Mistake
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.

Pastoral Work Week
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.

  • Chris Gatihi

    Amen, David. Thank you for writing this, brother. Very much needed and well said.

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  • Ed

    If a church has only 1 shepherd ( elder/teacher) then it is either very small or not scripture based in how it is run. A plurality of elders is scriptural. They have different gifting but all are able to teach and all involved in the shepherding of the flock – visitation being 1 aspect in which all are involved. I see no one man shepherd
    (Pastor) in scripture.

  • Drew

    Hello Dr. Murray, I had the same concerns reading Dr. Rainer’s post. But it’s hard for those outside the SBC context to quite understand the situation. What Dr. Rainer addresses- though he doesn’t say it directly- is a mentality in many SBC churches that the pastor is the “hired hand” whose job is to visit them just to make them feel good (not to help them grow in Christ or confront them with sin!). In our context, this leads to no time for leading ministry (the controlling powers in the church want to do that), or evangelism, or discipleship (something these members see as a waste of time). Also, many small-church pastors spend a lot of time doing funerals and some weddings. Or, for example, when a member was dying, I spent about 15 hours at the hospital just that week. All of that is just “extra” on top of a normal work week! These are the kinds of things that lead to burn out when one does not have a healthy church or plurality of elder leadership.

    At the same time, I wholeheartedly agree with your post. I am always challenged by the “Richard Baxter” model of pastoral care and long to be that kind of pastor. I really appreciate your breakdown of hours spent. I try to visit at least 4 people/families per week. With a congregation of around 60, I still beat myself up feeling I’m not doing a very good job being a pastor. Also- do you set apart time in your workweek for praying for the flock, or does that all happen in your personal devotional time? Just curious! Thank you for your thoughtful post.

    • David Murray

      Drew, I’m sure there are SBC factors that contribute to Thom’s article, but it would be wiser to specify these and address these rather than write so generally in a way that can easily be misunderstood and applied in totally different scenarios.

      I agree with you about the Baxter model. We need to adapt it to today but there are timeless principles in it. I think your visitation rate is appropriate and wise in a congregation of that size.

      Regarding prayer, I’ve tried a few approaches:

      1. A special time on Saturday evening (after sermon prep was complete) when I would pray for 20-25 families/households at a time. In my last congregation that meant I prayer for the whole congregation every 5 weeks.

      2. I pray for five families/households a day as part of my normal prayer time.

      3. I try to pray for households as I drive past them in my community.

      I’ve come to prefer #2 over #1 and do try to do #3 in addition although it means praying for some more than others as some people live nearer me than others.

  • Candice

    In my congregation/denomination (RPCNA), elders strive to visit families annually in their homes. This really does communicate care and concern about the spiritual growth of the church members. Usually the elder sits with the whole family- children, too–asking them questions and engaging them about what they’re learning in God’s word, concerns they have, etc. Then we send the kids to play elsewhere so the adults can speak openly about the same questions. This is a precious time and something I’ve not ever experienced in other churches throughout my life. I wonder if Dr. Ranier has read Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor?

  • Jack Vosteen

    Near the end of his life, Jonathan Edwards mused that a big regret was not visiting the flock. And R.C. Sproul says that he uses both hands to shake hands with a widow, because they are lonely. Seems like no-brainer – give the flock the attention they ‘deserve’ and the Lord will bless you for each and every “glass of cold water” you dispense.

    • David Murray

      You’re right. One of his biographers notes that one of the reasons that Edwards lost the affection and attachment of his flock was that he refused to visit his congregation as was the norm in his day. He visited the sick and elderly and he invited people with problems to contact him and visit him at his home. But he did not do “ordinary” pastoral visitation, and this was one of the factors that blew up his ministry in the mix of other problems.

  • K McCaulley

    I see two problems with your 45-hour work week breakdown:

    1) You seem to assume a full-time vocational pastor. Everything I’ve read seems to point to the fact that bi-vocational ministry is fast becoming the new norm.

    2) Let’s grant the 10 hours of pastoral visitation you posit — 5 hours for visiting the sick and 5 hours for other visits. When will those visits take place? They will be in the evenings, when the kids are home. When does the pastor get to be a dad?

    I bring these up because your dismissal of the possibility of burnout struck me as far too cavalier.

    • Drew

      I would say not all visitation should take place in the evening. Widows and others who are retired will be available during the day. Also, my wife and I work it out such that if I visit families one evening out of necessity, I’ll take a couple hours out of another day to spend with the family (it helps that we homeschool our kids). I’m not saying it’s easy or that it works out perfectly, but those are some things that have helped me.

    • David Murray

      Thanks for your input. As someone who has experienced burnout, who spends a lot of his time counseling pastors with burnout, and who has just written a book on it, I can assure you that I’m not insensitive to the dangers of burnout. At 40-45 hours a week, we’re nowhere near that territory for most healthy men.

      Re #1, you’re right that I am assuming full-time ministry, as did Thom’s original article (as far as I can see). If bi-vocational, then, of course, proportional adjustments would need to be made.

      Re #2, I doubt it will be necessary for most pastors of average-sized churches (50-70 households) to be spending five hours per week on visiting the sick and elderly. I also think with good planning, a number of visits can be made in the afternoons where there are retired people involved. Have a read of my article linked on the post for “a normal week of pastoral ministry.” I’ve found that I rarely needed to visit more than one evening a week (3-4 hours of visiting) to get through my whole congregation in the course of a year when working in full-time ministry.

      • K McCaulley

        Thanks for replying. I will give your other post a read.

  • Jennifer G

    I guess I don’t understand the model of ministry that Dr. Rainer is describing. In our Reformed Baptist Church, we have regular pastoral oversight where the pastor meets with the member to discuss that member’s spiritual health, marriage, family, questions, issues with other members, church concerns, whatever. Is that what people mean by visitation? Our do y’all mean just “getting to know you” sort of visitation?

    Because oversight is just part of a biblical church, right? So that the pastors can shepherd the souls the flock for which they will give an account. Then they know how to pray, counsel, and preach to their assembly of believers. In that oversight, which happens about once a year for our church, the pastor offers very little of his own personal life, other than to help the member.

    But visitation in the sense of getting to know one another, praying for each other, sharing lives…well EVERY member should be doing that with every other member. In that sort of visiting, both parties share their lives, and the pastor is not exempt! Though my husband isn’t a pastor, we know all the members of our church (about 150, plus their children) and most of them, we know pretty well. We have them in our home for the Lord’s Day, we have never had a holiday without at least one family from church joining us, we have people frequently in our guest room, we rarely leave church less than an hour after the end of the service or prayer meeting…because we are supposed to minister to one another! Certainly no one thinks the pastor is the only church member who is supposed to get to know people! If that’s the case, it’s no wonder there is little fellowship in many churches, and no wonder Dr. Rainer felt a need to write about it. I wonder if that’s the type of visitation he had in mind, a social “checking in” in place of relationships within the church, and that “one anothering” being assigned to a pastor and no one else.

    If proper oversight is happening, then social fellowship visits should be *every* member’s responsibility and privilege. If deliberate oversight isn’t happening, then I don’t know how the church even functions, because the pastors have to know the people in order to preach, pray, and serve them. Pastors oversee, but EVERYONE fellowships and ministers.

  • Gary

    Thanks! I too published a rejoinder to the article on my blog. I did, really, just minimal research, to be able to disprove that “pastoral visitation” is a modern innovation. James taught it. Paul did it. Jesus said it was one of the most evident signs of righteousness (Sheep and Goats). Ignatius, Justin Martyr, promoted it, to name a few. The Puritans, Spurgeon, etc., etc.

    I too have enjoyed his articles, and like you, I wondered if it was serious. I kept waiting for a “Hah, just kidding!” But no. Totally unironic.


  • God & Culture

    Thank you Dr. Murray. As a bi-vocational pastor this is both convicting and edifying. Reminds me of John Piper’s recent adage: ‘One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time.’ Quite possibly, as pastors, we are frittering away time on social media and other distractions that ought properly to be directed to face to face time with our people. I plead guilty and am thankful for this godly spur (Hebrews 10:24) to do good in this area in the future.

  • Steve Stutzman

    I can understand and appreciate your vantage point. However, I still side with Dr. Rainer. Frankly a 45 hour work week is laughable. I don’t even remember when I worked that little. A slow week is 50+ and a busy is 60+ sometimes even higher. I know pastors in my association that never take a day off and are at every bedside for the smallest of things. Most pastors are expected to visit their members on a regular basis, not yearly. Admittedly, my hand is connected to everything in the church and I’m already involved everything.

    Furthermore, I am troubled by the breakdown you had of the pastors work week that didn’t include personal biblical studies, prayer, or continued studies. When is the pastor supposed to do that? On their own time? Would it be fine if a pastor didn’t do those thing? You can’t expect a pastor to work 8 hrs at the church and then fail to count extra studies. And also, what about the 12+ hr work day on Sunday preaching, teaching, greeting, visiting, etc?

    Aubrey Malphurs wrote a piece last year on the 13 Deadly Sins of a Dying Church. And the worst problem he says, from his perspective as a church consultant, is the church that expects the senior pastor to visit ever member and keep them happy. It’s a narcissistic disease.

    • samloveall

      In regard to your second paragraph, perhaps you missed this sentence: “Let’s allow 5 hours per week for personal development/reading, etc.”

  • nmcdonal

    Hi Dr. Murray – I appreciate your insight on this, and your wisdom as always. I’m not sure I can quite agree on the scriptural parallels, however, with Jesus and the Apostles. After all, anytime they visit the sick, it’s to DO something about it, namely, to heal. I don’t see that at all being the purpose of pastoral visitations, which I confess I’ve always been baffled by. I’ve wondered aloud to my wife about why hospital visitations have become part of a pastor’s job description, because honestly I do not picture Paul doing a lot of that sort of thing without the miraculous component. I’m surely in the minority, here…but was curious as to your thoughts exegetically speaking.

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