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“You came to visit me”

James Pope
Pastor James Pope, executive editor

“I was sick, and you looked after me as part of your congregation’s visitation ministry. I was in prison, and you came to visit me in connection with your congregation’s visitation ministry.” That’s not quite what Jesus said in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, but it’s not that far off. On the Last Day, when Jesus points out the visible proof of saving faith in the hearts of his followers, visiting people will be part of that evidence.

Whether it is individual Christians visiting others in their personal lives or Christians making visits as part of their role in public or member ministry, visiting people with needs is important.

I was reminded of that last year when I received and accepted two limited-length calls to serve two congregations. Among other responsibilities, the call forms directed me to “discharge toward all the members of our congregation the functions of a pastor, that is, to watch over their souls in an evangelical manner (Acts 20:28); in particular to visit the sick and the dying, to admonish indifferent and erring members (2 Timothy 4:2) and to be ever zealous for the winning of souls for Christ’s kingdom.”

A pastor’s overall congregational responsibilities can make visitation ministry challenging. There are sermons to write, worship services to plan, classes to teach, meetings to attend, people to counsel, business to administrate—among other tasks. In addition, there can be service beyond the congregation to local, district, and synodical ministries. Then there is the need for personal and family time. The result is that visitation ministry can sometimes be more of a desire than a reality, and that’s unfortunate.

For some people, visitation ministry provides their only in-person worship service because they are not able to gather in the house of the Lord with their brothers and sisters in the faith. For others, visitation ministry offers a spiritual oasis in challenging times of life. When pastors visit church members, good things happen. Word and sacrament are shared, prayers are offered, relationships deepen, trust grows.

But so many pastoral visits are “crises visits.” What about visits to congregational members prompted simply by a desire to get to know them better and encourage them in the faith? It can be even more challenging to make the time to conduct these visits because there seems to be less urgency in doing so. Yet those visits can go a long way in keeping “the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Some congregations carry out visitation ministry the way they would like because of their staffing: they have more than one pastor or a staff minister. Other congregations meet their visitation ministry needs by training and equipping lay members to assist their called workers. In these times of called worker shortages, the role of lay visitors is even more important.

Many a pastor will tell you that he went on a visit to offer spiritual encouragement to someone and yet he was the one who received encouragement. How can he not be encouraged when seeing Christian faith on display in the solitude of a home, the isolation of a hospital room, or the starkness of a prison? Pastors do not set out on visits to be encouraged, but they are not surprised when that happens. God’s people encourage one another.

“You’re the first pastor ever to visit me,” a lifelong Christian and church member once said to me. That was good and not so good to hear. “You came to visit me.” How remarkable it will be to hear those words from our Savior.

Author: James Pope
Volume 110, Number 03
Issue: March 2023

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