Thursday, October 19, 2006

Pastoral Visitation (Part III) - What You Aim For

“We must labour to be acquainted, not only with the persons, but with the state of all our people, with their inclinations and conversations; what are the sins of which they are most in danger, and what duties they are most apt to neglect, and what temptations they are most liable to; for if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians.” – Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 90.

The presupposition behind pastoral visitation is that it is one of your duties as an undershepherd of Christ's flock to know His sheep. A man cannot care for sheep he never sees.

When I pastored in Northern Ontario I was privileged to have an old shepherd in my church. He was old. And he was a real shepherd - known throughout that area as having the tastiest sheep and best wool! Anyway, when I used to visit Louis, I would inevitably walk out to the barn or field with him. It did not matter how slowly I moved or how gently I spoke - those dumb sheep were spooked at the sight and sound of me.

But for Louis! Well, it was love from the moment their doleful eyes fell on him. Here is the man who knows us! The one who feeds us! The one who got up night after night to feed me on my bottle! The one who cares for my wounds! The one who protects me from my enemies! The one who is going to slaughter me for money!

Okay, that last one doesn't really work, does it!?!

Even though the analogy, like all human analogies, falls flat at some point, you can still see the grain of truth. Sheep need care. And what is our calling as pastors if it is not to know our sheep so well that we may apply whatever medicine, teaching, rebuke, comfort, or protection that they need? Yes, we are to preach and teach so that the Body is built up to fulfill the work of the ministry - but I stand with Baxter (and Paul, I think) when I say that foundational to our ability to teach is our faithfulness to know and love the sheep.

Baxter understood that merely mounting the pulpit once a week then disappearing into the study for the rest would not bring about much change in this world. He considered it a part of the pastoral duty not only to study the Word of God, but to study men for the purpose of determining how best to convince them of the Truth. "We must study how to convince and get within men, and how to bring each truth to the quick..." (145)

Once we have done this, says Baxter, we must rush to the battle. "Satan will not be charmed out of his possession: we must lay siege to the souls of sinners, which are his garrison, and find out where his chief strength lieth, and lay the battery of God's ordinance against it, and ply it close, till a breach is made; and then suffer them not by their shifts to repair it again" (149).

Baxter practiced what he preached. There were few, if any, converts in Kidderminster when Baxter arrived there in 1641 and few, if any, unconverted in the town of 2000 when he left. His ministry was held together by the backbone of a personal visitation model similar to that we are attempting to describe here. He knew his sheep!

Of course, you will find some sheep easier to know than others. Didn't Paul have to egg on the Corinthians to "open wide" to him as he had opened his life to them? Sin, personality, fears, poor time management, relational immaturity and a host of other things (and combinations thereof!) may conspire against you. But don't let what is wrong keep you from doing what is right! Get to know your sheep - spiritually.

One last thing. If there were ever a reason for long and faithful ministries in one location with one of group of people, this is it. You cannot get to know your sheep in 2.6 years. That's not enough time for them to really sin against you.