Will it Kill your Pastor if he Visits You? A Response to Thom S. Rainer

Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources and has a very popular blog on church life. Having read with approval a number of his other articles, I was surprised to find one that I roundly disagreed with.


And he is serious. He is really not happy with churches which expect to see their pastor in their home any time soon. Unless it’s an emergency. A big one.

So with all due respect, I responded to him on his blog, and will offer much the same thoughts here. (Here is another, very useful, response, by Andrew Roy Croft, who offers a positive argument for pastoral visitation).

To begin with, I thought this was one of those stealth articles that start off, “10 Reasons to Vote the Socialist Ticket,” but turn out to be pro-Republican. But no, I read it through a number of times, and it’s not ironic.

His point is that pastoral visitation a newfangled idea, that there’s altogether too much visitation going on, and it should be slimmed down and (perhaps) limited only to extreme situations. Otherwise pastor visitation is the Zika virus that will kill your church, leave your pastor burned (out) beyond recognition, and make him/her leave! Oh yes he will!!

Don't answer the door! It might be the pastor, and it will lead to him burning out, quitting, and destruction for your church!
Don’t answer the door! It might be the pastor, and it will lead to him burning out, quitting, and apocalyptic destruction for your church!

Pastor Rainer has 15 objections to pastoral visitation, many of which are, upon closer examination, the same reason stated differently. To quote:

  1. It’s unbiblical. 2. It deprives members of their roles and opportunities. 3. It fosters a country club mentality. 4. It turns a church inwardly. 5. It takes away from sermon preparation. 6. It takes away from the pastor’s outward focus (the same as #4, right?) 7. It takes away vital leadership from the pastor. 8. It fosters unhealthy comparisons among the members. 9. It is never enough. 10. It leads to pastoral burnout (see #9). 11. It leads to high pastoral turnover (see #9, 10). 12. It puts a lid on Great Commission growth of the church (see #4, 6). 13. It leads pastors to get their affirmation from the wrong source. 14. It causes biblical church members to leave. 15. It is a sign that the church is dying (see #14). And then later: It’s a key sign of [church] sickness. It’s a clear step toward [congregational] death.

So, it is no exaggeration that his message is that pastoral visitation may even now be killing your church!

Let’s define “pastoral visitation” as, where one or more of the leaders of the church go to where their people are, traditionally but not necessarily in the home, hospital, or long-term care facility, in order to spend time with them and to conduct pastoral ministry (exhortation, encouragement, correction).

Here is part of the response that I wrote on his website, that there were three weaknesses to the argument; I address the author as “you.”

First, the historical. You write that “‘Visitation of the members’ became a common job description of pastors about a century ago.” You imply that it is a recent innovation.

While it may have become more conventional these days to write the thing out in a job description, visitation of the members has been part of the pastoral task since the beginning. In fact, it was a vital aspect of rabbinic ministry, for example: “R. Aqiba went out and expounded, ‘Whoever doesn’t visit the sick is as though he shed blood.’” (Ned 40a, Neusner, vol 10a, p. 110)

The Lord Jesus saw people in homes, not just from the synagogue pulpit. For him, the righteous are renowned for how they visit the sick and the imprisoned (Matt 25:36). Pastors are to do righteousness, ergo righteous pastors too are to be known for how they visit people, including the sick and imprisoned.

James expected that the presbyters (plural) of the church would go to a private home to pray for sick people (James 5:14) and for all Christians to “visit” the poor (1:27; I think “visit” in the ESV is a fair translation; see BDAG). In fact, one of the early titles for church leaders were “overseers” (Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3:1, Titus 1:7). Overseers spend time in the presence of their people, shepherd hang out with the sheep.

Polycarp viewed visitation (not just of the sick) as a vital part of the presbyter’s ministry – “The presbyters, for their part, must be compassionate, merciful to all, turning back those who have gone astray, visiting all the sick [same verb as in James 1:27], not neglecting a widow, orphan, or poor person, but ‘always aiming at what is honorable in the sight of God and of men,’” etc. (Pol. Phil. 6.1)

Justin Martyr reported that in the early church, after communion, the deacons would immediately take the elements to private homes in order to serve the shut-ins. (First Apology 67)

The Parson in Canterbury Tales (14th century England) was no stranger to pastoral visitation:

His parish wide, with houses wide asunder,
He’d never fail in either rain or thunder,
Though sick or vexed, to make his visitations
With those remote, regardless of their stations.
On foot he traveled, in his hand a stave.
This fine example to his sheep he gave:
He always did good works before he taught them. (Prologue 494-495)

Puritan pastors were great visitors (to teach, examine, catechize); see Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor (17th century), who argued that visitation was the principal means for reforming/reviving the church. Spurgeon spent much of his early ministry going from house to house to help people – and to risk infection – during a cholera epidemic. He didn’t just prepare sermons on Jehovah Rapha; he demonstrated God’s care in person.

I might mention that, visitation of the sick was a much more onerous work than it used to be, thus occupying a greater part of the pastor’s week than it does today. And it was pre-antibiotics!

All this to say that, visitation of the sick, shut-ins, and really, all members, has a 2000-year tradition behind it, backed by biblical teaching. While I would concede that social dynamics need to shape how we do visitation (in Baxter’s time, people worked from the home, so the pastor could drop in unannounced and probably catch the whole family at home; try to do that today!), this simply means that we must work through what visitation looks like in our busy lives. Isn’t that how ministry works? = We do the biblical, we figure out how to do it best today.

Second, I seem to detect logical errors, especially non sequitur and Excluded Middles (falsely or unnecessarily framing matters as black or white).

Namely: “It is never enough; it can lead to pastor burnout; (thus) it leads to high pastor turnover; it starts a country club mentality; it kills evangelism.”

This is the Excluded Middle, the notion that it’s got to be black and white, there’s no gray or color. Really, anything can, in theory, siphon attention from other ministries. But my goodness, if a pastor is visiting people so much that he or she cannot evangelize, or pray, or prepare sermons, then this is major structural problem: the solution is not to chuck visitation overboard, but to figure out why it takes up so much time, or how to involve other people in it.

Any element of ministry can become engorged and take energy away from other tasks. The solution is simple: Don’t allow that!

Perhaps you have had an experience far different from mine, or a congregation much larger (or much sicker!), and I cannot judge. However, I can spot faulty logic, and that is what we see here: viz., visitation will destroy your pastor, and is a sign that your church is dying! I can only hope you are not a witness of a church that expired because their pastor went to see them when they were ill, or because he or she shared the Bible with them in their own home! Preaching the Word, after all, does not mean simply giving a sermon, it means one-on-one as well, in whatever venue. This means that pastoral visitation is not mere socializing – which is fine, too – it’s ministry, it’s proclamation.

Using the sort of logic that X is the work of all members, therefore the pastor should not do X much, you could just as easily insert as the value of X – evangelism; counseling; encouraging; teaching (Oh, yes! Because it’s not just the pastor who is the teacher of the flock!); reading the Bible to others; praying with others. All of these are corporate ministries. And if the body is to do them, then the pastor too is to do them.

I cannot imagine how pastoral visitation, as you imply, inevitably leads to making unhealthy comparisons. At the least, I could only suppose that if someone is going to be jealous, then they will find a way to be jealous, even if they merely decide that the preacher is denouncing their sins more than the sins of others.

How does visiting members, as you claim, “take away from leadership”? It is in fact a facet of that same leadership!

If a pastor is “getting his affirmation from pastoral visitation” (as opposed to what? People applauding his/her sermons? People complimenting his/her kids?), then said pastor has a spiritual problem. Suspending visitation will not fix that leader.

Third, a skewed application of Ephesians 4:11-12.

I live and breathe Ephesians 4:11-12; our goal is indeed to “equip his people for works of service.”

But this never meant that one person in each church should simply go into the pulpit and tell people what they should be doing, and period. It was Paul who wrote Ephesians 4, and he taught by inviting people to imitate what he did (a mimetic model of discipleship, see esp. 1 Thess 2). I cannot imagine Paul saying, as you have done, “Well, I am not advocating that pastors never visit people.” I cannot imagine him saying, “Well, my people know my door is always open, they can make an appointment if they need me!” I can imagine him saying, “Junius is sick, Theo, so how about you and I dropping in to pray for him? What?! Have you never done that before? Well, let’s try it, together!” And then Theo knows how to do it the next time someone takes sick.

There exists a type of logic that I see in some writings on family life. It runs thus: if the husband is not leading the family in spiritual things, then the wife should stop teaching the kids, cease praying with them, stop giving them her wisdom, etc., in order to shame the husband into doing right by the Lord and by the family.

I confess I never quite caught this “If you build a vacuum, they will come” argument.

Nor, by the same token, does the pastor get his flock to do visitation by him/herself withdrawing from visitation. He or she encourages them to do so by correctly teaching them, but also, absolutely, by showing them how to do it by personal example. As they used to say in the Army, “Don’t tell a man what to do, show him how to do it.” Active, not passive.

Otherwise, we will have frustrated (and burned out) pastors who keep mounting the pulpit to tell people they aren’t doing it right.

I keep hearing people say what you imply, that “We don’t base our message on what people of the congregation say (that is, when we visit them), but on what the Bible says.” This too turns out to be a false dichotomy – it is based on the notion that the apostles secluded themselves to study the Bible and then came forth to speak only to mass groups of hundreds or thousands. The early church would not have been able to recognize a ministry model where a pastor retires into an office and reappears to teach on Sunday. The apostles were public people, not secluded. Apostles grappled, they interacted. When the apostles appointed the Seven to handle the daily distribution, so that they could dedicate themselves to the preaching of the word (Acts 6:2, 4), they meant, proclaiming the message to crowds and to small groups and to individuals and in private homes. It’s all good!

There are pastors who are people persons and prefer visitation to study and might skimp on the hard work of sermon preparation; there are others who are “all about the exegesis,” and truth be told, might hole themselves in their office. Both personality types need to fight, with the Spirit, to excel in the areas they don’t naturally thrive in. If a pastor preaches poorly, he or she should improve. Same with pastoral visitation – if it doesn’t do what it should be doing, it’s your duty to get busy fixing it!

A personal aside, since I’m now a professor rather than a pastor. But, when I was a pastor/elder I typically would set aside a whole evening a week, to try to visit one or two families; so did the other elders (two teams of two elders). And if memory serves, I would take non-elders to the hospital to visit the sick. We trained people to do the work of ministry. One winter weekend, about 3/4 of our kids were sick with the flu. Saturday, first thing, I landed in the local Christian bookstore and loaded up a big sack  with games and books, then I visited every single kid, and told them that I was their pastor, too. Visitation left me blessed, I was allowed to minister to many, and I did not find that it crippled me emotionally or left me burnt out. I made very sure that I had all the space I needed – which is always a lot! – to prep my expository sermon, with lots of time for original languages.

Again, thanks for your writings, and many blessings to you in your work. Gary

“Will it Kill your Pastor if he Visits? A Response to Thom S. Rainer,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, San José, Costa Rica

7 thoughts on “Will it Kill your Pastor if he Visits You? A Response to Thom S. Rainer

  1. What a good post Gary. I think “balance” describes your article. Even a pastor with 31 years of experience like me, can continue learning.

  2. Gary, this is simply superb. I confess that I have not taken the time to read Thom’s blog on the topic. But I think your approach is both historically and logically sound and demonstrates pastoral insight.

    I do not want to paint Thom with the brush of this next comment. But so much of the shaping of pastors in North American contexts these days seem bent on (a) inculcating in the pastor developing heightened self-preservation instincts, and (b) deploying management logic with little introspection or biblical reflection about the fact that management logic and ‘best practices’ (a highly loaded term) are both culturally conditioned and too often situationally unaware complexes of thought and practice.

    Thanks for this good post.

    1. Thanks Dave, appreciate it! I especially like your phrase about “biblical reflection.” On the one hand are people who don’t want to take the Bible as normative; but on the other, there are those who demand “Show me a verse where it says _____!” The Bible deserves better from all of us.

  3. Very good article. Years ago, our pastor invited a family to his house every Sunday, it took a few years, but everyone in the church had that special time with his family. Currently, our church is tiny, but there is no community. I know he visits those in hospitals, I assume he visits the elderly. But, he socializes with just a few people. It would be nice if he wanted to spend time with all of us and the church is small enough to do so.

    1. Hi Janice! (Is it Janice S.?), Many blessings to you. There are large churches with good pastoral oversight (although with many people, it’s more complex). And there are tiny churches without much. It’s a question of the will!

      1. Yes, it’s me! Church is making me sad these days, not sure if God wants me to stay and pray, or if He can use me elsewhere.

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