What exactly is ‘pastoral visiting’ supposed to achieve?
Recently our Session has become concerned that Pastoral Visiting has become more and more difficult to maintain as those who do the visiting are reaching an age where more and more of them are unable to do it. We are a church with a bulging population in the 70 plus bracket and another growing group in the youth and family age bracket. It makes the current system of pastoral visiting look less and less viable.
If we ask what alternatives there might be we are forced to think about what pastoral visiting is intended to achieve (friendship, safety-net, mentoring, mutual encouragement – are words that spring to mind that might apply to any group not necessarily a church). The origin of the words is not of much help. ‘Pastoral’ simply means ‘pertaining to shepherds or herders’ and refers back to Jesus and the church’s use of the metaphor of the flock and its shepherd to refer to the community of disciples (and to himself). The first evolution of this idea was no doubt the transfer of the term ‘shepherd’ to church leaders (‘pastors’ being one of the terms used for such leaders) and thus pastoral work came to refer to what clergy do in relation to the ‘flock’. This is an enormous change, since, of course, no church leader can do for the flock what Jesus does! In the Presbyterian part of the Protestant tradition there was a renewal of interest in the ‘priesthood of all believers’ and in the tradition of ‘multiple elders’ in the early church. In this tradition ‘pastoral’ work became the responsibility of those elders (including a teaching elder, sometimes call the Minister of Word and Sacrament).
However the question of ‘who does it’ and ‘what purpose it serves’ are hard to separate out. Better to begin with the question of what the ‘flock’ actually is before we can really understand what a system of regular visiting might achieve, who should do it, and what might replace it.
There is no non-theological way of describing this flock. The defining thing about this flock is not what we do but the fact that God is at work on us. We are a community of disciples of Jesus who understand ourselves as caught up in God’s work to create human beings and humanity itself in the image of Christ. We have been visited and are visited by the mission of the Holy Trinity to the world and are now part of that mission. We exist because of God’s pastoral visiting. What God is doing in us and among us is for the whole world, but it is also changing us as a community so that we, on occasions, resemble in our own life together (in an oblique and limited manner) the life of God in the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is a kind of advance guard of the kingdom of God. Unless we locate things in this broader picture ‘visiting’ is not exactly a theological term.
Neither is ‘Leader’ or ‘Pastor’ inherently theological. What is clear is that the community gathers to worship God by attending to Jesus Christ while waiting upon the Holy Spirit. They do not gather to be led by anyone other than Jesus. Pastors and Ministers assist the community in the business of listening and obeying. We are constituted as we listen. And any so-called leaders are there to serve the listening and obeying process.
So, ultimately I think it comes down to this question, if some of us are going to visit others of us in our homes (or over the phone, or on facebook or skype?) on an ordered and structured basis, how will that help us be a community of listening and obeying centred on Jesus the pastor of the new humanity?