Is pastoral visitation obsolete? Is it a relic of a day when people were at home more and our grandmothers were pleased to serve the minister a cup of tea in the parlor? Today’s pastors may be unsure of the purpose of the pastoral call, and those they call upon may be even more unsure.

Yet there is still a widespread feeling that calling is important. The Bible is a reaching-out book, and calling is consistent with this emphasis. Jesus sent out the twelve disciples, he sent out the seventy-two, and he called upon his followers to go and to make disciples. He himself visited in the homes of Martha, Zacchaeus, Peter, and others. Paul traveled for the Gospel, characteristically writing the Romans, “I have been longing for many years to visit you.”

The main difficulty with calling today is not with the theoretical side (should it be done?) but with the practical side (how should it be done?).

The physician once spent most of his time making house calls; now he rarely makes house calls but sees patients in his office. The pastor’s work has similarly changed. Often he counsels people in his study. Many conversations that might previously have taken place during a pastoral call now occur in the study. And no longer is the pastor the only counselor available; the troubled person can now choose from a wide array of counseling services. Also, visits to the sick and dying are now much more likely to take place in hospitals than in homes.

There has also been a change in visiting the needy. A new professional is at work here: the social worker. The neighbors who once called the pastor to report someone in need may now call the welfare office. The burden of the poor has shifted from the church to the state.

Once the pastor was a kind of supervising teacher or educational inspector, seeing that religion was taught in the home. This role too has been abandoned. The hope of direct teaching of religion in the home has disappeared; now this teaching is left to the Sunday school.

The pastoral call has, then, been narrowed in scope by the removal of many of its concerns to other places or other persons. This narrowing diminishes the support structure that helped the minister and those he visited know what he was doing and why.

Further difficulty is caused by changes in home life. The urge for privacy is strong these days, and this makes entry into the home more difficult. The inviting front porch of yesteryear has been replaced by the walled-in backyard patio. The apartment house often looks like a fortress, complete with guards. The parlor, which for all of its stiffness did suggest that callers were expected and that this was the place to receive them, is now gone. The “family room” might seem to be a room reserved for the family, not a place for outsiders. The movement to the suburbs, then to the outer suburbs, and then into the country is for many people a move toward a way of life that is private and isolated.

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All of this makes a telephone call in advance almost a necessity, and this means that the pastoral call loses some of its spontaneity—or perhaps doesn’t occur at all. The house is often empty. Women have jobs outside the home. Jobs for both men and women may be a considerable distance away and require more time away from home. Much entertainment takes place outside the home, and more and more meals are eaten outside the home. When family members are at home, TV sets and stereos are likely to occupy their attention in different parts of the house and may also be left on when a visitor arrives, providing a noisy background not conducive to conversation.

The house itself may seem rather impersonal. It may have been selected more for its resale potential than as an expression of the taste of its owners. The furniture may have been chosen because it can easily be moved to the next home.

While there is an aloof and impersonal air in many homes, there is also a poignant cry that many people are really lonely. They will join sensitivity groups and seek to communicate with others in a selected group outside the home, but sometimes they do not transfer these newfound skills of communication to their home setting. Just when the home seems to be at its most inhospitable, it is most in need of the call from the church.

I’d like to suggest that a model for the call might be based upon the statement of Jesus that he regarded his disciples not as servants but as friends (John 15:14–17). Here is a relationship not of master-servant but of equals.

This model of friendship from the teaching of Jesus can be matched with his teaching of love. Something of this is caught in the action of Jesus when Peter came to him impulsively and then began to sink in the water, crying out for help. “Jesus at once reached out and caught hold of him” (Matt. 13:30). Friends reach out, and calling is reaching out.

This model relates to the needs of today in at least two ways. Many people will admit to being lonely; there is a need for friendship. And friendship stimulates conversation. So much is communicated into the home through newspapers and magazines, radio, and TV, but in many homes little communication goes on between wife and husband, between parent and child, and between children.

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The call is really an exercise in conversation. This is the framework for the pastor here, just as the epistle was the framework for Paul in the New Testament. The conversation of a pastoral call is, in this conception, the conversation of friends. It can be light and casual, or absorbing and serious. If we say that the stuff of a call is conversation and that the purpose of the call is simply friendship, then we need not worry about the level of the conversation. It may be short and full of laughter and light, or long and full of soul-searching complexities.

This model relieves us of much of the now irrelevant baggage we have carried into our thinking about the call. It still fulfills the biblical demands. The pressure upon us to call is given an outlet, and frustration can be turned into energy that helps and inspires this work.

The image of friendship and consequent conversation may even carry over into the area of prayer as part of the call. Prayer is appropriate when God is included in the conversation. Just as conversation should flow easily and naturally, so prayer can quite naturally be a part of this model.

This model can serve for the lay caller as well as for the pastor. Friendship is not something that is for professionals only. Both as caller and as callee, the lay person can feel comfortable with the model of friendship.

When a minister can go up the walk and press the door bell without the baggage of the ages pressing down upon him, he can look forward to his visit. Friends are always welcome.—RODGER SILLARS, pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Clarence, New York.

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