Visitation Is Still Our Vocation

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.

In-Person Visitation

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.

Virtual Visitation

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.


1 thought on “Visitation Is Still Our Vocation”

  1. Hello Everyone,

    I live in Jonesboro, GA which for some may consider as a suburb of Atlanta, GA. However, Atlanta does not have suburbs, it has instead Metro Atlanta and its surrounding cities. We are a diverse and cultural city embedded in the northern part of Georgia. Atlanta is oftentimes considered the New York of the south. There is quite a bit of hustle and bustle, but the city does seem to move slower after 11 PM. However, after 11 PM, there is a different type of culture that exists here. Atlanta is considered the hub for human sex trafficking within the USA in particular, our Airport, which has been deemed to be where a lot of that activity is initiated.  It has been statistically shown that large corporations will have their conventions here and it parallels with the spikes involving human sex trafficking and associated activities i.e. drugs!  Although, different cities seems to have problems unique to their particular locale, this is what Atlanta and its surrounding cities are known for. This is part of the challenge that we as ministers, pastors and all those who belong to the body of Christ, should be aware of and develop outreaches that addresses those situations: i.e. human sex trafficking; homelessness/tent cities under the bridges and, the drug culture. We have been used to going to the churches and preaching to the choir, but there was no outreach, only in-reach! Now, that we are in a season of pandemic with Covid19, we are having to find new and innovative ways to reach people even our own existing congregations. Social media such as FB and other platforms is great for those who have access to the internet. What about those who do not have access? Who do not have phones to even call for help? What do we do? God is asking and positioning us for a great work out in the fields. Maybe I am old school because I remember when the faithful would walk the streets and knock from door to door to reach those some considered unreachable. My prayer is that we find ways to reach the so called unreachable and that God places upon our hearts a spirit to tap into those who have absolutely nothing to give but themselves. To have a spirit of discipleship to those who have no education, no money, no high end cars and possibly no shelter even in the midst of the pandemic. We who believe stand in the gap for those who do not know HIM from the pardon of their sins! And, I thank HIM our God and matchless savior Jesus Christ in advance for the solutions and breakthroughs that have come and are yet to come! I have been in outreach ministry for over 20 years! I have a  MA in MFT:Human Services from Liberty University (Marriage & Family Therapeutic Counseling) . I perform both wedding and funeral officiant services. I was a former choir director for several churches for over 15 years. I am the Pastor/Minister/CEO of Tree of Life Ministries & Reentry Services of Hapeville, GA for 12 years. Please join us in our daily prayer line 720-650-3030 ext#03330333. We also have a prayer wall on FB for those who desire to pray and present their petitions to the Lord with our prayer partners. 

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