by Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison
“A home going pastor makes a church going people.” Those words of Dr. Robert Preus at the Fort Wayne seminary stuck with me. Before I began serving in my first parish, I had also stumbled across the section in Dr. Walther’s Pastoral Theology, where he instructs pastors about the importance of and how to visit the homes of parishioners. Combined with good effort at preaching, there is simply nothing so significant in the pastor-people relationship and the well-being of the congregation as visitation.
Visitation is a much more profound reality for the Church than we realize. Just follow Jesus’ movement through the Gospel of Mark. “Let’s go!” he told his disciples (Mark 1:38). Jesus is the quintessential peripatetic. The “Great Commission” gives every pastor and the whole church its mission. It’s no mistake that Matt. 28:19 is the first verse in the ordination rite. “Go, therefore!” After the Jerusalem Council sorted things out regarding the Gentile/circumcision question, Paul turned to Barnabas and said, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are” (Acts 15:36). What is not evident in an English Bible is that the Greek word in the original for visit is the verb form of the word Paul uses for overseer–that is, episcopus or bishop. “Therefore an overseer [episcopus] must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).
Someone once quipped, “The problem with you Lutherans is not that you don’t have any bishops. The problem is you have too many!” They were referring to the teaching of the New Testament and of our Lutheran Confessions that every local pastor is an overseer or bishop. What’s his authority? Only the Word of God. And the chief word Paul uses to describe the pastor’s office is the very word for visit! A pastor is a visitor. He admonishes, rebukes on occasion, consoles, encourages and comforts God’s people–all with the Word of God–and he does it while wearing out his shoes, speaking the Gospel to those along the way who have not heard it.
Out of freedom, the Early Church followed the example of Jesus, Paul and the apostles in ordering the church. At the time of the Reformation, when most of the Catholic bishops did not become Lutheran, Luther and company began ordering the church for its benefit too. (See Luther’s Works, vol. 40, pg. 269). From the beginning, the Lutherans called most of their bishops “superintendents,” and the LCMS calls its leaders “presidents” (e.g., district president, Synod president).
The constitution and bylaws of the LCMS are heavily weighted toward visitation, a function of ecclesiastical oversight or supervision. That is a fundamental task of the Office of the Ministry. Our presidents are in the office, and they carry out the functions of the office as a ministry of service, which extends no further than the Word of God. In this, the district presidents are defined as an extension of the Synod president’s office. The president of Synod is to visit the districts, the universities and the seminaries and has general ecclesiastical supervision to see that the doctrine and practice of the Synod is adhered to and that convention decisions are carried out. “Doctrine and life!” (Luther). District presidents are to visit the congregations and pastors. To get this done, they are to use their vice-presidents and especially circuit counselors. We should return to calling these men “circuit visitors.” One sees a “counselor” when there is a problem, but visitation is to be a regular form of pastoral encouragement toward fidelity and mission, accountability, admonition, comfort and care. Just check out Paul’s letters to figure out what it’s all about. He went. He sent letters. He sent co-workers. As he visited established churches, he constantly preached and planted new ones.
Absent visitation, we paralyze the “legs of the Gospel” as it were–whether it be parish pastor, circuit counselor, district president or Synod president. Visit!