Pastoral visits can be made in many ways. Some ways are better than others. Some suit you personally better than others. But most of us can improve. The three-step approach I present here has, I think, some advantages: it keeps the visitor on track, it avoids unnecessary small talk, it focuses the visitor's listening, It keeps the visitor from talking about him/herself, it is adaptable, it is non-threatening, and it gives the member-being-visited freedom to express what matter to her/him most.
Step One: Listen! Hear!
Remind yourself: the purpose of this visit is to help this member grow in personal faith and well-being. Your aim from the outset is to let this member tell about her/himself. So a good way to begin is asking this question: “How are you doing?” It is such a simple question, so common among us, yet so important. Stick to that question. Broaden it out a bit. Health? Daily work? Relationships? Worries? Family matters?
Avoid small talk: it can easily thwart this first step. Listen carefully. Allow explanations. Don't interrupt. Don't respond at this stage. Listen for underlying concerns. If this person evidently switches over to events unrelated to his/her well-being, see if you can gently bring the conversation back to the basic inquiry: how are you doing? Heed Ken Lawson's wise advice: “While listening, you are responding. The way you listen is a response.”
Step Two: Solicit an Emotional Response
In this second stage of the visit you want to inquire about this member's self-assessment of what she/he has shared with you. The best vehicle of this is for the member to express (some of) his/her feelings. So you make a slight change in your questioning. You may ask such questions as: “Are you now a bit worried about this?,” “Are you happy with this new arrangement?,” “Do you feel bad that you said that?,” “Do these responsibilities rob you of sleep sometimes?,” “Were you afraid when you made that decision?,” “Were you relieved when you heard that news?,” “Were you able to express your love?,” “Was it hard to forgive Liz?,” “Does John mean a lot to you?,” “Do you struggle with regrets?,” “Can you talk about it together?,” “Do you find it hard to pray about this?,” “Did that affect your relationship with Christ?”
Such questions will serve as catalysts for people to assess their inner being and recognize their feelings, express them, and come to terms with them. Pay careful attention. Don't interrupt. If you feel that the discussion is going in the right direction, don't change the topic. If you feel that the discussion is being side-tracked a bit, carefully ease it back to what you think is helpful to this member's well-being. Remember this visit is not about what you feel or how you think this person should act or feel. You may have had similar problems: keep them to yourself. Don't change this part of the visit until you feel that the person's feelings have been recognized and expressed.
Step Three: Bring God into the Picture
Do it gently, modestly, naturally, but without excuse. You will not be judgmental. Voice the assurance of God's grace and love. Where sins and mistakes are admitted, even hesitantly, express the promises and assurances of God's forgiveness in Christ. Remind this person of God's promises and the accomplished work of Christ. Express the assurances of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Forgiving others will bring relief and peace. Avoid matching what you hear with similar examples that come to your mind. To the end remain the gracious, attentive listener.
Be careful not to make the visit too long. (One hour is a good time-frame). If you feel more ground needs to be covered, suggest that you schedule a follow-up visit. The added advantage: both the member and visitor can think things over in the meantime. A brief closing prayer is always proper.