The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Forfeiting opportunity

Pastor house calls a relic of past?

Some disturbing events occurred in my ministry this past year — in the form of compliments.

There was the man who told me as I visited with him and his wife in the den of their home, "I'm 67 years old and have been a church member all my life. You're the first pastor who has ever been in my home."

This comment might not have been so bad except for one fact: I had already heard half a dozen similar statements during the year. I began to ask myself if I should feel elated or worried. Are house calls really a relic of the past?

My anxieties were somewhat alleviated when I reflected on an experience in my early ministry. My wife and I visited her home church. We went to the early service and found the pews nearly full. Then my mother-in-law said, "We always go to the early service because it isn't so crowded."

I thought I was in for a treat and about to hear a dynamic preacher. After all, what else could explain such fantastic attendance? What I heard was a 30-minute systematic theology lecture which, although centered on the gospel, was something I regarded as strictly dull.

The real explanation for the attendance would be revealed over the next couple of years when I discovered that the pastor had a secret. He made calls ... and calls ... and calls.

If a visitor came to a service, he was on their doorstep within a week. If a member missed a couple of Sundays for which he did not know the reason, he visited them. And when members lost loved ones, he placed the dates on his next-year's calendar and made a call on the anniversaries of the deaths, knowing it would be foremost in their minds.

With that kind of ministry he probably could have read them yesterday's ball scores and still filled the pews.

If my recent experience of listening to these people is in any way indicative of what is happening nationally, the church is in danger of losing one of its valuable assets. In no other profession of which I am aware does a person have access to people's homes as does the pastor.

When an athletic team fails to show for a contest, they forfeit the game. When pastors do not show up in the homes of their people, they forfeit the opportunity to minister.


William Hartfelder

William Hartfelder

Posted at 4:09 pm (U.S. Eastern) 8/16/2012

There is much with which to agree in Pr. Dickson's comments about what many might call a "lost art" - home visits by pastors.  However, his nostalgic description raises concerns.  I would ask what the average worship attendance might be (have been?) at his wife's home church when they visited during his "early ministry"?  After more than 25 years in parish ministry, I am persuaded that a significant reason we have so many small, or perhaps a better description, "pastor-centered" congregations in the ELCA is they reflect the maximum relations one pastor/person can maintain. Too often, and for all our Lutheran talk about "the priesthood of all believers," it is tempting for the pastor to be the chief "connection" with the congregation when the pastor serves primarily as a chaplain for the flock.  In the large church - and if a church is to grow beyond the "comfortable" or "manageable" size - it is imperative that the pastor(s) implement and model the words of Ephesians 4:11-14 - "The gifts that he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of minisry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faint and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ."  Among us Lutherans our cherished tradition, piety and culture has focused on sending people to seminary to train them to take care of people who are already where they will be called to serve.  At the risk of sounding overly critical, it was sufficient to focus on a ministry of "hatch, match and dispatch," i.e., to be there when people are born, to marry them and to bury them.  We live in a different age and culture.  The pastor of the church I grew up so many years ago would visit and find most people - usually the Mom and children during the day - at home.  In my congregation even my retirees have busy schedules.  It is not unusual for members to agree to meet at a local restaurant.  But even more importantly, congregations now need to see themselves and to function as outposts in one of the world's richest and most challenging mission fields, i.e., North America.  Change is never easy.  Change always invokes anxiety.  Change will always be heard by some chiefly, even solely as criticism.  However, we live in an exciting time when our Lord's commission to "make disciples" is no longer the work of missionaries supported by congregations and sent "over there."  Each and every congregation is called to the work of mission and ministry in the place where God has planted them.  To be sure this ought not be understood as a simple "either/or" definition conerning the role and function of pastor.  However, just as the role of pastor as chaplain to the flock was primary and appropriate in an earlier age when "membership" was the predominant in church culture, so in today's context the role of pastor as evangelist and equipper of saints for the work of ministry is (again) at the forefront for congregational life and mission.

Note: William Hartfelder edited this post at 4:23 pm on 8/16/2012.

Print subscribers and supporting Web members may comment.

Log in or Subscribe to comment.

text size:

this page: email | print

February issue


Embracing diversity