We were seated in her sweet, 1950s-style living room when Eleanor evangelized me (Nancy). Of course, she wouldn’t have used that term. She was a Yankee and a lifelong member of a New England Congregational church. In that setting, evangelism is a term that just doesn’t come up in good company. But Eleanor was an evangelist nonetheless because she shared her faith story with me in a way that was deeply believable and inviting. My conversation with her changed the way I thought of evangelism—and of pastoral visitation—forever.

Eleanor, like so many older, widowed women in my congregation, had invited me to her home for tea. In my experience, such afternoons were spent pleasantly talking about the church, health issues, and the goings on of the grandchildren. But Eleanor gave me the story of her faith. She quietly, almost shyly, told me that the one thing that she wanted more than anything else in the world was to be a mother—she was certain parenting was her life work. She and her husband had waited and waited for a baby, but one had never come. She grieved deeply for the child she couldn’t conceive and for the death of how she thought her life was going to turn out. She wasn’t sure that life was worth living without the family she so
desperately wanted.

But then, something happened. Through prayer and worship at her church, Evelyn began to feel Jesus as an intimate presence in her life. She understood that Jesus had come to meet her in the pain of the death of her dream. She realized that God’s unending love wasn’t just a nice idea—it was a power that could bring life out of death.

Eleanor never did conceive a child, but guided by her faith she began to believe that even as her dream died she would experience resurrection. Eleanor poured her love into the children of the community. Already a teacher, she became a fabulous one, doing innovative, creative things with her students in a time when most teachers taught straight from the textbook and had everyone sit in neat, tidy rows. She showed me a picture in which all the desks in her classroom had been pushed against the walls and a room-sized map of Norway had been drawn on the floor so that the children, who were studying the country, could learn the geography bodily.

Then she took out a notebook filled with names written in large, lumpy, children’s penmanship. Every year at Halloween, she said, she put this notebook out for the trick-or-treaters who came to her door. Before they got their candy, she asked them to write their names in her book. Three generations of children were in the book, and parents would drive across town to bring their children to her door to show them their own signatures in Eleanor’s book from years before. The book was Eleanor’s way of showing each child how much she cared. She did this, she told me, because she had been filled up with the resurrecting love of God.

Up until my conversation with Eleanor, most of my conversations with church members were about the weather, trustees’ meetings, and church suppers. I was a young pastor afraid of making mistakes, not wanting to make my congregation uncomfortable by asking them personal questions about their faith. Eleanor changed all that. She showed me what powerful stories could live inside sweet, Congregational older ladies. I knew I needed to know her story. I was willing to bet everyone else did, too.

Why Are We Just “Visiting”? 

What is a pastoral visit for? When people are sick or dying, we go to give comfort to them and their families, assuring them of the presence of God and of the ongoing support of the church in their time of trial. But when a minister, a deacon, or another lay leader makes a visit to someone who is not sick, when we stop by their home for tea, drop by their workplace for a chat, or arrange to meet at the local Starbucks, what purpose should we have in mind?

Let’s be honest. Most of the time, we visit people to keeps things at the church running smoothly. We make time to visit people who are upset about something we’ve said or done or something someone else has said or done. If we’re really on our toes, we visit a person who might possibly be upset by something that is about to be said or done. Our goal in each case is to give the person so much of our attention and care that they feel that their concerns have been heard and their position as an important person in the church has been fully validated. Then we leave and go on with whatever work we had been doing before the concerns of someone in the congregation sidetracked us momentarily.

Is it any surprise that most of us don’t really enjoy making pastoral visits? We’ll do just enough to stay in the good graces of our congregation, but the truth is that we see the “real work” of ministry as something else. We visit in order to “pay our dues,” but even as we sip our tea we’re itching to return to the work that we believe matters for the future of the church and for God’s kingdom: designing powerful worship and transformational programming that meets the needs of people of all ages.

What Really Grows a Church? 

But here’s the rub: excellent worship and excellent programming can help churches grow, both in numbers and in their relationship to God. But research has shown that most people visit churches because someone they know and trust has invited them. Thus, if we want our churches to grow (in all senses of that word) we need to help the people in our congregations talk about their church—and their faith—with other people in a way that is authentic and comfortable. This is an especially important lesson for those of us who lead smaller churches with fewer resources. We can spend a lot of time dreaming about the programs we would lead if only we had the money or the staff, when in fact the people who can most effectively grow our church don’t need to be on the payroll.

But in order to share their faith, the people in our congregations do need encouragement and they do need practice. Faith sharing doesn’t come easily to many of us, including people with a sincere and vibrant faith. Both of us have served Congregational churches in New England, a setting in which there is a strong cultural prohibition against speaking too personally or openly to anyone about anything. In other settings where we’ve taught, people speak much more readily about their faith, but it can be hard to get people to break out of religious clichés and find a way to authentically share their own experience of God, of prayer, or of their involvement in the church. Some people are hesitant to talk about their faith lest they come off sounding “too evangelical.” Others are afraid they don’t know enough or don’t really believe the right things to accurately represent their congregation or religion to the wider world.

Before we can charge our congregations with sharing their faith with other people, we need to help them practice talking about it with each other. We can assure them that they won’t get in trouble for making mistakes, we can congratulate them for giving it a try, and we can help them appreciate the way in which God has been active in their lives. The pastoral visit is the first and best place to do these things.

Moving Beyond “Just Visiting” 

How do we turn a “regular” visit with the pastor or a congregational leader into an opportunity to practice sharing our faith? Through many conversations with other leaders, and a lot of trial and error of our own, we’ve come up with three steps we always keep in mind during our one-on-one visits.

Step One: Ask questions that take the conversation deeper. Some of the people we visit will initiate a conversation about their relationship with God, their faith journey, or their core beliefs and principles without any prompting from us, but many will not. Ofte
n, if we let our parishioners control the agenda of the conversation, we’ll hear about their gardens and their grandchildren, their complaints and their worries, but not about their faith. We need to be willing to ask questions that will take the conversation to a deeper level while still letting the person we’re speaking to know that we are listening to him or her. Sometimes this can be as simple as asking someone how a topic they have been speaking about connects to their faith (“Do you feel that there’s a connection between your love of gardening and your faith?” “Do you feel as if your faith has been shaped by the difficulties you’ve had with your family?”). Other times we might just toss out an opening question that gets the conversation going in a different direction than it usually does (“Tell me about what you’re grateful for today!” “Where have you seen God active in the world recently?” “How’s your faith journey these days? Smooth sailing or have you hit some bumps in the road?”). Sometimes, asking about the faith of a person’s family—the faith of their father, the faith of their grandmother—gives that person a way to talk about faith without feeling as
if things have gotten “too personal”
too fast.

Step Two: Ask, “Who else needs to hear this?” As challenging as it can be to have a conversation about faith in the course of a pastoral visit, it’s not enough. People, after all, will tell things to their pastor or congregation leader that they won’t tell anyone else. While the confidentiality of a pastoral conversation is important and at times necessary, it does not mean that our conversations with a parishioner can’t have significance beyond the one-on-one connection we establish with them. When we hear a powerful story about God’s activity in the life of someone, we always let that person know that we have been touched by what we’ve heard. We tell them that we’ve learned about who God is by what they’ve told us. We tell them that their story has strengthened our faith. And then we ask the most important question: “Who else needs to hear this?”

We don’t mean to imply that the most intimate details of someone’s personal life need to be announced in the next church newsletter. But we do believe that the stories from our lives of God’s power and grace are gifts that we have been given and that our best response to those gifts is to pass them on. Often, we can help our parishioners step back a bit from the very personal details of their story and model for them how they might share the faith experience within it.
Here’s an example: after hearing the story of someone’s painful divorce and some of the ways their faith has grown from the experience, you say, “I wonder if you’ve ever talked to anyone else in the midst of divorce about your faith experience. I know that there are a number of people at church who are recovering from broken relationships. They could really be helped by hearing you talk about how you found a new relationship with God when you were in your darkest days.”

Step Three: Pray! Many of us were taught to end any pastoral visit with a prayer. Usually our first inclination is to pray for the concerns the person we’re with has expressed during the course of the visit. But what if we began our prayer with thanksgiving for the way in which God has been active in the life of our parishioner and for the gift that person has given us by sharing his or her faith experience with us that day? Then we can ask God to give us an opportunity to share our faith in the coming week. Invite God to surprise you both with some opportunity to make a difference in the life of another person—not just by what we can do but by showing what God can do.

Potential Problems 

We’ve been using pastoral visits as an opportunity to share our faith for a number of years, and the process hasn’t always been completely smooth. For one thing, as people have begun to feel very safe and very encouraged to share their faith, some of them say things that surprise us. Respectable businessmen have told us about visitations from angels, scientists have confessed their conversations with ghosts, and a young mother from a conservative family described her grandmother’s secret collection of crystals with healing powers. We’ve found that the best response is usually to stay curious. We fall back, time and again, on questions like, “What did you learn about God from that experience?” and “How did that experience shape you and your understanding of God?” Sometimes we just say, “What did that mean for you?” It’s not always our job to make sense out of people’s experience. It’s their experience, after all, and often what they need most from us is reassurance that their experience doesn’t exclude them from Christian community.

Don’t Stop Here 

The pastoral visit is a wonderful place to build the practice of faith sharing into the life of our congregations, but it is only the starting point. Once faith sharing becomes an integral part of your pastoral visits, consider inviting folks to tell their stories of faith in worship. Tailor the adult Bible study or women’s group time to include faith stories. Make an Advent or Lenten prayer book that highlights the faith journeys of your congregation. Create a “prayer wall” where people in your congregation can write down or draw moments in their faith journey for which they are grateful. Find as many ways as you can for the individual stories you’ve heard in people’s living rooms to show up in your congregational life.

Then, when everyone in the congregation becomes enamored of sharing faith stories—and believe us, they will—it is time to ask again the crucial question, “Who else needs to hear this?” Because, in the end, some of the people who most need to hear these stories are our neighbors, friends, and coworkers outside the church. When we dare to talk about our faith with them—and listen to what they have to say in response—we make a powerful connection that can lead to transformation for everyone involved.

Questions for Reflection 

  1. In your opinion, what is a pastoral visit for? If there are deacons or lay visitors in your congregation, have you ever asked them this question?
  2. Have you ever heard a story in the course of a pastoral visit that showed you something important about who God is and how God acts? How did you respond?
  3. Why do you think many people—even those who are members of a congregation—avoid talking about the understanding and experience of God? What kinds of barriers have you encountered to going deeper in conversations about faith?
  4. Are there ways that members of your congregation can practice sharing their faith with each other? What one new opportunity for faith sharing could you create this month?