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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thankful for matriarchs, thankful for questions

I am thankful for many things this week. Among them are those of you who are willing to ask your most honest questions and those who are so generous with your experiences and wisdom.

Questions can be e-mailed to

On to the question!

I have been ordained since 1989. Aside from 3 1/2 years spent as a full time mom, very part time pastor, I have been solo pastor of small membership churches (ranging from 45-65 average worship attendance). Not surprisingly, there are many senior adults in these congregations also with homebound and folks in nursing homes.

I don't have any office help except a volunteer who comes in on Fridays to run off the worship bulletin and fold them. Time management has never been my strong suit. Visitation has always been problematic for me. I enjoy visiting folk when I get there, but I find myself "trapped" in the office. Things have gotten worse over the past few years as my husband was experiencing a deteriorating emotional state and our home life descended into chaos. Now he is getting treatment for schizophrenia and active in AA and I feel the need to find a better way to organize and manage visitations.

My question is, how often do you think I should visit folk who are not completely homebound (they go out for dr. visits, hair appointments, maybe even out to eat) but no longer come to church? How about those in nursing homes or assisted living? What about those who attend worship but seem to be getting increasingly frail?

Currently I have about 15 folks either in skilled nursing, assisted living or mostly homebound.

From Jan:
Dear Visitation Pastor,
My heart goes out to you. You sound exhausted and this can't be helping your ministry or your life.

As hard as this might sound, you need to initiate a paradigm shift. Gone are the days when only the clergy visits the homebound or the hospital patients. Gone are the days when the only "minister" is the professional clergy person. It sounds like you are engaged in loving ministry, but you are a pastor in the 21st church and you have much more to do than a man (and it was always a man) who served a congregation as pastor in the 1950s.

Your congregation will balk because it involves change and people hate change. But tell them this:
(not necessarily in this order)
1- You are exhausted and cannot serve them at this pace much longer. You are not God.
2- It's Biblical: the priesthood of all believers, the call of all disciples (followers of Jesus), abundant life -- it's all in there.
3- Their church will die without this shift. Maybe it will take 50 years, but more likely, it will take about 10 years.
4- They are called to serve the living God as surely as you are. And those wonderful, moving moments by the bedside and holding hands in living rooms? They should be blessed with those too.
5- You only job according to Ephesians 4 (the role of pastors) is to equip THEM for ministry. (Yes, there are other tasks you do -- like preach -- because of your special training.)

Have a Come To Jesus Moment with your officers and say, "This will be happening. If you do not want to serve in this capacity, for any reason, that's fine." (I am happy to send you the letter I sent my own officers.)

Train the officers who are ready to follow God's calling. Teach them how to pray with people, how to visit someone in a nursing home. Remind them they they'll be doing this as ambassadors of Christ (not as mere friends) and so, they will be closing visits with prayer (just like the pastor).

They will say:
"What are we paying YOU for?" (you are being paid -- and probably not generously -- for being their pastor.) Again, see Ephesians 4 for the Biblical job description of a pastor.

You will say:
"We are the body of Christ together and I can't be all (or even most of) the body parts."

They will say:
"We don't have time to do this."

You will say:
"We make time for the priorities in our lives. If we are on fire to serve God, nothing will be able to keep us from doing this."

What we (the Matriarchs) say: "Bless you sister."

From Karen:
The answer to this question will vary from congregation to congregation. I'd say you need to get your lay leaders in on this discussion. What are the congregation's ministry priorities? If caring for elderly and homebound members is a high priority, they need to support that with lay volunteers or agree that you will spend your work time doing more of that than something else you could be doing. And if it is a high priority, help them define what "caring for" means. Does everyone get a once a month personal visit? How about once a quarter? Is a phone call okay? On the other hand, if the congregation really wants to reach out to the neighborhood, start new ministries, explore alternative worship styles, etc. it isn't reasonable to also expect that the pastor will be spending half her time visiting shut-ins and doing clerical stuff in the office. Small churches especially need to be clear about their vision and priorities since both staff and lay volunteer time is more limited.

From Abi:
I commend you for what all you have been through and that you have handled everything you have been through and continued to Pastor. Perhaps you have been doing time management your own way and not aware that is what it is.

There are several factors here to be dealt with; Do the church leaders have a clear understanding of the number of people that are homebound or slightly homebound who need visitation? Are they aware of how much more you are having to do in the "office" than before? Have you done a time usage study to be able to show them the facts? Have you asked for more volunteers to "help" either in the office or in the visitation. Our church developed a team to do some of the homebound visitation, which has taken some of the load off the Pastor. We just recently began to add volunteers to help with our office work as well. Many churches are unaware of how much time many things take along with visitation. Home bound visitation often takes more than a brief visit as many of our volunteers have learned and have testified to. I think it is helpful for church members to be aware and to be involved in these ministries of the church, and for the leaders to take ownership in these ministries.

Now having said that, you still have got to do your part as the Pastor. I'll be honest I struggle with the visitation of the homebound and slightly homebound too. But having said that I think this calls for the principle of "working smarter, and not harder." I think your time usage study will help you some with this. Perhaps make a list that prioritizes the homebound persons by need. The church I serve presently would like for me to go at least once a month to see the homebound. But with 15 or more homebound that is a lot of time spent driving, visiting, and recharging. I try to combine places and people with visits. Those who are across town. Those who are in the same facility or apartments. Those who need it more. The other thing about the members visiting is that they are also able to tell me who needs a visit or would like one or who is doing okay right now. And sometimes I will go with one of the members to visit as well. It takes the "heaviness" of the visit off of one person.


  1. Great suggestions. Much to think about and ponder. I just finished my internship and struggled with this precise issue.

    Getting the church itself to learn to care for one another, to practice the ministry of presence, and to know they can and are able to be the church...well maybe we should just throw world peace in at the same time.

  2. This is a great question and the answers were good too. It reminds me of when I told Session that home Communion is not a delivery service in reference to folks who were able to come to the concerts we had on Saturday night, but not worship on Sunday morning.

  3. wondering why someone could get to the hairdressers but not church -

    that said they are still part of your flock - so maybe you could meet them and have your hair done at the same time.

    seriously it all sounds too much ... and good time management would look at why this visit is necessary

  4. I'm not a pastor, but I have been involved in lay pastoral care for years. Specifically in my (Episcopal) tradition, I'm a Lay Eucharistic Visitor, trained and commissioned to take communion to ill or shut-in folks.

    **It means the world to me.** It's also part of my ministry. Tell your folks that surely it's part of one of their ministries.

    My church also has a chaplain training program for people to learn more about regular visiting of the sick and shut-in.

    I realize that I'm in a much larger congregation than you are, and don't know your tradition, but if you had even a couple of people who were willing to step forward as a visitors ministry - with the promise that they would be trained and supported - I think the right people could find it very spiritually enriching.

    And, it's their job.

  5. I have to say, Jan is right on with her suggestions. My questions fit right along with hers, but hers is more direct. Hey Jan will you send that letter to those who ask? I could use it.

  6. I recently accepted a call at a small congregation with several older folks who are unable to attend church. When I was interviewing... I asked for clarification on what the church expected of me as their pastor. The call committee's priority was teaching... preaching... evangelism... youth... not visitation. BUT... they didn't talk with the older folks... before they told me that!

    When I started making the 1st round of visits... I told the older folks... the call committee called me to preach... teach... work with youth and do evangelism. I'm going to visit you... not once a month... or even every other month. But I will visit. Here are my office and home phone numbers... call me if you are sick... or going to the hospital... or if you need to talk. When YOU call... I'll listen... I'm not into the hearing it through the grapevine crap.

    I set their expectations up front... and I have focused on what I was called to focus on. So far... it seems to be working. I think they respect me for being honest about how often I'm going to see them.

    Changing focus... after you have been in a call for a while will be difficult... because you are going to have to change expectations from... doing something they like... to doing something that they don't like.

    Someone commented that you need to check with your elders/council about expectations. I agree 100%. If their expectation is for you to visit... or that things are humming along quite nicely... then the situation probably isn't going to change... no matter what you do.

    It breaks my heart that the church has forgotten how to take care of people... and to know that folks believe that only a pastor can minister to them. The only way that I see this situation changing... is for people like you... and people like me... to see the problem... name the problem... and start doing our jobs differently. I don't profess to know what that looks like... but by George... I'm trying... because I believe that the life of the church depends on some deep rooted changes.

    God's peace be with you on your journey as a pastor.

  7. "not a delivery service .." great line WS. And, Jan, please may I have a copy of that letter?

  8. I too am in a small church of about the same size, and a solo pastor with a family. And with a family there are always needs of one sort or another.

    So. One thing I did was organize a group of parishioners who were trained to do home visits. These visits were to take place once a month or once a quarter depending on the needs of the person - and in some cases once a week or more. It worked really well for the period of time we had a lot of homebound and sick folk. Now we've had none for a year (that's the good news) - but I suspect I will have to start all over with training folks when we reach another peak time of need.

    So. I think it would help if you could somehow determine who really might need a monthly visit and who could do with a quarterly visit. Train folks to help you. Put together a rotating schedule of visits so you get to everyone three or four time a year, more often when the situation calls. If you have 15 people that you personally want to see quaterly, means you need to see about 3-4 people a month. Take out one day a month and devote it to visitations. Or see make one visit a week. Then let your lay folk do the rest. Create a computer file or some means of communication so that folks can say: Visited so and so. Took Communion (or not). Seemed in good spirits (or not). Needs:(nothing? whatever). This way who ever visits next has an idea of what has transpired in the previous visit. ANd if there is anything really critical, the visitor should let you know asap.

    Anyway, that's how I've done it. It works, and the lay folk do enjoy the visiting, it makes them feel important to have such a meaningful ministry - once they've done it a few time.

  9. Oh - and I think all the answers offered by the matriarchs and others are fabulous! I appreciate this question, it helps me too.

  10. Lorna, not for all, but for some, getting it together for morning worship is too hard but a hair appointment can be scheduled for afternoon when their bodies are more functional or they have more time to prepare to go.

  11. Preach it, Jan! For the past 20 years, those in church grown work have been teaching that if a parish is not over 140 sunday attendance that their future is dim. At the same time groups have been touting the greatness of small church. Both are absolutely right on. I believe that there will come a day when most churches will be served by worker clergy and not be able to support fulltime clergy. We need to teach our smaller congregations how to minister to each other to keep the Christian community vital.

    The congregation I am going to (a family sized congregation of about 60 sunday attendance) spent almost 20 years without a permanent pastor. They are a vital congregation but are thirsty to hear the word. I will be part time with them. They know how to support each other in crisis. The have had to help fellow parishioners deal with a flood. The deacons visit regularly. My job is not to get in the way of the ministry that is already going on in the parish.

  12. this may be harsh but if folks can and do get out for other things irregardless of being young or elderly and yet they fail to worship... don't visit. it just is not productive. I may chat with them if I run into them at the game or the postoffice but otherwise spend time with those who want to be involved in community.

    homebound visits... i've had to really work hard at this but set a limit for each visit. Are you staying 20 min? 45? 60? cuz chances are you have more than one visit in a day...

    AND put time on your calendar FOR YOU.

  13. Great question, great answers.

    I am very lucky in that I have a deacon at St Stoic who really enjoys visiting the homebound members, but not so much the sick ones. She gets to the homebound ones about twice a month, I get to them once a month, so they are getting three visits a month. The hospital/rehab center is a different story. That is pretty much my domain, and I'm okay with that.

    I should add that right now we have only three truly homebound members and one who is hospitalized with a recent stroke. Unfortunately, several of our previously homebound members have joined the Church Triumphant in the last two years.

  14. As everyone has said, great question, great answers. I really want to thank the matriarchs for this one.

  15. This was a great question and it has prompted great discussion. Thanks! This is an issue for me, too. Today, for example, I schedule an hour and a half for a nursing home visit where two members live. The first woman I visited so obviously needed my time and attention today that I did not have enough time to travel to the opposite side of campus for the other visit. I hope word doesn't reach Member #2 before I can get back! I find that homebound and nursing home visits are rarely short visits for me. I don't mind the time it takes, but it is draining - on me and on my schedule.

    And Jan, if you are sending out copies of that letter, I'd like one too!

  16. Dear Abi and all -- I'm happy to send the letter tomorrow (from my church computer) to anyone who wants it.


  17. As others have said - great question, great answers. I struggle with this as well, and am also in a church that does not seem to know how to care for its own. Jan, I'd love a copy of your letter as well.

  18. Jan, I'd love a copy of the letter.

    Thank you for this question and the discussion. I have been struggling with the visitation question for the 2 1/2 years I've been in this church. How often to visit and the like.

    I am wearing myself out with all the visiting (several times a month). Most of our members are elderly, some in hospitals, some in nursing homes, some homebound. Everyone wants me visiting. Few are willing to share the load.

    I was speaking to my Clerk of Session last week and she said, "this church just doesn't care about people, does it?" Strong statement, but I have to think it is true. They pay me to visit so that they don't have to! Sad but true. The blue-bloods here are so accustomed to hiring out their needs it just doesn't come on their radar to get in there and do something themselves!

    I like the guidelines for visitation. I'm printing this discussion out so I can begin memorizing and incorporating these ideas into my ministry.

  19. Jan - I'd like a copy of the letter, please!

    Regarding the original question, one thing I would offer is "I'm an expensive secretary." I said this to my congregation president awhile back and behold! things changed.


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