Sam’s post on clergy workload speaks eloquently of the way the importance of visiting was drilled into him by his training incumbent, and how it ultimately contributed to an experience of burnout, requiring a period of a year out of full-time ministry. Visiting is one of those nostrums of the work of the clergy. Like Sam, I too was trained on the assumption that second to leading worship, visiting was the most important thing clergy should be doing. Some of us will have heard the saying, ‘a visiting parson makes a church-going people’. Trite, but punchy. I know from my own experience that some church members believe that the best way of my going about my time is to spend my hours wandering from street to street, knocking on the doors of my parish. Hmm…
The Visit is one of those tools that all church leaders have in their ‘toolbag’. Used correctly and at the right time, it can be very effective indeed. For example, a visit from the church leader to a newly arrived couple at church will often ensure the link with the church is fused for the long-term. When the church leader calls, people get a sense of their significance to the wider body. It builds key relationships. It is not, however, always the best use of the priest or minister’s time: it just depends on the nature of the locality or parish of the church in question.
Random door-knocking is even less likely to be an effective pastoral or missional method. The area of my two parishes has a high number of bedsits and flats. The population is mobile. 47% are aged in their 20s. In the last (2001) census, a far higher percentage than the national average described themselves as having no religion. A far lower than the national average described themselves as ‘Christian’. Many households are filled with short-term letting students and young professionals. Most occupants work during the day, leaving their homes by 8.30am and returning at the end of the day. Compare this kind of parish to one, perhaps forty years ago, where most residents stayed in the area for decades; where women stayed at home, at least after the birth of the first child. In the latter, a visit from the clergy would be likely to find someone in, and establish a link which would be relevant years later. In the case of my parish, most doors lead to empty flats, except during the evenings – which in my case are taken up with church meetings. Even were there to be someone in the premises during the day, it’s unlikely that the visit would make any meaningful impact, often because the resident would have moved away inside of a year. Many flats these days have electronic entry systems anyway, where the residents only open to expected or known callers. The myth of the visiting priest is eclipsed by the facts.
The myth of the visiting priest is further shattered by the realisation that when it used to happen with any frequency, it was either in small rural parishes, or where an urban parish had about three curates – quite common right up to the 1970s. Solitary parish priests with parishes of in excess of 10,000 people, who are feeling guilty for not visiting more, should be exorcised of the power of this nostrum. Visiting isn’t a panacea. Sometimes it’s bad use of a priest’s time. Occasionally, it’s exactly what the priest needs to do.
In my situation, I have found a far more effective way to build relationships is to go where people like to go. In this area, it’s to meet for a coffee in one of the excellent coffee bars in the neighbourhood. I have also discovered that although church meetings trump the possibility of a visit in an evening most nights, it is possible to meet over lunch with people near their workplace. It’s human contact where people are, rather than the quiet pad of clerical feet down empty streets, that makes the difference.
So we need less clergy training (especially in training curacies) based around nostrums such as the visiting clergyperson. Instead we need some creative, common-sense and strategic thinking, in order to build up the human contact which is essential in all Christan work, by clergy or by others.
Thank you for these three excellent and challenging posts Paul. During the course of this week, Iâ€™ve been fascinated by the responses on Mike Hillâ€™s blog to his â€œdrive a white vanâ€ post and had been contemplating submitting a comment based on my own (limited) observations of those who are â€œpioneering new forms of churchâ€. Having read your posts, however, I realise that my intended remarks would have been somewhat idealistic, simplistic and blinkered. Youâ€™ve given me much food for thought (and prayer)! Many thanks.
three great posts, Paul, thanks for taking the time to write all of this down!
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Paul, I have disagreed with you in the past, so I am pleased to thank you for these thoughtful posts. I wonder how much the myth of ‘Christian England’ has contributed to these stereotypes of the presbyter’s role. It is interesting to contrast this with the roman Catholics’ view of their mission.
It makes a huge difference whether you are in an urban or a rural environment, as to what ‘visiting’ strategies can be adopted. Having relatively recently gone rural (six years ago) after always having been in an urban environment, I am amazed at the opportunities there are for visiting. The only limiting factor is time.
However, I have also learned that visiting is a ‘tactical’ thing. It is important that I visit people when they are (really) ill, not because I’m the only one who can, but because this tells the church that I take this kind of care seriously. It is also something that a village takes note of. You don’t have to do that much! You just have to do enough to show you care. (It helps if you care, as well!)