Whatever you do, don't take your family visiting with you That is the quickest way to get your church members mad at you!" We winced at these words of advice given to us by a retired pastor. As a young pastoral couple, we valued the advice of older pastors, but something about this advice didn't seem right.
We were looking forward to establishing a "team ministry"—doing everything together, including visiting our church members. But who would watch the children? As we began our ministry in a small three-church district we chose to violate that elderly pastor's advice and discovered one of the greatest blessings of our ministry. We have found that family visitation is a blessing, not only for us, but for the members as well.
Any successful endeavor takes some planning—and visiting with your family is no exception. Here are some steps we found necessary to make this a positive experience.
Know your family's limitations
By trial and error, we discovered the visitation limits of our family. Though at first we tried a zealous schedule of six or more visits per day, we soon discovered that this was too much for us. We finally settled on a schedule which has worked quite well for both us and our children.
One of the first things we learned is that the time and the number of the visits we make is important. For example, our children became restless during afternoon visits since this was the time of their usual afternoon nap. But mornings and evenings were not a problem. Here is a typical day of visitation with our children.
We begin by making two visits before noon. These visits are usually with the retired or shut-in members of the congregation because there is a better chance that they are home during this time of day. Our general rule is to spend an hour at each visit (unless there is a pressing need which merits a longer stay). After the second morning visit, we go home and eat lunch. We don't schedule visits for the afternoon. This allows the children time to play, take a nap, and relax. It gives us time to do other things such as household chores, write sermons and do administrative items. Our next two visits are scheduled for the evening. These are usually with the younger families who work during the day. We try to conclude our last visit by nine o'clock. We have found these four visits per day sufficient when doing family visitation.
Though it takes extra work, we have found that calling the members several days in advance and letting them know that the whole family will be visiting is important and helpful for several reasons. Most members will have a box of toys which they may want to have ready when we visit, and calling them ahead of time allows them to be ready. When some of the members know that our children are coming, they may purchase a little toy or something special that they will give them. Some of the elderly who have no grandchildren tell us that they can fulfill their role as grandparents by doing this. They enjoy it and so do our kids!
Making appointments with the younger families is important since they have a busy schedule with work and school, and need to be able to work our visits into their family activities. The children of these families provide our children with opportunities for fun and interaction. It is not uncommon for our children to ask us as we travel to a member's home, "Do these people have any children?" We notice their positive reaction when the answer is "Yes."
Define your expectations
Keeping in mind that children are happier when they are given definite guidelines, it is important that you establish the boundaries before visiting in each home. What seems obvious to us as parents may not be to our children. For example, as we turn into the driveway of a member's house, we make it a general rule to remind the children of the proper way to behave. Often we will say, "Byron and Angela, we are visiting Mr. and Mrs. Jones. We want both of you to be respectful to them and be polite as we visit them. Will you help us by doing that?" When we receive their acknowledgement, we proceed to the door. This allows us to have something to remind them of should they begin acting up during a visit. We also make a special effort to thank them at the conclusion of the visit if they have obeyed our instruction.
During the visit there may come times when a gentle reminder of good behavior is in order, but if it is done firmly and with tact, it will not be a major disturbance. The retired pastor who I quoted at the beginning of this article was convinced that family visitation was a negative thing. This was because he had heard stories of preachers' kids who terrorized church members during visits. But it is amazing how rapidly children catch on to appropriate visitation behavior if they are given the proper guidelines.
Make it fun
With a little more effort, visitation can be fun for the entire family. One way to make it fun is by including the children in the conversation. They will learn to appreciate the stories which the members tell and can be encouraged to add to the discussion at the proper times. It is also fun to point out to them the different paintings, woodworking or craft items, et cetera which the members have made. This can be a very pleasant learning experience for them.
If the children become restless during visits, we have found it helpful to bring along a special coloring book with crayons, picture book, or other items which we use only during visitation. These and other planned activities can serve as incentives for the children's good behavior during visits.
Another way to add fun to visitation is to stop at parks or playgrounds between visits. This time of exercise will give the children the needed release of energy which will make visiting much easier for all of the family. Often a packed picnic lunch can turn a day of visitation into a pleasant family outing.
Family visitation can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your ministry. It provides us as parents an opportunity to teach our children how to relate to people of all ages, backgrounds, and situations. They are able to witness firsthand what it means to minister to the needs of people in their homes.
On more than one occasion, our children have helped to melt the hardened or embittered heart of a backslidden member and have allowed us the opportunity to more effectively reach them. It has also been our experience that church members tend to feel a closer bond with us when they have become acquainted with the entire family during visits.
The final proof that family visitation can be enjoyable for the children came to me the other day when (after finishing a round of visits in 100 homes), our six-yearold son came bounding out of bed and with excitement written all over his face he asked, "Mommy and Daddy, who can we visit today?!"