by Tyler C. Arnold, Syndicated from Christianity Today
So much has changed in this world since COVID-19 reared its ugly head at the beginning of last year. The lasting and unintended consequences of quarantine have resulted in a sharp decrease in church attendance. Some parishioners who’ve stepped away from church involvement may never return. We fear that Sunday morning will forever be negatively affected.
That’s not the only matter of grave concern. The challenge of separation has made it very difficult for pastors to carry out the care of souls. Pastoral visitation—a core part of providing individual soul care—may very well continue to challenge pastors for a long while or may even be forever changed.
But one thing is certain: Even when visitation becomes more difficult, pastors are still called to deliver God’s gifts to sin-sick souls, wherever they may be. Pastoral visitation must be part of the pastor’s primary work for the care of souls. The reason: By definition, pastors are visitors.
In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul writes to pastor Timothy, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (ESV). The office of overseer to which Paul refers is the pastoral office (episkopos); pastors are overseers according to the Bible. However, when the verb form of this noun is used, the activity of the pastor is defined. The verb episkopeo actually means “to visit.”
Visiting is more than just one of the many tasks the pastor does. Visitation is essential pastoral work. The pastoral office embodies the activity of visitation; they are one and the same in function and essence. Simply put, pastors are visitors.
But how can pastors be faithful to their calling as visitors when so much stands in the way of meeting members face to face? While this challenge is magnified by the pandemic, it existed before the current crisis and will continue afterward. Consider the challenges to individual soul care posed by the busy schedules of church members, today’s attitude of screening calls, and the overall mindset that people no longer need to interact one on one. In fact, in my experience, many go the extra mile to avoid close encounters with others—even sometimes with their pastor.
As visitors, we often have to take what we can get. And today, that’s no exception. Amid the difficulties and even downright inability to visit my people, at times I’ve allowed the sting of guilt to fill my heart. I know these challenges are real, but sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not doing the job God has called me to do. The opportunity to come near to those I serve has been stripped away. As time goes on, many feelings come over me. I’ve been angry. I’ve been sad. Sometimes I even begin to feel complacent about it all. I fear this distance and isolation are the new normal. I fear things will never be the same again.
As a pastor, I’ve had to learn to not feel guilty for what I am unable to control. In these extraordinary circumstances, I must simply carry out my vocation as visitor the best I can—and leave the rest to God. After all, the church and my ministry do not belong to me. God is in control, and he remains Lord of the church in good times and in bad. Though there are times I cannot be present with others in the way I desire, God still takes care of those he loves.
Regardless of the circumstances, God is at work through visitors during challenging times and long periods of separation. God is still making use of his valued instruments to bring the gospel of Jesus to the lives of his precious ones. Pastoral visitation still has purpose and meaning even though, in our current circumstances, it may need to be carried out in different or creative ways. Some of these methods may not feel as comfortable or satisfying as under normal circumstances, but these visits are nonetheless critical aspects of ministry. Even when visitation takes on a different form or feels limited, pastors can still carry forth the privilege of engaging in individual soul care in their vocation as visitors.
Even amid today’s challenges, we can aim to keep visiting our people in person—it just may look differently and require greater forethought and caution. Whether it’s wearing masks inside the home or hospital room; talking on the patio, deck, or front porch; or visiting in a park, pastors can still engage with members by actively listening to their stories and needs. In today’s world, time with a church member may be limited. Perhaps we cannot stand as close in proximity. But as visitors, we can take advantage of whatever opportunities we have to be near and, as John Chrysostom described, rely on God’s help to serve as physicians of souls, diagnose each soul’s condition, and apply a remedy based on individual needs and founded upon God’s Word.
No matter where you must stand or how physically distanced you must be, the end of a visit always presents an opportunity to share a blessing before departure. Don’t let the challenges of in-person visitation deter you. Be safe and considerate, but for the sakes of those you serve, continue to be physically present for them as much as you can and deliver God’s life-sustaining gifts. In-person visitation powerfully helps isolated members of the body of Christ feel connected to the greater church community.
Technology has afforded the opportunity for pastors to use video platforms like Zoom or FaceTime to connect with members when in-person contact may not be possible. As we all know well, this doesn’t feel the same as an in-person visit, but God can also use this medium for his purposes. In fact, the video features of these platforms provide a unique opportunity to communicate “face to face” without the covering of masks. Seeing another’s face is an important aspect of providing and receiving individual soul care. Parishioners’ facial expressions can tell the story of fear, concern, or illness. Through our facial expressions, we can, in turn, show how much we care and understand the hardships they face.
I’m learning that, as much as possible, it’s important to make a virtual visit the same as an in-person visit. In other words, if you’d normally use a liturgical formula when you visit in person, keep that the same for the virtual visit. Use Scripture, prayers, and a blessing the same as you otherwise would. Those in our care will draw comfort from the the familiar.
Today’s Challenges Must Not Deter Us
It’s quite an understatement to say that our world’s current condition makes it difficult to carry out effective pastoral visitation. At this time when the church is most in need of pastoral care, the most effective ways to carry out that care are stymied. This can bring despair to the hearts of church members and pastors alike. The church is the embodiment of Christ; Christians are meant to be together in worship and community. When the body of Christ becomes disembodied, the very identity of the church feels compromised.
For me, visitation is more of a challenge today than I have ever experienced in my 21 years of pastoral ministry. However, we pastors must not let pastoral visitation fall by the wayside as an optional or outdated way to provide care to God’s people. We must not let today’s challenges deter us. Pastors are visitors who are called to care for God’s beloved sheep, no matter where they happen to be. This means we go out into the fields to find them. This is difficult work, but we are in this together. And, more importantly, the Lord is at our side.
Tyler C. Arnold is senior pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Platte Woods, Missouri. Portions of this article are adapted from his forthcoming book Pastoral Visitation: For the Care of Souls (2022), which is part of Lexham Press’s Lexham Ministry Guides, edited by Harold L. Senkbeil. Used by permission.