VISITING CHURCH MEMBERS: AT HOME AND IN HOSPITAL
The “Every Member” Visit
Many congregations have a practice of visiting every member annually. Many denominations use this as a canvass to obtain financial pledges. Some Presbyterian churches maintain the tradition of a quarterly visit to distribute communion tokens. The Reformed family of churches uses this visit to provide pastoral care. The visits (referred to as home or family visitation) are made by elders, sometimes accompanied by the pastor.
Even though this manual concentrates on evangelistic visitation, a chapter on member visitation is appropriate. Many such visits are conducted by elders who need training for this work. More important, the skills required in evangelistic visitation are similar to those of member visitation.
Elders sometimes consider home visits a difficult chore, and members look upon it as an annual inquisition. This stems from the home visits of the past, which all too often consisted of elders asking questions designed to measure members’ sanctification. Though the elders meant well, the members saw it as finding fault. Others remember visits in which the elders kept them on pins and needles by socializing at length, only to ask at the end, “Is there anything you wish to say to the church!”
Unless a member requests a visit for a specific purpose, the visit may proceed along the same lines as an evangelistic visit. In fact, elders should be sensitive to the possible need for presenting the gospel if it becomes evident that the members need a new beginning in their faith. Whatever the case, the visit begins with a brief time of general conversation in which the visiting team inquires about the general welfare of the host. The team should remember to inquire about family members who may be absent: children away at college, grandchildren, and so on. Where appropriate, the elders should express appreciation for the member’s contributions and participation in the congregation. Before launching into the general subject of the year’s visitation, it is a good idea to ask, “Is there something in particular you wish to bring up this evening?” This allows the visiting team opportunity to deal with the host’s agenda first. The concerns raised may well take up the remainder of the visit.
If time allows-and in most cases it will-raise the general topic of the year’s visitation. Appropriate topics include
* the devotional life and experience
* the church’s worship
* the work of missions and evangelism
* the use of members’ spiritual gifts
* members’ participation in the ministry of the church
* the church’s educational and disciplining program
* the church’s growth and future direction
* participation in the small-group life of the church
* members’ fellowship and mutual pastoral care
* important issues in the church, such as the formation of a new congregation or the calling of a new minister.
It may be helpful to approach the topic by reading a fitting Scripture passage and giving a brief personal description of your own response to this passage. Conclude the visit with a word of encouragement and prayer.
Dr. Richard De Ridder, professor emeritus at Calvin Theological Seminary, writes about member visitation,
A home visitation may be looked upon as an extension of the pulpit. The general proclamation of the Word from the pulpit is made personal in family visiting. In the family setting, members’ personal spiritual development and needs are of primary concern; here they can be dealt with. It is an indisputable fact that a strong, healthy church is built when office-bearers make the home the focus of their ministry rather than the consistory room. We cannot expect the members of the congregation to place a higher value on this activity than what the office bearers themselves display.
Some suggestions for improving member visitation:
Choose the right elders. Not all are equally qualified. Some must be trained; others need experience. Elders who approach family visiting with a positive attitude are more effective than those who do this as an imposition and burden.
Prepare for the visit. Prayer should always precede the visit. In some congregations the teams meet in the church before setting out. At least convert your automobile into a chapel and seek God’s leading and blessing on the mission you are sent to do.
Have a positive purpose and goal for the visit. You are not commissioned to collect a series of complaints. You are going out as shepherds of the church of God, Be prepared to abandon your agenda if you detect that the family or person being visited has what is for them a more important agenda.
Allow adequate time. Hasty, clock-watching, “we’ve got to go now” visits are seldom effective. But keep as close to your schedule
as possible and provide enough time in each visit to do your task well. Sometimes it will be fruitful and necessary to arrange a return visit in the near future. If possible, do this immediately before concluding the visit.
Know the family you are visiting. Master their names and include everyone, even the children, in the conversation. All Christians need pastoral care, not just those with problems.
Be a good listener. In most aspects of the church’s official work, the members are frequently the listeners (worship, teaching, disciplining, etc.). In home visitation the church has opportunity to listen and learn. Listen long enough before answering; often people say the most important things indirectly. Do not be afraid to admit you do not have all the answers.
When criticism is offered, ask suggestions for change. Avoid being defensive, but be ready to provide information to help the
member. Learn from the criticism.
Phrase questions carefully and positively. You will open the way for a fruitful discussion, for example, by asking, “What do you
find most helpful in your family devotions?” rather than “Do you have family devotions regularly?”
Close the visit with prayer. It is not necessary to pray for all the needs of the church universal at this time. Make your prayer
appropriate to what has happened in the visit. Include all the members of the family by name, if possible.
Consider including the deacons in the visiting team. Although Christian Reformed church order assigns the responsibility of
home visitation to the elders and minister, deacons also have pastoral responsibilities to the congregation. The needs of the poor, the deprived, the disadvantaged, the homeless, and the starving in our world call for stewardship and sharing our wealth. Family visiting is an appropriate time to speak with members about the use of their resources, to challenge them to develop the gift of liberality, and to guide them to become good stewards. An elder/deacon team of visitors is a great combination and an effective way to allow the entire ministry of the church to officially enter the homes of the congregation.
Hospital and Sick Calling
(The following guidelines on pastoral care are taken from an article by Dr, Richard De Ridder.)
The value of pastoral care in sickness can hardly be overestimated. Even though sometimes one finds it difficult to find the time for it, it should be a very high priority with pastors and elders. The following suggestions are made in the hope that this task will bear precious fruit in the lives of those to whom we are called to minister in Christ’s name.
Prepare for the visit. Preparation includes one’s personal spiritual preparation as well as planning what to do. Begin with personal prayer for the Spirit’s presence so that you may be a blessing. This is fundamental to pastoral ministry.
Know what you are called to do and rely on the help you are promised.
If you make a call in a hospital or rest home setting, acquaint yourself with the routine of the institution. Patients need rest, nursing care, treatment, and so on, Respect this. Be courteous, and not demanding to the staff when you make your visit. Don’t play doctor!
Do not neglect the members of the family. At times the family’s concerns are as great as those of the patient. The sick are likewise often concerned about their loved ones. Often the patient will say, “Please pray for my wife or my children. They are having a difficult time adjusting to my being here.” Or “I am concerned about how well my husband is getting along in taking care of himself.” Sometimes it is good to schedule your visit when the family is present. At other times you may want to visit with the patient alone.
Be careful about the length of your stay. You don’t have to be in a hurry, but don’t stay longer than is good for the patient. Persons who are ill often have many visits, and this can be very tiring. Two short visits may be worth more than one long one.
Be prepared to listen. Sometimes it is enough to stand by quietly when persons are very ill; that, more than anything else, may be needed at the moment. Don’t assume that you know what the person needs before you have listened. Be ready to abandon your own agenda at any time. Persons who are ill often wrestle with many problems, and not all of these have to do with their physical condition.
Use only short passages of the Bible if you use the Scriptures. A single verse is often more helpful than a lengthy passage. If possible, use the person’s Bible and leave it open to the verse you use. Read a short and familiar passage, since sick persons have difficulty concentrating. Avoid cliches in your conversation.
Prayer is an important part of pastoral ministry. It does not have to be for “all the needs of Christendom,” but the prayer ought to be appropriate to the circumstances of the person being visited. What does one include in the prayer? The visit and circumstances should determine the content. Discuss the prayer needs with the person if possible, and even with others who may be present. You may often hear as many causes for thanksgiving as petitions. Construct your prayer around these things instead of your own preconceived ideas as to what to pray for. Many times patients are disturbed about the fact that they find prayer and meditation difficult. They are sometimes heavily sedated or so ill that concentration is extremely difficult. Do with and for them what they cannot do for themselves.
Don’t be surprised if the persons you visit may forget only moments later that you were there. When they tell relatives and family, “The minister and elders never visit me,” they are not intentionally lying. To them that is reality, mistaken as it may be, even if you brought them a bit of sunshine. Where you think this may lead to misunderstanding, mention your visit to family members and share your visit with them. The family will appreciate knowing you have seen their loved one.
Be careful what you say in the presence of comatose patients or those who seem to be unaware of what is going on. Assume that the person can hear you and minister to them as though they can. If you must share confidential concerns or information with others, do so out of the patient’s hearing. Keep a record of your visit. Write down what your visit included, including a note or two about what you observed. This will prevent needless repetition in succeeding visits and give directions for later visits.
Visit shut-ins regularly. Agree on a schedule of visits so that a shut-in does not receive two visits close together, followed by a lengthy period without visits. The frequency of visits will vary with the needs, age, mobility, and condition of the member. Adjust the length of the visit also according to circumstances. Because you are expected to visit and welcome when you come, this ministry is joyful and happy for all. Finally, who receives the greatest blessing? Fulfill this ministry faithfully and find your own answer!
The church’s admonition and discipline towards its members involves all the members. The elders of the church, however, must often make difficult visits. The official admonition and discipline of the church does not take place unless self-discipline has broken down and the mutual discipline among members has not proven effective (see Matthew 18:15-17; Galatians 6:1; Colossians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:14, 15; 1 Timothy 5:19, 20).
Sadly enough, in every church there comes a time when a member must be officially admonished and disciplined because of
unrepented sin. Dr. De Ridder writes about the disciplinary call:
Discipline is a ministry and concerns the very heart of a person’s relationship to God. It is therefore pastoral in character and must be done in a pastoral manner, with the purpose of restoring a person to a right relationship with God.
Prayer is essential. We come as God’s ambassadors, through whom God is making his appeal. His invitation and command is “Be reconciled to God!” (2 Corinthians 5:20). When we go in God’s name, it is important to remember that we also need to go in God’s power.
Be prepared to listen, painful and bitter as the conversation may be. If other church members must bear partial responsibility for the person’s attitude and behavior, acknowledge this and seek correction of those faults.
Discipline involves a large measure of skillful counseling designed to restore the sinner through removal of the offense from God’s church. It is sometimes wise to assign this task to office bearers who are especially gifted for this task, while other elders assume greater responsibility for other tasks.
Come with a message of grace and hope. It is not enough to point out the person’s sin or to threaten with punishment. You must also offer God’s free grace of forgiveness and point out the way of reconciliation.
God’s forgiveness must be confirmed through the forgiveness of God’s people to the repentant sinner. The church must extend support of a loving, accepting, forgiving fellowship. These are things the repentant sinner desperately needs in the period of restoration.
Go out in hope. The gospel is good news. The Spirit works though the Word. That Word will not return without accomplishing its purpose. Be honest in speaking the truth in love and bring people God’s full counsel.
Be patient. Healing is process that sometimes takes a long time and requires much prayer and help from others.
Be prepared to follow up. A long interval of inattention to a person in spiritual danger is inexcusable. Equally inexcusable is the attitude that assumes everything is suddenly normal when a person repents. A faithful pastor and elder will keep close contact with the member to minister during the period of reversal of one’s attitude and behavior.
Never give up. Even the extreme judgment involved in excommunication or erasure must be regarded as a means which by God’s grace will lead to repentance. Not a few persons have been restored to full communion with the people of God because a member, friend, pastor, or elder refused to regard this judgment as final.
Set an example in your personal life. “We are all letters of Christ . . . known and ready by everybody” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). We cannot claim perfection for ourselves, but we can show that we are committed to doing God’s will. The ministry of discipline must retain its high priority in the work of the elders. And that includes our own self-discipline as well.