I have only served as a church visitor once so I cannot claim any deep insight into the position. However, for most of my term I wondered whether classis really cared whether or not visits were made. The church I served had not been visited very often and I do not remember much being said about that or about the visits that I did not make. Furthermore, in that classis church visitors were expected to report at just one meeting per year and then give a summary report with general observations on common trends. I wondered how useful that could be. Eventually I did pull my socks up, get my stuff together, and make my visits. I mostly enjoyed the experience, but still wondered whether the visits served much purpose.
The question of the effectiveness of church visiting has been asked before. The synod of 2000 adopted a “Guide for Church Visiting” in order to strengthen the practice. A previous post on this site, Mining for Old Gold, explored how classes are breathing new life into the old practice. I intend to focus on the visit itself in another post, but here want to reflect on the ways classes receive church visitors and their reports.
In my experience, classes often appoint church visitors and then forget about them. Written church visitor reports are tucked away at the very end of an agenda, where they are overshadowed by other materials. They are usually received for information without being commented on. This inattention may occur because as one of the last items on an agenda, the reports are taken up when delegates have had their fill of meeting and are already putting on their coats. It might be because the reports rarely say anything worth commenting on. There may be other reasons, but little attention is paid to the reports and problems are rarely addressed. I have heard churches mention that it had been too long since their last visit, but I don’t recall much said about it. I’ve also had conversations with visitors who were frustrated by a church that was avoiding them, but have never heard this mentioned on the floor of classis. The visitor didn’t want to damage the potential of a future visit by calling attention to the church’s stonewalling. All this makes me wonder whether classes value church visiting as much as we say that we do.
As I look back, a practice I then once though showed a lack of interest could be a step in a more positive direction. At the time I wondered about the usefulness of an annual report with general observations, but think now that this could give church visiting more visibility at classis. Such a report could lead to a conversation on issues that churches have in common. This conversation would be more likely if classes gave church visitor reports a ‘prime’ place in the agenda, a time when delegates are fresh and eager to explore ideas. A classis could perhaps set up a panel discussion format that lets church visitors bounce ideas and impressions off each other, while encouraging discussion among delegates. Other classes may have found other ways of raising the profile of church visiting. If so, I would like to hear these ideas, because if we want to mine new gold out of an old practice, we can start by demonstrating that church visiting is a practice we value.