The Pastor as Chief Visitor – An Answer to Thomas Rainer


Thomas Rainer’s blog is one of the most read in the US Christian world.  I am a subscriber and often find what he writes interesting and informative. Yesterday however something he wrote recently caught the eye  – it was provocatively entitled 15 Reasons why your Pastor should not visit much   I read it and it set a whole chain of thoughts going in my head.  And then I noticed that some friends were liking it and passing it on.  This disturbed me.  Why?

It contains several valid points which we need to reflect on. We do need to be aware of the danger of over expectation of congregations and over visiting – although that is not a problem I hear a lot about. But the more I read the blog – and I have gone through it several times trying to work out why I had such an increasingly negative reaction – the more concerned I became.  It is precisely because it contains these valid points that it is one of the more harmful and destructive posts for any minister to read, or any church to practice.

A little background for those who are not familiar with Thom Rainer.     A former banker who became a Baptist minister in 1982, he served at churches in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Indiana before becoming a lecturer at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1994.   From 1990 to 2005 he led his own church consultancy company, the Rainer Group. He is the president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, and author of one of the most popular Christian blogs in the US. I am a subscriber and often benefit from what I read.

As I am responding to the blog I would suggest you read it first – click the above link. I know that the perception is that the polite and nice Christian thing to do would be just to write a positive article about why pastoral visiting is important and not to critique a Christian brother (which Rainer is), but I think it is more constructive to interact with what the blog says and see what we can learn from it.

A caveat – Rainer’s blog is obviously written from the culture and perspective of the American church, which is clearly not mine and so I may be missing some nuances. American friends please feel free to enlighten me! However evangelical globalisation and the power, money and resources of the US church means that what happens in the US will soon drift over here.

Another caveat – disagreeing with this does not mean that I consider Rainer to be a heretic or that there is not much of value in his writings.  Hopefully this is an iron sharpens iron moment…if this wounds then I hope it is the wounds of a friend! I have a slight fear that especially some of my American friends will consider this to be personal etc.  Please don’t read between the lines.  And PLEASE stop citing Matthew 18 – I am replying in public to a public comment by a public writer who I don’t know and have nothing against.  I’m just discussing what he says on his blog….anyway here we go….

The blog begins badly –

“Visitation of the members” became a common job description of pastors about a century ago. It’s a bad sign.

It is indeed a bad sign when someone begins an article with a sweeping historical statement which is demonstrably false!  It may be (but I doubt it) that Southern Baptist pastors were not expected to visit the members until the beginning of the 20th Century, but in most of the rest of the world it has been a key part of the job description.  Read Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor for a puritan example of what is expected!

Rainer then goes on to make the bold statement:  The truth is: Your pastor shouldn’t visit much, before giving us 15 reasons why this is The Truth.  Lets examine them.

  1.  It’s unbiblical. Ephesians 4:12 says that pastors are to train the saints or believers to do the work of the ministry. It does not say pastors are to do all the work of ministry.  This is a strawman argument.  No-one is arguing that pastoral visitation means the pastors are doing all the work of ministry.  It is a bad sign when you have to make your case by arguing against what no-one is saying!

2. It deprives members of their roles and opportunities. – No only strawman (see above) but illogical.  Because I visit someone does not mean that others cannot, or should not visit them.  Anymore than because I preach, others can’t teach the bible, or because I give financially, others can’t give.
3.It fosters a country club mentality.  This may be a particularly American problem, but I don’t really understand why a pastor visiting his congregation necessarily encourages that mentality.  Indeed is it not the case that the country club mentality could be more encouraged by pastors NOT visiting.  A country club is after all something that you go to, where you receive what you have paid for and join with the select few who can also afford the fees.  You don’t expect the servants to come out and visit you at home!   There are Christians who like the idea of church being something that they go to, where they pay their money to have a nice building, a good youth ministry, others who do mercy ministries and a pastor who preaches ‘good, faithful’ sermons.  And then they can go home and get on with their ‘real’ lifes.   The pastor visiting is a reminder that you don’t go to church, you are the church.

4. It turns a church inwardly. The members are asking what the pastor is doing for them, rather than asking how they can serve others through the church.  Again this is not necessarily so.  Good pastoral visitation will encourage members to serve in the church and not act as a substitute for it.

5. It takes away from sermon preparation.  This could be the case.  But like all the other points the attribution of cause and effect is wrong.  In the words of the song, it ain’t necessarily so!   Of course there are those who get the balance wrong and spend so much time visiting that they don’t have time to prepare properly.  But its a phenomena I have come across rarely.  There are many other things a pastor does which takes away time from sermon preparation.  And why set these up as rivals?  I regard my visitation as part of my sermon preparation, because on the Lord’s Day I am preaching the Word of God to a flock of God’s people, not giving a lecture to a bunch of sermon tasters.  If I want to be a good undershepherd then I need to know the sheep and that comes out of personal interaction, not a book, a webpage,  or a communications seminar!

6.It takes away from the pastor’s outward focus.  I suppose this could be true if the pastor only visited members of the church for a cup of tea and a nice wee chat about their bunions, children and latest holiday.  But any real pastoral visit is going to encourage people in the community because Christians don’t (or shouldn’t) live in isolation from the non-Christians around.  I have been in many homes where the phrase has been uttered, ‘this is our minister’ and a conversation ensured.  People who would never come to church are introduced to the pastor.  Besides which Rainer is again setting up a false dichotomy – its not a case of either visit the members or visit the wider community.  Why not do both?

7.It takes away vital leadership from the pastor. How can we expect pastors to lead if we give them no time to lead since they are visiting members?     Who is arguing that pastors never lead because they are so busy visiting members?  When did you last hear of a minister who refused to attend an elders meeting, or leaders bible study because he was too busy visiting (although the temptation can sometimes be there!)?   Rainer is taking an extreme example and applying it as a general principle.  Thats always bad practice.  Bad arguments always use exaggeration. The truth is that we are not the kind of modern political leaders who send soldiers of to war whilst they pontificate from their safe war rooms about what they should be doing.  We are more like David and Saul who as I read this morning in 1 Samuel 26, slept on the ground with their fellow soldiers, with their spear in the ground beside them!   Visiting is leading! Leaders visit.

On this question of time.  If we spent less time in front of our computer screens, less time attending conferences and reading ‘how to’ pastor books, we might have a bit more time for actually pastoring them (yes – I am looking in the mirror!).  Which again is not to say that such books and conferences are not of some (limited) value, but that there is something wrong if we are always talking about doing, and never doing.

8. It fosters unhealthy comparisons among the members. “The pastor visited the Smiths twice this month, but he only visited me once.”  This is one that didn’t make any sense to me at all (it may be cultural, so if any of my American friends are reading this can you please explain to me why this is relevant?).   How would other members know who is being visited when and where?  And why would they care?  Are they really that immature?  And if they are you need to visit them to encourage them to grow up!   If you are going to operate on that low opinion of your congregation and the fear that this implies then you will have to apply it across the board.  You can’t invite members round to your house, or speak to people after the service, or write personal letters because it ‘fosters unhealthy comparisons among the members’.

9. It is never enough.  As the great philosopher Homer would say ‘ Duh!’.   This reason is a truism which can be applied to anything the pastor does.  Sermon preparation is never enough.  Leadership is never enough.  Writing is never enough.  Prayer is never enough.  Love is never enough.   A pastor is supposed to be a leader who is mature enough to take the criticisms and unrealistic expectations of the immature and lead them by word and example into a better understanding.  The fear of never doing enough, is never a reason for doing nothing!

10. It leads to pastoral burnout.  Again it ain’t necessarily so.  Yes if you are driven by a people pleasing, slave and fear mentality.  Of course it will lead to pastoral burnout because you will be running round like a headless chicken piling up more stress, work and misery for yourself.   But the same applies to preaching, studying, leading and other duties of the pastor.  Why does Rainer pick on this one?  His advice is poor because it also works the other way.  A pastor who does not receive regular stimulus, insight and care from visiting his congregation is much more likely to burn out.    Hours in front of a screen, endless attending of meetings and continual ‘conference training’ are far more likely to lead to burn out, than sitting having fellowship with members of your congregation.
11.It leads to high pastoral turnover. Burnout leads to pastoral turnover. Short-term pastorates are not healthy for churches.  I suspect that Mr Rainer is speaking from personal experience and I can empathise and to some extent agree.  But its not visitation that leads to burnout and short term pastorates.  It’s bad visitation.  Indeed it’s bad anything.  Preaching, salary, theology, prayer life, personal skills, elders, health..etc.

12. It puts a lid on Great Commission growth of the church.    I think at this point Rainer has fallen into the trap of those who rely on the ‘ten things to do when..’ or ‘five reasons why..’ mentality.  Having reached 11 he needs to get to a nice round number and so he is just repeating himself.  Maybe I’m being unfair, but how else can you explain that a pastor visiting his congregation hinders the Great Commission?!   Visiting your congregation does not hinder evangelism, it enables evangelism.  A pastor is required to feed the sheep so that they can be equipped for works of service including evangelism.  The best evangelism is church based.  That means the people of God living out their lives for God in the community and pointing people to Christ….evangelism includes but is not primarily evangelistic events at the church, media broadcasts or outreach events in the community.  It is the people of God living such good lives among the pagans that they glorify our Father in heaven and seek him.  Pastoral visitation is as essential to enabling and equipping as preaching.

13. It leads pastors to get their affirmation from the wrong source. They become people-pleasers instead of God-pleasers.  I’m sorry that I have to repeat the message (but good preaching always repeats!) – but it ain’t necessarily so.  And again it applies to everything else the pastor does.  People pleasing can be applied to anything – unless you are the Van Morrison type of Pastor.  For the uncultured Van Morrison is the wonderful Irish singer who infamously doesn’t care a hoot for his audience – he just does the singing.  I admit there are some preachers who are like entertainers or spiritual dictators and don’t care a hoot for their congregations, but I would not call them pastors!   If we are going to be pastors then we need to get our affirmation from Christ, not from anyone or anything else!

However again Rainer is in danger of discouraging pastors from receiving great blessing.  Christ uses means.  Christ usually uses his people.  I know that some times I have been discouraged by Christians within my congregation, but far more times the opposite is the case.  Let me give one example.  This week I cycled to a farm outside the city to visit a couple in the congregation.  Apart from the tonic to my health in terms of the exercise, I also received a tonic to my spiritual health, as we talked and shared together, rejoicing in the goodness of God. It was sermon preparation because I learned things I needed to, and it also didn’t hinder other members of the congregation!  Indeed while I was there another lady drove out to visit the same family.  I left feeling greatly affirmed in the work of the ministry and encouraged by the church – and I don’t think that was the wrong source.

14. It causes biblical church members to leave. Many of the best church members will leave because they know the church is not supposed to operate in this manner. The church thus becomes weaker.  This one stunned me.  I have never heard of anyone leaving a church because the minister visits too much!  But apparently in the US many of the best church members do.  I really have nothing to say about this because I have never experienced it. Still if you want an excuse to leave a church I suppose this one will do!   Actually come to think about it I remember receiving a comment that ‘David always speaks to strangers in the church’.  This was an actual complaint.  To which I pleaded mea culpa!  Of course I speak to strangers – pastoral visits of the congregation are not best done as people exit the building on a Sunday morning or evening.  They are best done during the week.  I think its always good to visit people in their homes (to see their context) but also to meet for coffee, in cafes, the manse or the church.

15. It is a sign that the church is dying. The two most common comments of a dying church: “We never done it that way before,” and “Why didn’t the pastor visit me?”  I wish that Rainer had stuck to the ten or eleven, because now each point seems to be getting increasingly desperate!  Pastoral visitation is a sign that the church is dying?! In that case I know a lot of healthy living churches!  Look ,we can all invent truisms about a dying church…what if I said the most common comments of a dying church are “lets change to keep up with the culture”, “the preaching does not feed my soul’, “lets do Latte church”, “we don’t have enough preaching/singing/prayer/community/doughnuts”! ?   The point about truisms is that there is always an element of truth in them.

The pervasive mentality in many churches is the pastor is the chief visitor in the church.

It’s a key sign of sickness.

It’s a clear step toward death.

This is at best hyperbolic exaggeration.  At worst it is destructive and harmful advice, that I hope on reflection Thomas Rainer will retract.   It is not a pervasive mentality.  It is not a key sign of sickness.  It is not a clear step towards death. If you are going to have a biblical church then the pastor will be the chief visitor in the church.  He won’t be the only visitor, as he won’t be the only elder.  He will need to have a balance and ensure that sermon preparation, evangelism, study, prayer and leadership are included in his work.  But he will not neglect pastoral visitation.  He has the privilege of being paid to do it! By definition he will have more time than most of his working elders (which does not mean they should not visit, it just means they have less time).  He is an undershepherd who follows the chief shepherd. The shepherd knows his sheep, and his sheep know him.  And you can’t know the sheep through facebook, twitter, blogs, leaders meetings, conferences, reading or even phone calls.  We need a face to face, embodied pastoral ministry that goes to the people, where they are. Any pastor who follows the incarnate Christ will want to have an incarnational ministry – that meets meeting with the smelly, dirty, stubborn, unruly sheep.  And being blessed by them.  We are not CEOs.  We are not corporate mangers.  We are not lecturers.  We are not politicians.  We are not administrators of organisations. We are shepherds.  We are pastors.  Therefore we pastor.

I am thankful for Rainer’s blog in that it as made me think more about one of the key areas of weakness in my own ministry.  I know that my pastoral visitation is not what it should be and it is something I am trying to remedy.  A little guilt is not a bad thing!   Because of  wider ministry I am not able to do as much of pastoral visitation as I would like.  But I still regard it as essential to the work of the minister.  The hospitality we (mainly Annabel!) offer in our own home is as key to the work of the ministry here as the preaching.  I just need to visit people in their own homes a bit more!   I know that as the congregation continues to grow pastoral visitation becomes more difficult (we need more pastors!) but it is still as essential.

A number of years ago I was asked by an evangelical organisation to go full time in an evangelistic/apologetic ministry because of the work we were doing which does reach out to the wider community and into the secular media.  It took me about five seconds to say no and then two hours to explain why.  I love evangelism and I believe that I am called to proclaim the gospel in the wider community.  But I am totally convinced that the best evangelism is done through the local church and that the crying need of the hour is more biblical, Christ-centred, loving and radical churches.  For me to leave the pastoral ministry and set up a separate ‘ ministry’ or any kind of evangelistic outreach to tell people how to do it, and not do it myself would be wrong.  For me.  I fully accept that there are others who have that calling and one day I may yet do that (I have learned never to anticipate the Lord and tell him what he can and cannot do!). But I know that I am called to the pastoral ministry and to be part of a church which reaches out.  As I told my elders, the day that the sign ‘David Robertson ministries’ appears above my door, is the time for them to take me out and shoot me! And the day that St Peters stops reaching out is the day my resignation is in the post!

I love the local church.  It is my joy and crown.  Last Sunday Sinclair Ferguson preached this stunning sermon which sums up my feelings exactly – you can get it Here – (look for the one on Philippians 1 entitled Pastor and People).  It is the perfect antidote to Rainer’s ill advised blog.   As I listened to it (whilst cycling to visit someone!) I couldn’t help but punch the air and shout ‘yes’…(I’m sure some of the people who saw me thought I was listening to a football match and my team had just scored!.   Yes. Yes. Yes.  My joy and crown is St Peters – not the building but the people.  Not the organisation, but the fellowship.  To visit them is a pleasure and a joy.  There are sorrows and pains.  But that is life.  And that is the Christian life.  Its better to be down in the mud rather than sitting on an ivory tower.  It’s in the mud that we find the jewels.


I leave you with one example.  Last week I was asked to visit a home in our congregation to meet with a young girl who wanted to profess her faith in Christ.  I had the most lovely time with her and was so encouraged as she spoke in front of her father about her faith in Christ.  13 years ago she was baptised in St Peters.  Last Sunday she became a communicant member (along with three others).  It was a precious and beautiful moment.  I (and I believe the communion service) was much the richer for having had the privilege of visiting her beforehand.    Whatever else I would plead with pastors – get to know your flock!  Visit them.  It is part of the job description. Be a good undershepherd of Jesus Christ.

PS.  Of course this is not the last word on the subject – we need to think about what we mean by ‘visit’, what pastoral visitation constitutes, how we do so in the 21st Century world etc….in other words there is a lot more that could be said but I will leave it to others as I have to go (and do a visit!)

PPS. Since I wrote this blog I came across the following from Andy Murray about Thomas Guthrie and his practice of ministry.  Apparently he studied from 6am to 9am, spent the rest of the day visiting and kept the evenings for his family!


  1. I don’t know Thomas Rainer and have never visited his blog site which I will have to look at given the many helpful things David says he has received from it. I also don’t know how large the churches were that Thomas Rainer pastored between 1982-1994 in four different locations. Perhaps they were larger congregations and that may or may not have impacted his ability to visit well. What I do know is that Jesus constantly preached publicly and visited homes privately! I like as Tim Chester said in his book ‘Meals with Jesus’ something along the lines of, “The Gospel of Luke records Jesus going to, being at, or coming from a meal.” Meeting people where they were at, especially the meal table, was a key component of the ministry of Jesus. I am not saying all our pastoral visiting should be done in that way (though if I could bring my wife and kids along would help our shopping bill) but if our Lord Jesus Christ found the time to do it knowing all that He already knew about those He visited before visiting them and that His time of ministry was limited to three years or so then surely we, as pastors, should do it in a structured and spontaneous way given that we know a lot less and generally speaking wil lprobably be given more than three years ministry. This is an area which I too need to do more of not less!!!

  2. I just finished reading The Pastor as Chief Visitor – An Answer to Thomas Rainer.
    After reading it I jumped on my bike I couldn’t help but punch the air and shouted Yes. Yes. Yes.
    Brilliant read.

  3. Hi David. Loved your perspective as usual and I can’t agree more. I’m a minister in the Reformed Churches in South Africa and housevisitation has always been highly valued. I do experience some of the thing Rider speaks of in our context though. It’s as if the big emphasis on pastoral visits has made people passive in visiting and caring for each other. Also being part of a big city congregation has made it very difficult to do routine visitation, that is working through the congregation on an anual basis for example. How do you do it practically. I ended up visiting new members, and when people ask or have something specific because thats all I can manage. We are placing more emphesis on lifegroups and equipping people to visit each other. Any thoughts?

    1. hi Tom,

      Thanks. I agree that routine visitation is very difficult if you’re part of a bigger congregation. But it should still be done, which is why you need a team. I also think that small groups are an essential part of any larger accommodation and greatly facilitate pastoral care.

    2. Pastoral ‘visitation’ doesn’t have to mean going to visit people in their homes. It can also include asking people to come to see you (I think that was Richard Baxter’s method). It’s just meeting with people face to face which is the important thing, not the location. And you don’t necessarily have to see people one at a time. Treat a family as a whole, or give priority to the heads of households in the hope that whatever benefit the head of the household receives will filter down through the family. And where there are single people try and group them together so that several come along together to see you at one time – three or four young men for example, or several widows – where they are all in a similar situation and will have similar problems and could benefit from the same kinds of teachings. And have two young couples come along to see you are once. The advantage of this would be that these people would hopefully form strong bonds of friendship amongst themselves and would enjoy having fellowship and supporting and encouraging each other in the intervals between coming to see you, and would feel comfortable enough with each other to not mind being open about their struggles in their visits with you. That’s my theory anyway – not sure how well it would work in practise! But if people came to see you for half an hour at a time, and you received two visits per week with an average of three people in each group, you could see over 300 people in a year. If you received five visits a week you could make that up to nearly 800 people in the course of a year.

    3. Pastoral visitation doesn’t have to mean that the pastor goes to visit his people. It can mean asking people to come to see you (which I think was the method Richard Baxter encouraged). Nor does it necessarily mean having to see one person at a time. You could talk to a whole family at once, or give great individual attention to the heads of all the households in the hope that the benefits they receive will filter down through their families. Where there are single people you could try to group them together so that three young men, for example, came to see you together, where all are in similar situations and could benefit from the same general teachings. Young couples without children could also be paired up to come to see you with another couple. The advantage of this would be that you could hope that these people would become good friends and start encouraging and supporting one another and having fellowship with one another in the long intervals between their visits to you.
      If each visit was scheduled to last half an hour, and you received two visits a week, that would be 104 visits a year, and if there were three people attending each visit on average that would be 300 people seen. If you received one visit every weekday that could be nearly 800 people seen over the course of a year. (These ideas seem feasible in theory anyway, though I don’t know how easy they would be in practice!)

  4. And the prayer of Jesus for Unity in the body takes another hit. Amazing I didn’t see you comment on his blog post. Did you at least try to discuss your issues with his post with him?

    1. Wow KIA, you manage to combine John 17 and Matthew 18 in order to condemn condemning. It is becoming increasingly tiresome the way that some evangelicals use Matthew 18 to condemn any post which they do not agree with. For obvious reasons Matthew 18 does not apply in this situation. I am responding to a public post about a public issue in public. I have nothing against Thom Rainer, I don’t think he has done anything sinful or heretical in writing this particular blog. Therefore I have no need to go to him personally and I am just contributing to the general discussion that he started. If we had to write or speak to every single individual before we wrote about any public issue we would be completely crippled!

  5. I fully agree. It seems that some seminaries, particularly those of a more reformed nature that rightly stress the importance of preaching and preaching preparation, are inclined to discourage pastoral visitation; the preacher is called to preach and anything else is a distraction.

    Rainer has listed the popular rationale (and then some) for this position which you have refuted. At root, it is far too narrow a view of preaching. The word is preached not only from a pulpit but at a fireside. Shepherds know their sheep.

    The underlying problem I suspect Rainer is grappling with is burn-out by pastors who are trying/expected to do everything. This is clearly a real problem. It stems, to my mind, in great part, from an artificial and unbiblical clergy/laity divide. This mindset has spawned many evils. Note, I am not opposing full time preachers and teachers. These are clearly biblical. I am criticising the ministerial system that has created and institutionalised a preacher/people divide. One effect of this is the myth of the omnicompetent pastor; he is often expected to do everything and, perhaps worse, often expects to do everything.

    Of course, there are many churches with pastorates where this divide is resisted. However, success here is achieved in spite of the system and by resisting the system.

  6. My former minister was one who didn’t believe in visiting his sheep at home and even said his stance was biblical, sounds similar to those you have stated, but he would visit the goats easily enough. Granted he didn’t and I would say still does not have a ‘pastor’s heart’ which is required for such a ‘messy job’. Looking back it was something sorely lacking and that lack always troubled me. To be fair I have to say that our small ever changing congregation was far flung.

  7. OK, so I am confused!! What IS a pastor? Is it a shepherd or the leader of a church. I ask because as I read it I found myself asking why should the pastor be the focus for evangelism, should that not be the evangelist? Why should they be the focus for teaching, should that not be the teacher? Is the reason for the original article a response to the modern thinking that a pastor has to be the leader of the church and a jack of all trades which means they are unable to focus on just operating as a pastor? In fact given there was reference to Ephesians it seemed to me that the pastor considers themselves to fulfill all of those ministries in one with the exception of prophet! There seems to be a presumption behind the meaning of pastor in these articles and I would suggest a clearer definition of what a pastor is that comes from scripture will make is easier to establish how that role should function and how a church should be lead.

  8. I read Rainer’s article and all of the accompanying comments. Most of what you bring up here, he addresses in the comments section.

    Thom is addressing a particular type of disfunction characteristic of many shrinking congregations. He isn’t attacking pastoral ministry in general or you personally. Yet you write as one offended, with unmistakeable disdain and more than a little self-promotion.
    Perhaps, since you too are a well-known pastor, you should consider addressing Thom in person.
    His article wasn’t perfect, and you made good points, but I found your tone very off-putting.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I did actually read the comments section and felt that many of the issues were not actually addressed.

      I never implied, nor thought that he was attacking me personally. I’m sorry that you take that from my blog. however mistaken as you are, you seem to want to reply in kind, by attacking me personally. I’m sorry that you think I was writing as one offended, with unmistakable disdain and more than a little self-promotion. I’m not sure how you’re able to make that kind of judgement? Or how you are able to judge my tone? I was not abusive, did not attack him personally and do not consider him to have done so to me. All I did was question article which I felt that overall would do the church a great deal of harm. I need far too many pastors who forget that part of their role is pastoral visitation. In my view Rainers article was ill thought out and potentially very harmful. I’m sorry that my view offends you. Please feel free to disagree with it – but next time it would be helpful if you left out the personal abuse and the judging of tone. After all if I were to judge the tone of your post, I would find it a little pompous, sanctimonious and self-righteous. Which I’m sure you did not mean to be! it’s a good job that we don’t judge internet posts by perceived tone, isn’t it. In future why not just stick to the actual content and leave the Lord to judge the heart and the tone?

  9. I suspect part of the approach to visiting the congregation will depend on the size of the congregation. Speaking with a German (Lutheran) pastor he told me his Catholic counterpart, with a congregation of over 1000 was expected to visit every parishioner on their birthday (forgetting a birthday in Germany is a mortal sin). An average of two to three visits a day 365 days a year would certainly inhibit other duties. When the congregation gets to several thousand visiting the congregation is an impossibility.

    Another factor is terminology. Southern Baptists normally refer to their ministers as Pastor, regardless of the size of congregation and whether he does any pastoral visitation. They also tend to remove the comma between Pastors and Teachers in the listing of gifts to the Church, producing Pastor/Teachers. This ignores the fact that while some ministers/priests/senior elders, call them what you will, are gifted in both ways not all come into this category. I remember a Baptist church in Northern Ireland where the minister refused to allow anyone to call him Pastor. His ministry, and it was a successful one, was in preaching and teaching often to several hundred at a Wednesday evening Bible Study.

    On the other hand I remember one occasion, in the middle east when things were difficult and for reasons too complex to go into here I had not been able to leave the country for two years, my Pastor not only visited, he baby sat and gave me the money to take my wife out to celebrate our anniversary. My ideal prototype of a Pastor, but he was no preacher.

    Then again the vicar who conducted our wedding service (my wife being Anglican) saw his function as equipping the Saints, building them up, teaching how to lead Bible studies, encouraging localized evangelism and fellowship of his congregation members. He said his aim was to get to the point where he could do only those things restricted to clergy by Canon rules, although I think he exaggerated a wee bit.

    So it is not a one size fits all thin, being a Pastor.

  10. In contrast to RV Spivey, I didn,t find the tone of the article off-putting at all. One of the commonest complaints here in Northern Ireland is that the pastor/minister doesn’t visit enough! So the response was very apposite and many church leaders would do well to read it and examine their own ministries. i know administration takes up a lot of time now, but too many sit in front of their computers instead of heeding the old dictum that “a home-going pastor makes a. church-going people. It also leads to too many being overweight! We need pastors who can keep a balance between visiting and sermon preparation, for when people come to church they ned fed, not entertained.
    Ps. One small point – you cannot have “a phenomena”. It should be “phenonemon” singular.

  11. Hi David,

    One thing I’m unsure about on this is how Ephesians 4:12 should actually be translated. Do you have any thoughts on that?

    The three prepositions used are “pros” “eis” and “eis” – “pros” the equipping of the saints; “eis” the work of ministry; “eis” the building up of the church.

    Some translations indicate that all of the prepositions refer to what is done by the apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors and teachers. E.g. the King James Version says that the apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors and teachers are given:

    “[a]For the perfecting of the saints, [b] for the work of the ministry, [c] for the edifying of the body of Christ…”

    i.e. they do all three of these things.

    However, other translations indicate, as Tom has suggested, that it is the saints who do the work of the ministry. E.g. the ESV says:

    “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”

    I have read different view points on this and find myself unequipped at the moment to decide for myself which is correct. Because of that I could never use this verse a proof text, although I do support the use of proof texts if the texts are clear.

  12. To answer your question about #6, I served in a congregation where the committee required a list of “who did the pastor visit this month” at its monthly meetings. These lists caused endless strife in the congregation. “You didn’t visit [so and so] enough. You visited [so and so] more than [me].” I also drew the line on listing who I counseled – they wanted me to list that as well, and I told them, “due to confidentiality reasons and the prevalence of gossip in this parish, I won’t list that.”

    In another congregation I served, one gentleman complained vociferously that I didn’t visit him enough. I went back and checked my notes and my calendar and realized I’d visited him and his wife more than any other parishioner/family in the entire church. The *real* problem was that he and the previous pastor had been close personal friends and that I wasn’t that pastor.

    What it comes down to is really in the expectation. It is certainly an American phenomenon; the expectation of the pastor as the one who does it all, and the expectation that it can only be the pastor who visits. As the church gets bigger, the issue rears its ugly head.

    There is obviously a balance between “the pastor should not visit” and “the pastor should be the only one who visits.” Any pastor who has done visitation knows that it can be a huge blessing (both for the parishioner and for the pastor). We know that something significant sometimes (often?) happens when the pastor visits. I have had the joy of leading people to Christ during personal visitation. I made nursing home visitation a weekly habit, and was sometimes energized and sometimes drained after these visits.

    But it can also be difficult. It is difficult (again, in an American context) to find parishioners at home. Some don’t want the pastor in their house (I’ve tried to organize/schedule visits and was told not to come, for various presenting reasons). Some are too busy. Some only have certain times available, and having a young family, it can be nearly impossible to find a reasonable time to meet.

    In my current context (sub-saharan Africa) I will say it’s quite different than it was in the US.

    Thanks for giving me space to “vent” a little.

  13. I remembered that a fellow member of the Lifeway board, Ed Stetzer, told Christianity Today in an interview a couple of years ago that he told his congregation that he “can’t do funerals, visits, phone calls or meetings” so that he can be free to do other things like preach, lead a small group and meet his team. (Article here http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/august/know-what-you-cannot-do.html)

    But he did manage to stay on at Lifeway(!) until this year before leaving it and his church to take up a new post at Wheaton College teaching students how to be a pastor, church planter, missiologist. (Article here http://www.charismanews.com/opinion/57204-why-ed-stetzer-suddenly-quit-his-job-and-resigned-his-church)

    There are many things I hope stay on the other side of the pond and this is another one to add to the list.

  14. Alan McArthur,

    I expect that this comment was intended to be made in some kind of humorous vein.
    “(forgetting a birthday in Germany is a mortal sin)”
    I certainly hope you did not intend it to be taken seriously.

    1. At least I think it was intended humourously. I was actually quoting an American missionary in Germany. The entire quote was “I knew birthdays in Germany were important, but I didn’t realize forgetting one was a mortal sin”.

  15. I found it interesting that the title of Rainer’s article “….should not visit much.” but at the beginning of the article he seems to look to limit “acceptable” visiting to “serious and emergency needs” in the interests of managing expectations of churches that fire their pastor “because he didn’t visit enough” an instance that seems to have stimulated his blog.
    So he seems to have written from his position of “sadness” at that occurence. In effect he is advocating on behalf of that pastor using some generalisations.

    And as a former advocate, he seems to have taken a “scatter-gun” approach, hoping to gain “weight” to his argument, hoping that week points will add strength to strong points. In practice, the week points dilute the strong points.

    1 He is starting from the position of the pastor, not the church and this begs the question: what is church? People anybody?

    2 The church v the dismissed pastor would seem to have more fundamental underlying issues, such as lack of effective communication, and differences in “vision” manifesting in separation over visiting. Communication, communication, communication. And perhaps there was remoteness, aloofness. That is so much speculation, but it points to a need to ask further questions before using a specific instance as a launch pad for advocacy of a predetermined, one size fits all, point of view.

    3 Models of church governance have an effect on the relationship between pastor and the body of Christ.

    4 The church has an uneasy relationship with “leadership” in the wider world. On the one hand there is much to learn (not SWOT analysis I’d suggest) but on the other hand it should be wary of what it imbibes. A recent example is that in some schools of thought, everyone is a leader. Even the terminology of “leadership” is being brought into the church. What the church can teach the world is “servant leadership” but I’m not sure how that is practised in the church. Sandhurst, Army Officer training body has a moto “We lead to serve.”

    5 Much could be said on the individual points, even though I’m not a pastor. But two I’ll mention

    a) Point15 “causes biblical church members to leave” On face value I find this flabbergasting. I’d be extremely wary to ascribe visiting habits of the pastor as the sole or main reason. Surely there was more to this.
    b) Punctuation. A point made by Alan MacArthur about pastor/ teacher. There was no comma in the original text, nor verses. Like all legal documents in England in earlier centuries there was no punctuation and sometimes no paragraphs.

    6 People matter, pastors matter. We need each other. As individuals and collectively. A key is communication, communication, communication, a key component of love, of relationship, personal. Just look at what happens when this is left to technology, such as this.

  16. David,

    I have to agree with your sentiments expressed in the article. Thirty years of “pastoral” ministry in Australia taught me the essential nature of visitation, if for nothing else to become acquainted with the families on a personal basis, as to their needs across the whole spectrum, many of which will not be known without visiting. I cannot conceive of anyone being able to function as the leader of the flock without some consideration of how the Chief Shepherd functioned, which you seem to have in what we read of your ministry.

    Even though I’m now considered ancient, my own observations lead me to believe there is not enough of the attitude shown in your picture at the head of the article.

    Thank you for an excellent article.

  17. Thanks brother! I hadn’t seen that you had written a Reply article, and I’ve just been writing up one myself. I had read the brother’s article and just couldn’t get my head around it!

    I’m not Scots, by the way, but I am an Aberdeen grad!

    Many blessings.

  18. To David from an American RE. Our sr pastor does not like to visit his flock as I have witnessed first hand. At one point he encouraged all the REs on the session to visit those in our shepherd groups, but over the last two yes has apparently decided this is not a good practice. He hasn’t asked us to stop but has made comments that it wasn’t necessary to go into their homes.
    We just lost our assoc pastor who manged both sides of the coin very well. An excellent preacher and pastor.

    I grew up in the SBC in the south USA. Went off to Baptist college to be a pastor only to realize God had not called me to that. But college opened my eyes to realize I was a certified arminian and didn’t even know it. I eventually became a flaming Calvinist in love with my bible and the great men before me like Spurgeon, Baxter, Llyod Jones, Edwards, Reeder, etc. and found my way into a reformed church.

    I have always held to the belief that the minister is a pastor and preacher period! But it appears in at least American church culture we call preachers and then those who can pastor if we can afford it. I have by Gods grace worked to be a faithful shepherding RE to those in my group as well as others. I have looked to the historical evangelical church as my Brenchmark as how we should seek to “do church”. Never forgeting this church belongs to our Lord and He has given us a gospel imperative to firmly grip the plow and set our eyes on that celestial city and not look back.
    I completely appreciate your post and fully understood all you were addressing. I don’t think you missed any perspective in Rainiers article. I appreciate your warning to those who shepherd over the Lords flock until he returns.

  19. I follow this blog and Thom Rainer’s blog and find them both useful. I also find this debate useful (apart from the comments that have been personal attacks). In some senses both blogs are right but it depends on the context and what is being corrected. A pastor who visits too little could reinforce their confirmation basis by reading Thom’s blog post and a pastor who visits to the neglect of equipping and leading could reinforce their confirmation basis by reading David’s (especially if they didn’t read it carefully or understand that the Free Church of Scotland has a strong equipping culture – which I personally have experienced).

    In the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, quite a number of Ministers have said to me that while no one explicitly says the pastor should do all the visiting (point 1), there is the very strong implicit understanding which is very challenging to overcome. The way it is overcome is to lead and equip the members of the congregation to serve and I know quite a number of Ministers who have done this. Richard Baxter is a great example to follow but I’m not sure if the sort of equipping he did in his visits actually happens much in practice in the context with which I am most familiar. I don’t mean imitating him exactly; I mean actually having a biblical equipping conversation during a visit.

    Thom’s blog post would have benefited from having a few caveats about the type of context he was referring to in which there is an imbalance and also to say he didn’t mean the pastor should not know his congregation. I once briefly attended a very large church in which the pastor had bodyguards and no one could approach him (I’m not joking). But I also think that David didn’t take some of Thom’s points seriously enough in the context they were addressing. In my experience people do leave (point 14) because the pastor majors on visiting and not on leadership and equipping. What Thom should have said was something like ‘visiting too much and neglecting equipping and leadership can cause people to leave’ – and this is especially true of the most committed and enthusiastic Christians who want to be equipped and led rather than passive members with a consumerist attitude to church who expect a visit simply for the therapeutic value it gives them.

    1. These are helpful comments. Thanks.

      I would have had no problem with the blog if it had said the pastor should not visit too much….instead of saying that the Pastor should not be the primary visitor or the headline ‘the pastor should not visit much’….the vital word ‘too’ was missing. That I’m afraid set the tone for the whole article and is why it is dangerous.

      1. Dangerous? A wise man recently told me we should let the Lord judge the tone. 😊

  20. A man I admired once said to me, “All men have feet of clay.” I have since discovered that to be true . I have been dependent throughout the years of being blessed , built up , encouraged , convicted , challenged etc , by those who preached the word . In turn , I have prayed for them . I have never once considered them anything other than men . They have helped me keep my eyes on Jesus , some by visiting , some by preaching and not visiting , but I thank God for them all. Once , while assisting a minister part of my remit was to visit many of the elderly within the congregation . Having been provided with a couple of dozen names and addresses and knowing that each day I had allotted study time , I set off . In my mind I had it broken down to six morning visits a day ( I can hear you all laughing but be patient) in which I would read the word of God and pray for the family . Ok,, most of you will have guessed the outcome . Captured by kindness I would call it , where each host insisted on putting the kettle on and requesting I divulge my life story word for word following their own tales of this minister used to do this and this minister is not as good as the other. By the end of visit two , a washed rag of a student emerged wishing that he was participating on the nearby motorway working a twelve hour shift with Wimpey’s . My guess is that this comment will not help but it may encourage those dependent on their preacher and think that he is so wonderful , to give him a break , and look to Jesus , always !

  21. Bro. David,

    I too, have gleaned great wisdom and interesting insights from Bro. Rainer’s Blog. As a subscriber I regularly consult it and have used it numerous times on my own podcast. As a former pastor, I look back at my pastorates with great fondness and much love. I’m sure Tom meant well, and I too think he is not heretical just badly informed by America’s ‘Walmart/McDonalds’ version of Church. I also felt a gut reaction in first reading the orginal post by Rainer. Maybe it’s the Scotch/Irish heritage I share with you, or maybe just the simple churches I pastored for over 10 years (the hills of West Virginia remind many of the hills of your home, I’m told), but I think I agreed with every point (maybe every joy and tittle) you exposed…and I don’t always do (haha).

    May I also say how much your ministry, Blog, and frequent visits to Unbelievable have blessed me. A little country preacher in the hills of Appalachia has been helped more often than not by your wisdom, insight, and clear thinking.


  22. Thanks, David, for your blog post. Though personal visitation is something I can greatly improve in as part of pastoral ministry, I agree with your post. This is not an “either/or,” but rather a “both/and” issue. How do we equip our people to do something we never do?

    As a bivocational minister who also works as a home health nurse visiting mental health patients full-time thorough the week, I certainly feel the tension that Rainer addressed. However, just as I must do in my day job, the minister must balance and say “no” when he must. We do ourselves no favors as ministers by always complaining about how difficult, time consuming, busy, etc that our pastoral job is, all the while the congregants are wrestling with the business of life, demanding bosses, mandated overtime work, etc.

    Again, thanks for the post! AND, thanks for your ministry. I was at Parkside’s Basics Conference a few years ago, where I first was exposed to your ministry. It was nice and encouraging to hear from a regular everyday pastor of a average-sized church. My soul was blessed as you continued preaching, even when your mic and the electricity went out for a time. It was refreshing to go to such an event, yet be encouraged and instructed by a non-celebrity pastor. Too much of that on this side of the pond!

  23. Having read the initial blog and your response I feel that something’s been lost in translation across the pond, it seems to me like there’s a cultural context/backdrop which isn’t brought out in the article. I had the sense he was speaking more against a consumerist mentality from congregation members than visitation being bad per se.

  24. Thanks for the article David. The Pastor & other elders should exemplify visitation i.e. friendship, fellowship, council, discipleship etc. However, if they (we!) are doing that in isolation, without at the same time cultivating a culture of fellowship & members caring for one another (Titus 2 eg.), it COULD lead to the consumerist mindset that Thom is probably touching on. The Pastor as chief rather than a fellow sinner, saved by grace & called to preach & model the Gospel.

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