I recently rediscovered the power of a visit when I heard how a non-attending friend was reclaimed to the church through the initiative of a caring pastor. Expanding on this concept of pastoral visitation, I encourage you to implement the following concepts:
Prioritize time for visitation. If you fail to plan, you probably won't visit. Some chance encounters can have an impact, but intentionally scheduling blocks of time allows you to target who you should visit and organize a systematic approach.
Visit by appointment. Demonstrate the value you place on time both for yourself and those you visit by establishing an advance schedule. Although some people welcome "drop-in" guests at any moment, most prefer notice. Also, when people know you will be visiting, the Holy Spirit can prepare their minds for spiritual discussions.
Keep it short! Like sermons, pastoral visits need not be everlasting to make an eternal impact. Jesus' own interaction with people demonstrates how much can be accomplished during short encounters.
Don't visit alone. For your own protection, always take a visitation partner. "Two-by-two" is Jesus' plan. Request a mature member to serve as your visitation partner. If you enter a home unaccompanied, your reputation is at risk from what someone might claim happened. False accusations are nearly impossible when two go together.
Find assistance. Pastors cannot and should not do all parish visitation by themselves. Give specific responsibility to the elders for visitation. Pastors, train your elders by having them accompany you, and then empower each one to find his or her own visitation partner and to accept responsibility for nurturing an assigned group of congregants and potential members.
Expand the pastoral staff. Teach members that a visit from their assigned elder constitutes a pastoral visit. Provide each elder with the pastor's own business cards and ask them to begin each visit as the delegated representative of the church—an extension of pastoral care. The elder can say, "Our pastor asked me to visit and pray with you."
Go with an "apparent agenda." Give a Bible tract, an encouraging booklet, a copy of the church bulletin, or a study guide to each person. This establishes that your visit is intentional, not casual, and immediately focuses the conversation on spiritual matters. Elders should begin each visit by presenting the pastor's card and the "apparent agenda" gift. "Our pastor requested that I bring you this tract."
State your specific purpose. After setting a spiritual framework with your "apparent agenda," move directly to your specific reason for coming by asking an open-ended question which cannot be answered with "yes" or "no." For example, "How do you feel about your relationship with God at this time in your life?" or "What have you observed in our church that encourages your faith or causes challenges for you?"
Ask questions about specific needs. To an inactive or non-attending member: "How can your church better serve your needs?" To those who should be involved in church activities: "What areas of service for Christ would interest you if you received training to accomplish the task?" To those who have influence in the community: "Who could you introduce to me so that I might invite them to our church services?" To those who know a lot of people: "What special events, to which you would invite your friends, would you help us plan and implement?"
Meet special needs. For those who are grieving: "Please tell me the story of your loved one's impact on your own life." To those who are sick, "How can I pray for you to assure you of God's love, forgiveness, and promises?" To the elderly: "Tell me how Cod has led you and what provides you assurance of His value for you personally?" To parents: "What would you like me to pray for concerning your children?" To volunteers or leaders: "I want to praise God in appreciation for the contribution you make to His cause."
Respect confidentiality. Never gossip about information you receive. However, never promise confidentiality to those who victimize others with physical, emotional, or sexual violence and abuse. In fact, in most jurisdictions, clergy and laity leaders are legally required to report any knowledge or suspicion of sexual violation of children or teens. Never fail to follow your professional, ethical, moral, and legal responsibility to protect the innocent from predators.
Enjoy social events. Every person needs to relax and enjoy festive occasions such as parties, weddings, luncheons, and birthday or anniversary celebrations where you will likely meet new and interesting individuals. Pleasant conversation can be followed with your business card or a brief note of encouragement as an excellent way to initiate a new relationship. Remain observant for those who would welcome the opportunity to visit with you further.
James A. Cress, General Conference Ministerial Association Secretary