The Praying Elder and Pastoral Visits
The elders who are serious about their calling, i.e., those who supervise the members of the church, will not be satisfied with making annual home visits only. They are active also in the interim. At some addresses there may even be an interim visit more than once a year. We can think of those who are sick, of seniors, of those who have experienced sadness in their life.
Beside this there are also many addresses where — if you look at it from the outside — there are no problems. It is a good thing when elders revisit those addresses a few times. In most cases just one elder can bring such a visit. This will certainly be the case in a congregation where a district has just one elder. But even if there are two elders who function in any given district or ward, as a rule any interim visits will be made by one of the office bearers. In such cases it is a good thing when both district elders divide their common ward in two parts, so that they know for which part they are responsible in regard to arranging any interim visits.
We are of the opinion that the importance of such interim visits should not be underestimated. They promote the relationship of trust and as a result they help to serve a good progression at the annual home visit.
We realize that often there is little time for these interim visits. Elders who have families of their own cannot permit themselves to be busy in their district every evening. Neither are they allowed to over-exploit their own physical bodies.
And yet, as a rule the aspect of “time” may not play a role when it concerns making such interim visits. This means that consistories should as much as possible try to keep the elders’ districts as small or manageable as they can be. I know that this is not always achievable due to the lack of brothers who are capable to serve as elders. This holds true especially for congregations with large numbers of youth or with many seniors, by which the age group that usually “produces” elders is lacking.
However, it remains an ideal situation that each elder has somewhere between 10 and 15 addresses in his district. This implies that at least 10–15 evenings are taken up with annual home visits, and more when accompanying another office-bearer. In such a case there should be at least one evening available every two weeks for any interim visits.
Is Prayer Always Needed?
It will not always be customary that the elders conclude such interim visits with Scripture reading and prayer. Most often such visits are not started with prayer either. This is also not necessary. I do not say that in a particular situation it cannot be done, but it is good to create a tangible distinction from the annual visit. This is not only because the elder now comes on his own, but also because of the fact that such a visit is started in another way and that it is no imitation of the annual visit.
It depends on the content of the conversation whether such a visit will be concluded with prayer. At times a discussion can take such a turn that both the elder as well as the person who is visited would find it rather beneficial to pray and thank the Lord together.
The visit can have a strong social aspect. In such a case a prayer at the end of the visit would be regarded as a new element that does not really fit the situation.
With visits with a strong social aspect we understand the official visits that are brought in the following situations.
- It is great when elders show up, in an effort to promote contact between the elders and the youth in their district, for example at a happy occasion in the life of one of those young people. We can think of passing a school exam; or of public profession of faith. Elders share in the joy that such events provide in the life of the young people and their families. With such visits, often a prayer may not be fitting. Often the elder is not the only visitor in such a situation: the house is filled with other youth and/or adults.
- When on the occasion of the queen’s birthday a brother or a sister in the congregation receives a royal recognition, the elders will certainly go out of their way to congratulate him or her. It is an honour that such people are recognized. In order to achieve such a feat it can happen that activities of the member within the congregation have played an important role. There is thankfulness to the Lord that such gifts to members of the congregation are being acknowledged, but it is not necessary to verbalize this gratitude by way of a prayer, for instance during an official reception.
- Married couples who celebrate their 25-year anniversaries at home — they do not have an official reception — will often appreciate it when their elder pays attention to the fact. As a rule though such a congratulatory visit will not be closed with a word of prayer.
Are Social Visits “Official” Occasions?
Visits that carry a strong social aspect; are these actually official visits, understood as visits from an office bearer? Or is there only an official visit when the Bible is read and hands are folded in prayer? I know that some elders sometimes wonder whether the visits identified earlier can be classified as official visits. I am convinced they are official visits. After all, the official aspect does not need to depend on the fact that there is Scripture reading and prayer, does it? The official aspect lies in the fact that the elder brings a social visit because he is an elder. He comes to visit in that capacity to celebrate with these people, and to congratulate them. Those people receive at such occasions a visit from their office bearer, and that is also how they experience it. They receive a true official visit. And this official visit will also contribute to the fact that perhaps the next official visit will be closed with prayer because at that time personal problems were presented to the elder. Quite possibly this first official visit — without prayer — has opened the door for a second official visit — with prayer.
Issues to be Resolved
When office bearers bring an interim visit, without there being a direct occasion for it, it may happen that matters arise in the conversation that are quite essential for this member and which leave a mark on the life at that moment. A few examples:
- There can be major events in the family circle such as: a brother of the father of the family that is being visited is going through a divorce procedure; a nephew got the news that he has an incurable illness; two sisters of the mother are into a major disagreement and in their quarreling they no longer wish to see each other. Such matters can keep the visited members busy during the day and often during the night. The visiting elder did not know this when he unexpectedly went to visit a certain address, but it is told him — sometimes confidentially.
- An older couple expresses grave concern for a married daughter whose husband committed incest with his own daughter: a granddaughter of the elderly couple whom the elder is visiting. Clearly this brother and sister are losing sleep over it. This matter is of such a critical nature that they inform the elder who “by coincidence” happens to visit them. Together they discuss the situation.
- The elder brings a visit to a family where from the outside everything looks great. And yet it appears during the conversation that significant tensions have arisen as a result of a poor marriage situation. The problems were there for some time already, but until now the couple had not talked about it with other people. They do so during the visit — fortunately.
It will be clear that it would be a good thing, yes often even necessary, to conclude the visit to the three mentioned families with prayer. The elder will bring these matters before the heavenly Father. He knows that these people may cast their anxieties on the Lord. Everything that gives reason for concern and worry may be presented to the Lord. The people concerned will do this of themselves, too, but it gives peace and it is beautiful that the elder also prays with them.
In such cases he visited members will not experience it as something unnatural when the elder proposes to pray together. If they would think it strange, the elder can explain that it is a normal thing to bring before the Lord that what had been discussed.
Evidently the prayer should be sober. It must be directed to the actual difficulties that have been revealed. There may be thanks for the fact that God gives the means of prayer; that all our troubles may be given into the Father’s hands, who empathizes with his children. There needs to be prayer for wisdom, for encouragement, for comfort and strength. All of this depends on what troubles the visited members. In his prayer the elder will also give attention to those for whom the families are concerned: the brother who wants to divorce; the sick nephew and his parents; the granddaughter and her father — her father who needs to repent.
It is clear that this prayer may not “degenerate” into a prayer for all sorts of matters.
Prepared for Prayer
In general an elder should be prepared at an interim visit, during the conversation, that there is the possibility of closing the visit with prayer. This is relevant especially when difficult matters are raised that concern those who are visited, or things that cause them sadness. This means that during the conversation already the elder needs to point out the meaning and the power of prayer. In such a case his proposal to finish together in prayer will, as a rule, not sound unnatural and neither will it be perceived as a bolt from the blue. During the conversation the elder can ask the question whether the relevant problem also receives attention in the family prayer and/or the personal prayer. In this way he is already preparing for the official prayer at the end of his visit.
It is not always necessary to precede such a prayer with reading of Scripture.
We suggest strongly that elders make it a general rule to conclude an interim visit with prayer, unless it has a strong social character. Skipping prayer would be an exception. In actual practice there will be exceptions, but this does not ignore the rule. If instead the rule would be that there is no prayer with interim visits, the elders would likely have greater difficulty to make exceptions.
We need to add to this that the elder who in general will conclude a visit with prayer, will also serve as an example. From the fact that he prays he lets on that God has given a great gift in prayer.
Elders will also be conducting interim visits of which they pretty much know beforehand that the visit will be closed with prayer. With these visits the above-mentioned rule will only see a few exceptions. We will mention a few of those visits, without claiming to have covered all our bases.
- When in a family the father, the mother, or one of the children has passed away, the elder will bring multiple visits to that family. It is possible that the first visit — shortly after the death of a family member — is not concluded in prayer, because the grief of those who are left behind is so predominant that it might be better not to pray as yet. But with the next visits prayer certainly should have its place. The content of prayer will change in the course of the subsequent visits. Initially it will be a prayer for strength, for comfort. Soon after it will be asking for acceptance and recognition of God’s grace that becomes visible in his taking people unto himself that in our estimation we can hardly let go. The elders will also pray the Lord to make the bereaved to accept and concur with God’s will. There is a certain process in the official prayer with and for the grieving family. In this the elder also shows that the Lord gives time to process what he is doing.
The Lord does not ask of his children that from the one moment to the next they would call out “Hallelujah” when he takes away someone from the family circle through death. When the Lord does not ask for this, neither should we be asking the Lord whether at this moment he will give this “hallelujah” into the hearts of the mourners.
The Bible lets us know that the Lord gives time to his children to become wholeheartedly one with his will and way. In this connection I want to reference Psalm 39. David experiences great difficulties. He is troubled about what the Lord makes him experience (it is not noted in the Psalm what kind of evil the Lord gives to David). David is inclined to curse the Lord. In order to prevent this he guards his mouth with a muzzle (v. 1). However, he cannot keep this up. After a while he removes the muzzle. He gives his “rebellion” free rein and says, “I am mute; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it” (v. 9). That is the language of acquiescence. However, he has to proceed from there. He must know joy in God again. That is is what he prays for subsequently: for renewed joy on account of God’s faithfulness (see v. 13).
With David there is a process from “rebellion” via resignation to renewed joy. The Lord gives opportunity to process things. He does not reproach David for this.
Such a process is often present with God’s children who are affected by bottomless grief. Elders should take this process into account in their prayers as office bearers with and for the bereaved.
- When the father or the mother of a member of the congregation passes away, the ward elder will show empathy. Sometimes the concerned members pass on the news of the death of father or mother (who are living elsewhere), but this is not always the case. In such circumstances the elder may have to learn about it through other means, for instance a death announcement.
It would be good if elders make the members realize that they may not be expected to be informed about the passing of a father or a mother.
If the elders have been informed they will, as a rule, bring an official visit to the brother and/or sister. Just the fact that they show compassion and sympathy is already a good thing. During such a visit comforting words may be spoken when it is clear that the one who has passed away was always living close to Christ. The elders may encourage the mourners with the tremendous promises that God has given.
If there are also children — grandchildren of the one who has passed away — it is good to involve them as well in the conversation. Often the passing away of grandma or grandpa makes a deep impression in the life of the grandchildren. The elders can ask them whether they have been at the funeral — depending on the fact whether the elders bring their visit before or after the funeral. The answer to a question like this often gives the possibility to talk further about the value of a funeral.
At the end of the visit there will be a prayer. The elder asks the Lord to give the needed comfort. He prays for strength to process the loss. He asks that the children and grandchildren will keep in grateful remembrance what the Lord has given them in their (grand) parent. Particularly it may be asked that the Lord will keep the children and grandchildren in the way of Christ, where the person who has passed away has gone as well during his or her life. Also the grandchildren should receive attention in this prayer. Sometimes this can happen very concretely based on things that have been raised in the preceding conversation.
Finally the elder dedicates the family to the Lord. This family will need to carry on, also now that an empty place is there. The attention of the family members will again be directed to many other matters, and not only to this death.
- Often widows and widowers very much appreciate it when the elder visits them on the actual date that their loved one passed away, or on the day that he or she would have celebrated a birthday. In congregations where a minister is active, it can be agreed for example that the minister will make a visit on the anniversary date when someone passed away, while the elder will visit on the memorial birthday — or the other way around.
Such days are often etched deeply into the heart of a widow or widower. Many recollections are present. Especially on the day of someone’s death people remember the year in which the husband or wife passed away. Often people have a need to give expression to their thoughts. It is therefore a good practice to bring an official visit on such days. The elders should indeed pay attention to widows and widowers (James 1:27), and that is quite possible especially on such dates. Those days are well suited to have a good and upbuilding conversation.
As a rule the elder will conclude such a visit with prayer. The brother or sister is entrusted to the Lord. The elder prays to the Lord to provide strength to process the things that may arise again sometimes after so many years. He will ask for enduring comfort, as it has been in the years that have gone by since the passing of the husband or wife. Thanksgiving may be expressed for the promise that God always remains the same. The God who has always been present in the life of the widow or widower will continue to be there. Therefore they may also focus their thoughts on the future. For the widow or widower is on the way to the city that is already the home of her or his loved one who had passed away earlier.
- We write a separate chapter on the topic of visiting the sick, and the place of prayer in these circumstances (see chapter 5). However, in the framework of interim visits I do want to pay attention to the visits to people who struggle with their health but who are not ill in the sense that they cannot attend the worship services. Sometimes they are still doing their daily work—through all their ups and downs. These people too should receive an extra visit once in a while. After all, the health of these people limits their possibilities, which at times can be rather problematic. I am thinking of the brother who has the gift to be an office-bearer and who also desires this, but yet for reasons of health cannot take on any such function or anything related to it; he is happy that he can still manage to do his daily work.
When elders visit a member of the congregation like this they will need to be prepared to conclude the conversation with prayer. In such prayers attention will be given to:
- the limitations that he or she faces, and the strength to accept these;
- gratitude that there is still the possibility to do one’s daily work, or to be active in other ways during the day;
- gratefulness that God uses his children each in their own place and with the (limited) possibilities for the coming of his kingdom.
- Elders will have the habit to visit brothers and sisters who are older than 65 or 70 when they celebrate their birthdays. Sometimes this is on the actual date itself. Such a day is however less suited to conclude a visit with prayer. Often there will be more people present: family, friends and neighbours. Sometimes it is a situation of people coming in and going out. Therefore it may be a better idea that the elders bring a visit a day later. That gives opportunity to have a quiet conversation. Seniors have a need of this. They look back on their birthday, often celebrated in the presence of children. Mention can be made of gratitude toward the Lord, who spared them again for another year.
The fact will also be noted that becoming older means that one comes closer to the moment that one has to say farewell to this life.
The elder will close this visit with prayer. Almost always this will be appreciated.
The Lord will be thanked for what he has provided in the previous year. After all, life is his gift. Thankfulness will be expressed for the bond with the children – as applicable — and for the position that the Lord gives to the concerned member in the faith communion of the church. There will be prayer that the Lord will be near the brother or sister in the coming year. Also the approach of life’s end — humanly speaking — may be mentioned in prayer. It should however be prevented that the approaching death is emphasized to such an extent that the member gets the feeling that he is “already close to death’s door”. Finally, intercession is made to the Lord for physical strength. For we live in an earthly tent that is disintegrating. This does not happen all at once. Often it is a process that seniors experience firsthand.
- An interim visit of a somewhat different nature is the so-called baby visit. When a baby is born into a family then usually this means great joy. Usually — for the joy can be dampened significantly when the baby is handicapped. If such is the case, more visits will be necessary. We go a bit deeper into this in an appendix to this chapter.
For now we are dealing with the occasion of the birth of a healthy baby. Elders share in the joy of the parents who have been blessed (anew) with the gift of a child. In the conversation it will certainly be mentioned that it is an honourable gift of God when people are entrusted with one of his children. The elder will point to the responsibilities that accompany the gift of children. They are not just ordinary children; they are children of the covenant.
It will often happen that during a baby visit the topic of family planning is raised, certainly in a family where there are more children. Sometimes parents have the need to discuss this with the elder.
At the end of the visit the Lord is thanked for the birth of the baby. The Lord is asked to give strength to the parents to nurture their child(ren) according to the promise that is made at the baptism. The Lord will also be asked to give wisdom to the parents to be active in a responsible way with family planning.
Through the birth of children the Lord wants to continue his church-gathering work. The elders as shepherds of the flock need to mention this aspect as well in their prayer of thanks. They pray that the young child may grow to maturity and that as an adult it may take up its place within the congregation of Christ, so that later on a place may be received among the congregation of the elect.
- Finally: each year the elders have a conversation with young people who have made it known that they want to make public profession of their faith. As a rule they will conclude this conversation with prayer. The Lord is thanked for the work of the Holy Spirit. After all, it is the Holy Spirit who has worked faith. He made use of the Christian nurture by the parents; of the education at school; of preaching and catechesis.
Prayer will be offered for the continuous indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the young person. Only then will he or she remain strong in faith, and increase in the grace and the knowledge of salvation. Strength is prayed for to no longer remain in sin, when there is occasion of falling into sin. The life of the individual is prayerfully positioned into the hands of the God of the covenant.
In this way prayer and thanks are given if the elder has a positive impression of the person with whom they had a conversation. However, what about a situation where on the basis of the visit the elder comes to the conclusion that the individual is not at all convinced of what was shown from God’s Word?
In such a case the elders need to share this (preliminary) conclusion with the individual.
It is self-evident that the closing prayer will also have a different content. The Lord will be thanked for the openness with which they could talk together. Subsequently the uncertainty or the doubt or the unsteadiness of the brother or sister will be presented with the prayer that the Lord will bring him or her further along in the love for God and the certainty of faith. The Lord is asked that the brother or sister will reflect on what was discussed, and that he or she will also talk to the Lord about the present uncertainty. Finally there will be prayer for the fruit of the conversation and that prayerful reflection may lead to certainty of faith such that the elders would have no inhibitions or reservations to advise the individual’s admission to the Lord’s Supper.
It will be evident that it is of great importance to have a timely conversation with those who want to publicly profess their faith.
No Prayer Sometimes
As an exception it can happen that the above-mentioned visits are not concluded with prayer. For instance, when elders make a baby visit it is possible that their visit is interrupted by the arrival of other visitors. Such visitors will not always be able to come back at another time. Neither will there be an opportunity for them to wait elsewhere until the elder has finished his official visit. Particularly if the visitors are people who do not want to have anything to do with faith, it may make the elder conclude that he cannot finish his visit with prayer. Much depends on the situation.
When things turn out this way the elder should not think that his visit was a failure. Because also in such circumstances when there is no opportunity to pray or to give thanks, there has been an actual official visit.