Early into my ministry in the Oklahoma Conference a literature evangelist told me about a lady he had found who wanted to meet a Seventhday Adventist minister. She lived in a small town many miles from my nearest church. As soon as I could I drove over to see her. When I knocked on her door, I heard a feeble voice say, "Come in." As I entered her humble home, I saw her lying on a day bed. When I introduced myself to her, her first words to me were, "Open the bottom drawer of that chest of drawers. I have been listening to the Voice of Prophecy for years and Pastor Richards talked about tithe one day, so I have some tithe to give to you. Please take it, I don't have long to live and I want the church to have it."
I sat down beside her and together we counted it out in fives and tens and once in awhile a twenty dollar bill. It came to a total of $453.00. That was a lot of money back in 1952. It was almost with a sigh of relief that she said, "Oh, I am so glad you came, it has worried me for a long time." I asked her to sign a simple statement that she had given the money to me for the church, so she could have something as a receipt until I could get an official one to her.
We visited for awhile. I learned that her only son had been killed in an accident three years previously. Her husband had died years ago and now she was experiencing poor health and lived alone. I visited her as often as I could, and about three months later, she passed away. We had a simple service for her.
All the sermons in the world would not have brought the peace to her that she needed. That first pastoral visit seemed to bring a sense of closure and peace to her life that she needed. She could now connect a face with the radio messages she had heard and then to return her meager tithe to a cause she loved in the closing days of her life.
Also, early in my ministry, my wife and I had just moved to a new district. I began home visitation the next week. Upon arriving at a farm home of one of our members, I asked where the lady's husband was. She said, "He is out in the field plowing this afternoon but you better not go out, he has told me that he will kill the first 'Advent preacher' that comes on this farm." I left my wife and children with her and I walked out to the field. He saw me coming and stopped the tractor. I stepped up on the draw bar and introduced myself to him. Without a word, he let out the clutch and we moved across the field while I hung on as best I could, my white shirt soaking up that red Oklahoma dust and my necktie fluttered in the wind. Dust swirled around us as the plow shares bit into the dry soil. I did my best to talk to him, asked questions about the farm, crops and so on. At first he wouldn't say a word, but slowly he warmed as he talked about the farm he had inherited from his parents and how satisfied he was to be able "to farm the old home place."
That first visit was followed by others and bonds grew tighter. He always said "Don't expect me to ever come to your church." And I always said, "We are going to be friends no matter whether you do or not." But one Sabbath, without warning, there he was side by side with his wife and son. And then one day he said, "I sure would like to be baptized." And I said, "I sure would like to baptize you." Their son later went to Southwestern Adventist University, (then Southwestern Jr. College) and chose a long career in the ministry as he is still following that profession today. I have often asked myself, "What if I had not made a pastoral visit and walked out into that field and met him on his own turf?"
Permit me one more story. 1 learned one day that the husband of one of our members left his grocery store every Thursday afternoon to go hunt gophers on his little farm. I had tried before to make friends with him. He was always polite to me but in a sort of arms length manner as if to say, "Don't try to get too close to me, Preacher, I like the way I am." So I dug up twenty-five dollars from our meager pastoral budget and bought a .22 rifle and a box of shells. The next Thursday afternoon I drove out to his farm and asked if I could join him in his gopher hunt. He seemed pleased that a preacher would do something like that. We climbed into his old Ford pickup and headed for the field. Soon we were laughing and talking about the shots that we missed and how lucky the gophers were that we weren't any better marksmen than we were.
I don't remember that we killed any gophers that day, but I do remember that we brought an end to the coolness that had previously exhibited itself when I stopped at their store for a visit. I never did baptize him but shortly after that his wife began paying tithe from their earnings at the store. That was something that he would never have permitted at first. I learned later that the pastor who followed me did baptize him after he sold the store and started working at a place where he could have the Sabbath off. I never used the .22 rifle again and sold it later. It had been a good investment.
I don't share these stories with you to boast because I know they are replicated by thousands of pastors as they minister to their people. Countless numbers of you have experiences like this all the time. But I do notice from personal and professional experience that pastors who regularly visit people in their homes are a sort of vanishing breed. As a conference president I heard comments and complaints from members all too often that they seldom see their pastor even in times of emergency. It always brought stress and disappointment to me.
Not long ago I was invited to conduct a funeral for a church member. His family called and asked that I do the service because though their pastor did come by to visit the family on the day the man died, he never offered to help with the service or anything connected with it. He has not contacted the family since. It seemed to the family that the man did not exist in the eyes of the pastor despite the fact that he was a loyal member and had been all his life. He was a successful business man and highly thought of by the community as evidenced by the hundreds and hundreds of people who attended his funeral. It was hard for the son, who is now out of the church, to have a positive image of the church that his parents supported in so many ways for so many years.
I have an email on my desk, dated just a few days ago, from an outstanding evangelist. He told me that he couldn't remember ever having gotten a decision for baptism that hadn't first originated in the home as he visited those interested in the gospel. His wife died a few years ago.
He is retired now and here is what he writes: "I have been retired and living here for three years. I have been in and out of the hospital several times. During those three years I have had one pastoral visit. I have had more non-Adventists interested in my welfare than my own church members. The Catholic Church members have invited me to some of their services, but my own church has dropped me even after I set up a Trust Fund in favor of the elementary school."
He goes on to say, "Today is Communion Day at our church. But I was unable to attend. There have been no phone calls, no visits, and no offer of communion in my home. All of a sudden I am an old man and I became one nobody."
Elder Don Jacobson, former President of the Oregon Conference, connected the dots between pastoral love for our church members and the necessity of personal visitation in the following poem:
"I love to run good programs, Lord,
To see your church advance.
I love to see things move along
With nothing left to chance.
Administration is my thing,
I love to fit the pieces,
To dig into the problems, Lord,
Till all trouble ceases.
I love to make agendas, too,
To do "to do" lists and instructions.
To organize long weeks ahead,
And to clear away obstructions.
I love to get the job done,
To check it off the list,
To delegate and then check up
To make sure nothing's missed.
But, Lord, I sense a problem
In this picture I just painted.
The overall direction's right,
But the emphasis seems tainted.
In my attempt to build your church
With carpet, pews and steeple
Help me to remember, Lord,
I'm here to love your people."
Elders, I plea with you, ring their doorbells and light up their lives. The sick, the grieving, the lonely, the elderly, the domestically challenged would love to see your friendly face and clasp your warm hand.
Jack Harris is serving as President of the Retirees Association, in North American Division.