Pastoral Care in the Church (3)

Our church tradition has long encouraged the ‘home visit’ as a model of pastoral care. According to the original church order (it is changed today): ‘Pastoral Care shall be exercised over all the members of the congregation. The minister of the Word and the elders shall conduct annual home visitation.’ Family or house visitation was when teams of two elders would personally visit the home of a church member or family to discuss the spiritual vitality of their Christian life and the life of the church. A home visit was intended to strengthen the spiritual lives of the congregation, to challenge their worship and witness or service, and to promote and encourage the fellowship or communion of the saints in the church.

The home visit could be very positive and encouraging to both the family and the church — when it was led by gifted Elders, when it was well-received by the members, and when the relationship between church and family was positive. Under these conditions, the home visit had some benefits, such as:
— reminding the family that they were not forgotten, but part of the church
— an opportunity to discuss some concerns in the life of the family or church
— an open line of communication between church leaders and members
— an opportunity for the elder to learn and grow

Unfortunately, often those conditions were not met. For a variety of reasons, the elders were not always gifted, the families were not always receptive, and the church relationship was not positive. Experience and stories convince me that more often than not, the home visits were not beneficial. To me the decline in the practice of home visits in our churches is not primarily due to failure on the part of the elders to do their job. I attribute it to changing times and attitudes in the church and world, and to weaknesses in the model itself.

I am a strong believer in pastoral/discipleship care in the church. Followers of Jesus need to be supported by their leaders and their peers if they are going to grow in their relationship with the Lord and navigate the many challenges and temptations they will face on their journey. Pastoral care is SO important that I refuse to surrender it to inadequate and ineffective models for providing that care. Every time the issue of pastoral care in the church comes up for discussion, home visiting is mentioned as a time-tested method for providing good care for the sheep. I beg to differ. At its best, when most elders practiced it, home visiting still only produced mixed results; at its worse it caused a lot of damage.

Lets face it. The sheep are struggling. The sheep are wandering. The sheep are checking out greener pastures. Or the sheep are just checking out. Churches are facing a serious pastoral care crisis. Elder home visiting is not the solution. We can do better! We need a stronger, deeper, more effective response to this crisis. I do not pretend to have the perfect answer. But trying to resurrect the ‘home visit’ will not help. We need effective pastoral care.

In my previous post I wrote about the qualities of effective pastoral care. How do home visits measure up to these qualities?

1. Effective pastoral care requires spiritual depth. Sometimes those selected for elder do have the spiritual qualifications listed in Acts 6:3,5 (full of the Spirit and wisdom, full of faith). But too often churches have some elders who are ‘good’ people, but lack the spiritual depth and wisdom needed to address the pastoral challenges and concerns being raised today. Sending unspiritual elders out on any visit, even just one visit a year, can be harmful for the sheep.

2. Effective pastoral care requires pastoral gifts. Elders are nominated and selected for many reasons. Some have leadership gifts. Some have been successful in business. Some know the bible really well. Some are known to be caring and sensitive. If all of the elders selected were caring and sensitive, that would be great. But enough of the elders are not to undermine the effectiveness of elders doing home visits. Here again, sending unpastoral elders out on any visit, even just one visit a year, can be harmful for the sheep.

3. Effective pastoral care requires training. Even spiritually deep and wise, caring and sensitive elders need training. The complexity of care needed in the church today requires training in specific listening and caring skills, as well as being educated about the issues. Unfortunately our model of leadership in the church has the elders wearing so many hats that there is no time to invest in this kind of training. The kind of training we are talking about is not just reading a book or watching a video, it also involves mentoring and on-the-job training. Just getting one visit made a year is already a stretch, in light of their other duties and meetings. Adding adequate training would be too much.

4. Effective pastoral care requires trust. There may have been a time in the past when church members trusted their leaders more than they do today. But gone is the day (if it ever was) that people trusted people because they were elders. In order for people to feel safe to share, they need to trust the person they are speaking with. Visiting once a year will not build this trust. In addition, most people with struggles will not feel safe sharing their struggles in front of others, even their own family.

5. Effective pastoral care requires relationship building. Care is expressed through relationships. A relationship, like trust, takes time to develop. People need to get to know you as a person before they will open their heart to you. One visit a year, plus a few other informal conversations, cannot build a relationship where trust and care can flourish. Adding all the other elder duties – plus their own personal and family lives – makes this kind of time for relationship building hard to come by.

6. Effective pastoral care requires continual follow up. Similarly, in order for a visit to grow into a pastoral care relationship, the person visiting needs to follow up soon after to continue the conversation. One conversation cannot uncover the full story. If elders are to effectively extend pastoral care to their districts, they would need to follow up with them at least monthly, though likely more often. A call, a card, an email, a text, then another visit. Following up with others who may be able to help. Advocating or networking on their behalf. This is a lot of work, a lot of time.

We need a model of care in the church that moves beyond the church order definitions of elder and pastoral care. I firmly believe that the elders are responsible for pastoral care in the church. We are responsible, and we will one day have to give an account for how we addressed this crisis. But being responsible for pastoral care does not mean that we are the ones to do it. We are responsible to develop a model where effective pastoral care can develop. It will not happen overnight, or even in a few years. But neither will it happen if we try to resurrect a model that is doomed to fail before it starts.

In my next post I will share some thoughts on developing a more effective model of pastoral care.

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