When people are going through difficult times, they often appreciate a visit from a pastor, deacon or Christian friend that offers prayer and support. There are some practical things that a lay person can do to help those visits go better. Unfortunately, no matter how much a pastor or lay person prepares for a visit to a member of the congregation and no matter how experienced a pastor or lay person may be at making such visits, eventually a visit will go poorly. Hopefully, this will not happen often, but it will happen from time to time. How the pastor or lay person responds in these rare, but awkward, moments will determine if the visit escalates into a disastrous situation or not. Visitation disasters take a tremendous amount of time and energy to repair relationally and spiritually, therefore they should be avoided if possible.
In order to avoid the prospect of a poor visit turning into a visitation disaster, consider these practical ideas regarding all ministry visits:
1. Pray before the visit starts. Release the power of the Spirit over the situation. There is great power in prayer before, during and after any visit, but especially in tense situations.
2. Know the situation before you go. This will keep you from walking into a situation that is already tense without being prepared. Sometimes when we are caught off guard by something, we say or do things that we would not have otherwise done. Therefore, make a phone call or ask a couple of questions before going on the visit so everyone feels comfortable with the situation.
3. Phone in advance to state the purpose of the visit so there is no confusion. This might also be done via Facebook or text message if the person being visited uses those methods of communication regularly.
4. Arrive on time. Being early or late creates tension, which sets a negative tone from the outset of the visit.
5. Refuse to be drawn into an argument or gossip session. That is never helpful in a pastoral visit. It can be challenging, especially if the person is really upset about something. But getting into an argument on a visit is a quick route to disaster.
6. Take your Bible and other appropriate literature. If the visit begins to turn negative, open the Bible and read an appropriate passage as a way to stop the flow of negativity. Just as there is power in prayer, there is also power in the Word of God. Do not be afraid to use that power, it is one of our greatest tools in ministry.
7. Take someone with you; it is rarely a good idea to visit alone. This is especially important if you are visiting the home of a person of the opposite sex or a minor. Not only does having a second person along keep everyone involved safe, it also provides an extra set of eyes and ears to be alert to things that may happen in the visit that have the potential to become negative.
8. Accept, but do not expect, hospitality, such as a cup of tea. Otherwise you might offend the person who may have planned in advance to serve something to you. This is especially true in certain cultures, so be mindful of this when visiting an ethnic group for which hospitality is a big part of their culture.
9. Introduce yourself to those present whom you do not know so that you do not come off as rude or aloof. Sometimes we falsely assume that everyone present remembers who we are and that can be awkward as the conversation unfolds and the whole time they are trying to remember our names.
10. Take care of your personal needs before the visit (bathroom, etc.).
11. Be non-judgmental in all situations, but do not imply affirmation of all things. The person being visited may share a story or say something that we find inappropriate. It is fine to re-direct the conversation, but it is not the time for a sermon on what they should or should not say or do. Remember that one purpose for a visit is to learn what is going on in people's lives. If we respond negatively to everything they say, they will quickly shut down and we will not be able to learn much. On the other hand, we do not want them to think that we agree with everything that is said in the visit. We might say something like, "Thank you for sharing your opinion on that issue, it helps me see your perspective, and since I see that issue differently, it is good for me to understand how you feel about it."
12. Know your limitations. Do not intentionally get into situations you are not equipped to handle. Capitalize on your strengths. This is why lay people should work as a team with the pastor and other church leaders. Each person is good at something, so focus on what you are good at.
This material was adapted from the book “Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church.”