Concerning Visitation and Other Ways to Cut Pastors off at the Knees

President Harrison’s latest Lutheran Witness article is entitled “Concerning Visitation.” He makes some powerful assertions in this article.  Now, he does throw us all under the bus with his closing statement: “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.”  But he only cuts parish pastors off at the knees.

How so?  Because the whole thrust of the article is directed at parish pastors.  His opening remark “’A home going pastor makes a church going people.’”  He attributes this to the Reverend Doctor Robert Preus, but I never heard him say that.  I heard “lesser lights” at the Fort Wayne seminary say it….repeatedly.

This “truth” is really no deeper than saying “a salesman knocking on more doors makes more sales.”  It is true that you call on someone and they usually will be in church the next week and maybe the next but then we all know where this ends.  As for regular members who see you every Sunday, they call you when they do need you.

President Harrison makes it seem as if there has been no legitimate debate about “home going” pastors.  Consider this snippet from Moving Frontiers (245-246):


The care of souls, Seelsorge, which necessitated home visits, was a main part of the duties of a Lutheran pastor.  When should such visits be made?  Perhaps the privacy of the confessional offered the pastor the best opportunity to act as a true Seelsorger.  Some of the disadvantages of home visits for the care of souls were cited in a discussion of this question.

…When a pastor begins his duties, when there is a sickness in a family, particular misfortunes, quarrels, etc., or when has some other special reason for making home visits (because of events which make pastoral counsel, comfort, and advice desirable, and this comes to his knowledge), no faithful pastor, it is certain, will neglect to visit those in the home affected.  However, without such reasons, making house calls the chief means for exercising pastoral care cannot be recognized by the Synod as the correct procedure.  Such house calls not only require a great amount of time by the pastor, but the people also are very often hindered in their work; consequently they are not in a proper frame of mind to give proper attention to such pastoral talks.  There is very great danger that on the occasion of such visits only secular conversation is carried on.  It also often happens (because of the presence of other members of the family or guests) that there is no suitable opportunity for examining the condition of an individual’s soul or for discussing particular questions, such as perhaps the relationship of one spouse to the other, of parent’s love to children, etc.  The Synod deemed therefore that aside from special circumstances, inquiry at private confession or at the announcement for Holy Communion is the proper and chief means by which the pastor should obtain a knowledge of the spiritual condition of individuals; not only because at that time he can generally talk with a person alone and unhindered but also because those who come to announce are more inclined to explore their spiritual condition more precisely, and the impending confession and Communion presents a special opportunity for self-examination” (Mo. Synod, Central District, Proceedings, 1855, p. 20).

Of course, we don’t have announcing prior to communing and few come to us for the Sacrament of Confession.  An article advocating the return of announcing and/or the blessings of Private Absolution would have been very helpful.  It would also be instructive to explore why the two things declined.  It is not my understanding that pastors wanted it so, but lay people did.  And now they complain that we don’t visit.  Sounds to me like making us either demons or winebibbers.

What neither the above report nor Harrison’s article got into was the distinction that existed between Lutherans of the 19th century.  It had to do with how it came to the pastor’s knowledge that someone was in need of pastoral care.  Those from Missouri generally made a sick call whenever they heard someone was sick.  Those from the Buffalo Synod did so only if the person involved requested them to.  I’ve always favored the latter view.  In the former case, the call usually has the feel of a phone call where the person called you but acts like you called them.  The sick person acts like you’re the one making the call, so what do you want to talk to them about?  Remember Lutherans dictum: the compulsion must be on the sheep’s side not the shepherd’s.  See Luther’s Preface to his Small Catechism which unaccountably is an appendix in our current edition (250-51).

When a brother in the ministry mentioned that his elders had used the Harrison article as a club, I almost wrote that I could understand this article if there had been previous articles in support of what we confess: closed Communion, proper role of women, unionism, living together, etc.  I did write that typically articles on visitation came from conservative presidents.  Since such articles are people focused, the liberals, the contemporaries, the bleeding edge Lutherans, or whatever name they’re going by now, love them. They aren’t hit with them either. They do plenty of schmoozing already.  Now that I have had time to read the rest of the Witness I see that at long last a Harrison era Witness has come out in support of pre-2004 positions.  I think the lead article was to provide “balance.”  And you know what?  I’ll take one for team.

However, this balancing act did give a point of attack against many faithful pastors.  I first witnessed this in a voters meeting in my wife’s home congregation.  I was still in seminary and went along with my father-in-law.  In this voters meeting one member took the pastor to task for not visiting.  The pastor responded that he had no idea he wanted or needed a visit.  Then the feathers and fur flew.  The people who supported the pastor were silent while his detractors were not.  O how that faithful pastor was raked over the coals.  Can you imagine a doctor, lawyer, even a plumber or an electrician being taken to task for not knocking on doors asking if they needed his services or saying that he was there because so and so said they needed them?

The best thing I can say about this article is that at least the picture of the president is still the one of him at his test faithfully giving attention to his studies rather than out making calls.  Finally, if I use the frequency of the calls, visits, etc. made upon me by my district presidents or circuit counselors, then I’m doing okay.  In 29 years, I’ve been visited a grand total of three times either by a district president or a circuit counselor.  So about once very ten years seems to be the pattern I’ve been given.

However, I speak as a man and a foolish one at that.  Go to your pastoral epistles.  Study them with your elders.  See how they define a good pastor, a faithful pastor.  See that at the end of the day whether you’re feeling good as a pastor because you made home visits or lousy because you didn’t in either case you’re wrong.  With St. Paul not only don’t be judged by others, stop judging yourself (I Cor. 4).  And with St. Paul only know yourself in Christ – redeemed, restored, forgiven (2 Cor. 5).

And so what if this article cut us off at the knees?  That leaves us on our knees before the One who has knees.  Pastors who don’t preach about those knees, who don’t put those knees scarred, bruised, and bloodied before their congregation in Word and Sacrament, they are the ones who have paralyzed the legs of the Gospel.  (The last thought comes from the brother who was bludgeoned and it’s a good one.)



About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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