The Pastor as Chief Visitor – An Answer to Thomas Rainer

I would plead with pastors – get to know your flock! Visit them. It is part of the job description. Be a good undershepherd of Jesus Christ.

Visiting your congregation does not hinder evangelism, it enables evangelism.  A pastor is required to feed the sheep so that they can be equipped for works of service including evangelism.  The best evangelism is church based.  That means the people of God living out their lives for God in the community and pointing people to Christ….evangelism includes but is not primarily evangelistic events at the church, media broadcasts or outreach events in the community….Pastoral visitation is as essential to enabling and equipping that as preaching.


Thomas Rainer’s blog is one of the most read in the US Christian world.  I am a subscriber and often find what he writes interesting and informative. Yesterday however something he wrote recently caught the eye  – it was provocatively entitled 15 Reasons why your Pastor should not visit much   I read it and it set a whole chain of thoughts going in my head.  And then I noticed that some friends were liking it and passing it on.  This disturbed me.  Why?

It contains several valid points which we need to reflect on. We do need to be aware of the danger of over expectation of congregations and over visiting – although that is not a problem I hear a lot about. But the more I read the blog – and I have gone through it several times trying to work out why I had such an increasingly negative reaction – the more concerned I became.  It is precisely because it contains these valid points that it is one of the most harmful and destructive posts for any minister to read, or any church to practice.   Error mixed with truth is always more pervasive.

A little background for those who are not familiar with Thom Rainer. A former banker who became a Baptist minister in 1982, he served at churches in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Indiana before becoming a lecturer at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1994.   From 1990 to 2005 he led his own church consultancy company, the Rainer Group. He is the president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, and author of one of the most popular Christian blogs in the US. I am a subscriber and often benefit from what I read.

As I am responding to the blog I would suggest you read it first – click the above link. I know that the perception is that the polite and nice Christian thing to do would be just to write a positive article about why pastoral visiting is important and not to critique a Christian brother (which Rainer is), but I think it is more constructive to interact with what the blog says and see what we can learn from it.

A caveat – Rainer’s blog is obviously written from the culture and perspective of the American church, which is clearly not mine and so I may be missing some nuances. American friends please feel free to enlighten me! However evangelical globalisation and the power, money and resources of the US church means that what happens in the US will soon drift over here.

Another caveat – disagreeing with this does not mean that I consider Rainer to be a heretic or that there is not much of value in his writings.  Hopefully this is an iron sharpens iron moment…if this wounds then I hope it is the wounds of a friend!

The blog begins really badly –

“Visitation of the members” became a common job description of pastors about a century ago. It’s a bad sign.

It is indeed a bad sign when someone begins an article with a sweeping historical statement which is demonstrably false!  It may be (but I doubt it) that Southern Baptist pastors were not expected to visit the members until the beginning of the 20th Century, but in most of the rest of the world it has been a key part of the job description.  Read Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor for a puritan example of what is expected!

Rainer then goes on to make the bold statement:  The truth is: Your pastor shouldn’t visit much, before giving us 15 reasons why this is The Truth.  Lets examine them.

  1. It’s unbiblical. Ephesians 4:12 says that pastors are to train the saints or believers to do the work of the ministry. It does not say pastors are to do all the work of ministry.  This is a strawman argument.  No-one is arguing that pastoral visitation means the pastors are doing all the work of ministry.  It is a bad sign when you have to make your case by arguing against what no-one is saying!
  2. It deprives members of their roles and opportunities.– No only strawman (see above) but illogical.  Because I visit someone does not mean that others cannot, or should not visit them.  Anymore than because I preach, others can’t teach the bible, or because I give financially, others can’t give.
  3. It fosters a country club mentality. This may be a particularly American problem, but I don’t really understand why a pastor visiting his congregation necessarily encourages that mentality.  Indeed is it not the case that the country club mentality could be more encouraged by pastors NOT visiting.  A country club is after all something that you go to, where you receive what you have paid for and join with the select few who can also afford the fees.  You don’t expect the servants to come out and visit you at home!   There are Christians who like the idea of church being something that they go to, where they pay their money to have a nice building, a good youth ministry, others who do mercy ministries and a pastor who preaches ‘good, faithful’ sermons.  And then they can go home and get on with their ‘real’ lives.   The pastor visiting is a reminder that you don’t go to church, you are the church.
  4. It turns a church inwardly. The members are asking what the pastor is doing for them, rather than asking how they can serve others through the church.  Again this is not necessarily so.  Good pastoral visitation will encourage members to serve in the church and not act as a substitute for it.
  5. It takes away from sermon preparation. This could be the case.  But like all the other points the attribution of cause and effect is wrong.  In the words of the song, it ain’t necessarily so!   Of course there are those who get the balance wrong and spend so much time visiting that they don’t have time to prepare properly.  But its a phenomena I have come across rarely.  There are many other things a pastor does which takes away time from sermon preparation.  And why set these up as rivals?  I regard my visitation as part of my sermon preparation, because on the Lord’s Day I am preaching the Word of God to a flock of God’s people, not giving a lecture to a bunch of sermon tasters.  If I want to be a good undershepherd then I need to know the sheep and that comes out of personal interaction, not a book, nor a communications seminar!
  6. It takes away from the pastor’s outward focus. I suppose this could be true if the pastor only visited members of the church for a cup of tea and a nice wee chat about their bunions, children and latest holiday.  But any real pastoral visit is going to encourage people in the community because Christians don’t (or shouldn’t) live in isolation from the non-Christians around.  I have been in many homes where the phrase has been uttered, ‘this is our minister’ and a conversation ensured.  People who would never come to church are introduced to the pastor.  Besides which Rainer is again setting up a false dichotomy – its not a case of either visit the members or visit the wider community.  Why not do both?
  7. It takes away vital leadership from the pastor. How can we expect pastors to lead if we give them no time to lead since they are visiting members? Bad arguments always use exaggeration.  Who is arguing that pastors never lead because they are so busy visiting members?  When did you last here of a minister who refused to attend an elders meeting, or leaders bible study because he was too busy visiting (although the temptation can sometimes be there!)?   Rainer is taking an extreme example and applying it as a general principle.  That’s always bad practice.  The truth is that we are not the kind of modern political leaders who send soldiers out to war whilst they pontificate from their safe war rooms about what they should be doing.  We are more like David and Saul who as I read this morning in 1 Samuel 26, slept on the ground with their fellow soldiers, with their spear in the ground beside them!   Visiting is leading! Leaders visit.   On this question of time.  If we spent less time in front of our computer screens, less time attending conferences and reading how to pastor books, we might have a bit more time for actually pastoring them (yes – I am looking in the mirror!).  Which again is not to say that such books and conferences are not of some (limited) value, but that there is something wrong if we are always talking about doing, and never doing.
  8. It fosters unhealthy comparisons among the members. “The pastor visited the Smiths twice this month, but he only visited me once.”  This is one that didn’t make any sense to me at all (it may be cultural, so if any of my American friends are reading this can you please explain to me why this is relevant?).   How would other members know who is being visited when and where?  And why would they care?  Are they really that immature?  And if you are going to operate on that low opinion of your congregation and the fear that this implies then you will have to apply it across the board.  You can’t invite members round to your house, or speak to people after the service, or write personal letters because it ‘fosters unhealthy comparisons among the members’.
  9. It is never enough.  As the great philosopher Homer would say ‘ Duh!’. This reason is a truism which can be applied to anything the pastor does.  Sermon preparation is never enough.  Leadership is never enough.  Writing is never enough.  Prayer is never enough.  Love is never enough.   A pastor is supposed to be a leader who is mature enough to take the criticisms and unrealistic expectations of the immature and lead them by word and example into a better understanding.  The fear of never doing enough, is never a reason for doing nothing!
  10. It leads to pastoral burnout.  Again it ain’t necessarily so.  Yes if you are driven by a people pleasing, slave and fear mentality.  Of course it will lead to pastoral burnout because you will be running round like a headless chicken piling up more stress, work and misery for yourself.   But the same applies to preaching, studying, leading and other duties of the pastor.  Why does Rainer pick on this one?  His advice is really bad because it also works the other way.  A pastor who does not receive regular stimulus, insight and care from visiting his congregation is much more likely to burn out. Hours in front of a screen, endless attending of meetings and continual ‘conference training’ are far more likely to lead to burn out, than sitting having fellowship with members of your congregation.
  11. It leads to high pastoral turnover. Burnout leads to pastoral turnover. Short-term pastorates are not healthy for churches.  I suspect that Mr Rainer is speaking from personal experience and I can empathise and to some extent agree.  But it’s not visitation that leads to burnout and short term pastorates.  It’s bad visitation.  Indeed it’s bad anything.  Preaching, salary, personal skills, elders, health, etc.
  12. It puts a lid on Great Commission growth of the church. I think at this point Rainer has fallen into the trap of those who rely on the ‘ten things to do when..’ or ‘five reasons why..’ mentality.  Having reached 11 he needs to get to a nice round number and so he is just repeating himself.  Maybe I’m being unfair, but how else can you explain this non-sense?!   Visiting your congregation does not hinder evangelism, it enables evangelism.  A pastor is required to feed the sheep so that they can be equipped for works of service including evangelism.  The best evangelism is church based.  That means the people of God living out their lives for God in the community and pointing people to Christ….evangelism includes but is not primarily evangelistic events at the church, media broadcasts or outreach events in the community.  It is the people of God living such good lives among the pagans that they glorify our Father in heaven and seek him.  Pastoral visitation is as essential to enabling and equipping that as preaching.
  13. It leads pastors to get their affirmation from the wrong source. They become people-pleasers instead of God-pleasers.  I’m sorry that I have to repeat the message (but good preaching always repeats!) – but it ain’t necessarily so.  And again it applies to everything else the pastor does.  People pleasing can be applied to anything – unless you are the Van Morrison type of Pastor.  For the uncultured Van Morrison is the wonderful Irish singer who infamously doesn’t care a hoot for his audience – he just does the singing.  I admit there are some preachers who are like entertainers or spiritual dictators and don’t care a hoot for their congregations, but I would not call them pastors!   If we are going to be pastors then we need to get our affirmation from Christ, not from anyone or anything else! However again Rainer is in danger of discouraging pastors from receiving great blessing.  Christ uses means. Christ usually uses his people.  I know that sometimes I have been discouraged by Christians within my congregation, but far more times the opposite is the case.  Let me give one example.  This week I cycled to a farm outside the city to visit a couple in the congregation.  Apart from the tonic to my health in terms of the exercise, I also received a tonic to my spiritual health, as we talked and shared together, rejoicing in the goodness of God. It was sermon preparation because I learned things I needed to, and it also didn’t hinder other members of the congregation!  Indeed while I was there another lady drove out to visit the same family.  I left feeling greatly affirmed in the work of the ministry and encouraged by the church – and I don’t think that was the wrong source.
  14. It causes biblical church members to leave.Many of the best church members will leave because they know the church is not supposed to operate in this manner. The church thus becomes weaker.  This one stunned me.  I have never heard of anyone leaving a church because the minister visits too much!  But apparently in the US many of the best church members do.  I really have nothing to say about this because I have never experienced it. Still if you want an excuse to leave a church I suppose this one will do!   Actually come to think about it I remember receiving a comment that ‘David always speaks to strangers in the church’.  This was an actual complaint.  To which I pleaded mea culpa!  Of course I speak to strangers – pastoral visits of the congregation are not best done as people exit the building on a Sunday morning or evening.  They are best done during the week.  I think it’s always good to visit people in their homes (to see their context) but also to meet for coffee, in cafes, the manse or the church.
  15. It is a sign that the church is dying. The two most common comments of a dying church: “We never done it that way before,” and “Why didn’t the pastor visit me?”  I wish that Rainer had stuck to the ten or eleven, because now each point is getting increasingly desperate!  Pastoral visitation is a sign that the church is dying?! In that case I know a lot of healthy living churches!  Look ,we can all invent truisms about a dying church…what if I said the most common comments of a dying church are “lets change to keep up with the culture”, “the preaching does not feed my soul’, “let’s do Latte church”, “we don’t have enough preaching/singing/prayer/community/doughnuts”! ? The point about truisms is that there is always an element of truth in them.

The pervasive mentality in many churches is the pastor is the chief visitor in the church.

It’s a key sign of sickness.

It’s a clear step toward death.

This is at best hyperbolic exaggeration.  At worst it is destructive and harmful advice, that I hope on reflection Thomas Rainer will retract.   It is not a pervasive mentality.  It is not a key sign of sickness.  It is not a clear step towards death. If you are going to have a biblical church then the pastor will be the chief visitor in the church.  He won’t be the only visitor, as he won’t be the only elder.  He will need to have a balance and ensure that sermon preparation, evangelism, study, prayer and leadership are included in his work.  But he will not neglect pastoral visitation.  He has the privilege of being paid to do it! By definition he will have more time than most of his working elders (which does not mean they should not visit, it just means they have less time).  He is an undershepherd who follows the chief shepherd. The shepherd knows his sheep, and his sheep know him.  And you can’t know the sheep through Facebook, twitter, blogs, leaders meetings, conferences, reading or even phone calls.  We need a face to face, embodied pastoral ministry that goes to the people, where they are. Any pastor who follows the incarnate Christ will want to have an incarnational ministry – that meets meeting with the smelly, dirty, stubborn, unruly sheep.  And being blessed by them.  We are not CEOs.  We are not corporate managers.  We are not lecturers.  We are not politicians.  We are not administrators of organisations. We are shepherds.  We are pastors.  Therefore we pastor.

I am thankful for Rainer’s blog in that it has made me think more about one of the key areas of weakness in my own ministry.  I know that my pastoral visitation is not what it should be and it is something I am trying to remedy.  A little guilt is not a bad thing!   Because of wider ministry I am not able to do as much of pastoral visitation as I would like.  But I still regard it as essential to the work of the minister.  The hospitality we (mainly Annabel!) offer in our own home is as key to the work of the ministry here as the preaching.  I just need to visit people in their own homes a bit more!   I know that as the congregation continues to grow pastoral visitation becomes more difficult (we need more pastors!) but it is still as essential.

A number of years ago I was asked by an evangelical organisation to go full time in an evangelistic/apologetic ministry because of the work we were doing which does reach out to the wider community and into the secular media.  It took me about five seconds to say no and then two hours to explain why.  I love evangelism and I believe that I am called to proclaim the gospel in the wider community.  But I am totally convinced that the best evangelism is done through the local church and that the crying need of the hour is more biblical, Christ-centred, loving and radical churches.  For me to leave the pastoral ministry and set up a separate ‘ ministry’ or any kind of evangelistic outreach to tell people how to do it, and not do it myself would be wrong.  For me.  I fully accept that there are others who have that calling and one day I may yet do that (I have learned never to anticipate the Lord and tell him what he can and cannot do!). But I know that I am called to the pastoral ministry and to be part of a church which reaches out.  As I told my elders, the day that the sign ‘David Robertson ministries’ appears above my door, is the time for them to take me out and shoot me! And the day that St Peters stops reaching out is the day my resignation is in the post!

I love the local church.  It is my joy and crown.  Last Sunday Sinclair Ferguson preached this stunning sermon which sums up my feelings exactly – you can get it Here – (look for the one on Philippians 1 entitled Pastor and People).  It is the perfect antidote to Rainer’s ill advised blog.   As I listened to it (whilst cycling to visit someone!) I couldn’t help but punch the air and shout ‘yes’… (I’m sure some of the people who saw me thought I was listening to a football match and my team had just scored!   Yes. Yes. Yes.  My joy and crown is St Peters – not the building but the people.  Not the organisation, but the fellowship.  To visit them is a pleasure and a joy.  There are sorrows and pains.  But that is life.  And that is the Christian life.  Its better to be down in the mud rather than sitting on an ivory tower.  It’s in the mud that we find the jewels.

I leave you with one example.  Last week I was asked to visit a home in our congregation to meet with a young girl who wanted to profess her faith in Christ.  I had the most lovely time with her and was so encouraged as she spoke in front of her father about her faith in Christ.  13 years ago she was baptised in St Peters.  Last Sunday she became a communicant member (along with three others).  It was a precious and beautiful moment.  I (and I believe the communion service) was much the richer for having had the privilege of visiting her beforehand.    Whatever else I would plead with pastors – get to know your flock!  Visit them.  It is part of the job description. Be a good undershepherd of Jesus Christ.

P.S. Of course this is not the last word on the subject – we need to think about what we mean by ‘visit’, what pastoral visitation constitutes, how we do so in the 21st Century world etc….in other words there is a lot more that could be said but I will leave it to others as I have to go (and do a visit!).

David Robertson is the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. He’s also the minister of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee and director of Solas the Centre for Public Christianity. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.