Pastoral Visit or Social Call?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This December, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a month of reflections on pastoral care in the 21st century. Join the conversation here or on Facebook.

By Anna Pinckney Straight

And so it was said of one of the beloved predecessors at a church I served, “He always knew when a pie was coming out of the oven.”

It was, most certainly, a compliment. The congregation loved that he stopped by without any reason – just to sit at table with them catch up with the family on the goings on in their lives.

Listening to people’s stories is important. It helps you know who they are and from whence they have come. I’ve been fortunate to serve congregations with people I have genuinely wanted to get to know and be intentional about doing so.

sailboatIn doing so, I’m a big practitioner of tacking. When sailing, you can’t go directly into the wind. And so, if your destination is in the direction from which the wind is coming you must set out in diagonals in order to reach your point. Sail a bit to starboard, then a bit to port, each time making a little bit of headway towards your goal. Tacking, it’s called.

Frequently, that’s the way I’ve approached pastoral care in non-crisis situations. I ask lots of indirect questions in order to learn more about the person – who they are and what makes them who they are. Then, based on the relationship that is built out of those encounters, theological depth can be inferred and added to the equation.

Only, I’ve been wondering: In my “tacking” approach to non-crisis pastoral care, have I missed out on what I am really supposed to be doing? What distinguishes a pastoral visit from a social visit?

When we welcome new members at University Presbyterian Church I’ve frequently used this quote from the Ekklesia project’s pamphlet “Church Membership: An Introduction to the Journey,” by John McFadden and David McCarthy.

“Becoming part of a church is a wonderful and frightening idea. If you look around you on any given Sunday, you are not likely to see prominent and influential people. Gathering for worship is not like going to the Oscars, or even the local businesspersons’ luncheon…..Moreover, we Christians are not all likely to share the same interests in sports, politics, or fashion. This lack of prestige and common ‘lifestyle’ is precisely the point of gathering in God’s name. We have been called by God to a shared life, in God’s name and not our own. When we gather in God’s name, we are not perfect people. Aware of our imperfections, we are called to be open to God. We are called to live faithfully to the way of God in Jesus Christ.

We are called to depend upon one another.”[1]

So. What’s the difference between a social visit and a pastoral visit?

Since moving to Chapel Hill I’ve frequently joked that this a place where politics and religion are perfectly acceptable dinner table conversations – the topics you have to avoid are basketball and barbeque.

I’m not so sure this is true anymore. We’re comfortable proclaiming our belief, but less so articulating exactly what that belief is. And that’s exactly what we need to get better at doing. Along the way to this goal, however, it’s important to find ways to establish a common language of faith. No assumptions about a common understanding of salvation or gospel or heaven. It’s a pathway that has to be remade with each conversation.

In asking myself this question I’ve changed (maybe more like shifted) the questions asked during a visit, or when talking with potential church members. I still want to know their stories, but now I ask them about their beliefs and their doubts, too.

It can be awkward, and it can generate some silence, but for the most part I’ve found people to be open and receptive to the shifting questions. For the most part, they don’t want to be a part of a church that is like a club or any other organization – they want to be a part of a place where faith and forgiveness, belief and baptism are the bonds that hold us together.

A pastoral care visit may still involve homemade pie, but it’s not the same thing as a social call.

What questions would you want someone to ask you, to help them understand who you are and what you believe?


APSAnna Pinckney Straight is an Associate Pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Wife of Ben. Mom of Sarah Allan. She serves on the NEXT Church Advisory Team.

3 replies
  1. Fred Rose
    Fred Rose says:

    What questions would you want someone to ask you, to help them understand who you are and what you believe? Why are you doing what you are doing as a minister? Do you really believe what we say together on Sunday mornings? How did you ever come to believe as you do? Have you ever really needed God? Why? When? Do you think most people are simply pretending to believe?

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