The work of an elder in Christ’s church is a noble and holy calling from God. The elder has reason to rejoice greatly while overseeing professions of faith, baptisms, and celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. It is also, at times, a very distressing and sorrowful task; yet we are comforted knowing that Jesus is the great Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25). Even as God has called the pastor to preach and administer the sacraments in and out of season, so too must an elder rule, admonish, and encourage in and out of season.
Ideally, I think many would agree that all elders, or governors, should go through a short training period before assuming their office in the church. While this may be an excellent goal it may not always be possible. Therefore, the following is a sort of “crash course” on one basic role of an elder. The focus is on family visitation, which is an important part of an elder’s work.
The family visitation information has been taken from Taking Heed to the Flock by P.Y. DeJong, With a Shepherd’s Heart by John R. Sittema, and The Elders Handbook by G. Berghof and L. DeKoster. I have added some of my own comments as well. Obviously, much more can be said about the office of an elder; this is but a brief study. I have written this study to help the newly appointed elder as he faces family visitations; it may also serve as a reminder or review for an elder who has done many family visitations.
Huisbezoek: Family Visitation
DeJong notes, “every minister and elder installed in the churches assumes part of the responsibility which rests upon the consistory to contact the families entrusted to it, in an official way.” Concerning “official,” it is important to remember that Christ has instituted the office of elder (presbuteros) for the good of His church. He is working all things together for our good—elders are part of His working, so to speak. The work of the elders is “in a very real sense the work of Christ accomplished by them. They have been officially called and qualified for their task.”
Since the church belongs to Christ, she cannot rule and care for herself. Since Jesus has lived and died for His church, Christ “owns” the church, and has authority over her. And for the good of His church, He appoints elders to watch her and care for her—to watch lovingly over the souls of Christ’s people. One way of watching over the people of God is family visitation. Although there is not a “proof text” commanding elders to visit families, Paul set the pattern as he taught the Word from house to house (Acts 20:20). But family visitation is indeed implied in Scripture, as the elders care for the souls of the people of God (see Hebrews 13:7 & 17). Elders cannot evaluate the spiritual condition of the flock simply by greeting them before or after the services each Lord’s Day.
What better way is there to care for the souls of people than to visit— out of love and concern—the families of the congregation? How can the elders know the spiritual condition and needs of the flock unless intimate contact is made? To put it plainly, family visitation “takes the pulse and temperature of the Body” of Christ.
DeJong lists several purposes of family visitation:
1. To help develop the spiritual life of the congregation. When an elder visits a family, he is there to admonish, warn, and comfort when the member needs any of these. For example, if a member struggles with assurance of faith, the elder would find this out during a visitation time, and by God’s grace, be able to comfort and encourage. Also, elders must point out enemies of the gospel that may threaten a particular church and its members. Primarily, family visits should be a time where the elders remind believers of the gospel, the riches of Christ. I would submit that an elder must speak the gospel in every family visitation, encouraging the family to “hold fast” their confession of faith in the Lord (Hebrews 10:23). In a word, the elder is concerned about the worship of the triune God in the life of each family.
2. To challenge the lives of believers to service. Since works follow true faith, a Christian will serve people. However, often they need encouragement and guidance; an elder's instructive words to "love thy neighbor," are spoken to motivate the Christian to service. Elders do have the official right to exhort members to a life of faith as well as obedience. When visiting families, the elder should seek to equip them to serve the Lord, to worship Him with their lives. One way the elder can do this is my encouraging Christians to serve and help others in various ways. Simply put, the elders are to exhort Christians to proclaim the gospel by their actions. Even as elders do family visitations, the congregation is able to see what loving service looks like—the elders are an example for the flock. Just by visiting families of the church in a Christ-like manner.
3. To Promote the Communion of the Saints. Family visitation can promote unity in the church, as elders may be able to stop gossip before it becomes deadly, may be able to encourage two quarreling members to seek forgiveness goes on. Much prevention is done by visitation—putting out a fire before it burns out of control. Furthermore, family visitations will build up the confidence the congregation has in their elders and bring the flock closer together as they worship the triune God.
Sittema gives other purposes for visitation, which overlap with De Jong's:
1. To Encourage using Scripture: See 1 Thessalonians 5:11, 14, 2 Timothy 4:2, and Titus 1:9, 2:15. Face it: the flock is often weary and weak and wrestling with deadly sin. They need the encouragement that God gives His people in Scripture. Bring comfort and hope to families from God's Word!
2. To Rebuke using Scripture: See Proverbs 3:11, 9:8, 15:31, 29:1 as well as Luke 17:3 and Titus 1:13. Often, a family will need to be lovingly chided for sinful habits or other actions which are contrary to God's Word. Humbly, do not be afraid to carefully rebuke a family who has unbiblical practices.
3. To Admonish/Counsel using Scripture: See Exodus 18:19–27, Colossians 1:28, 3:16, and 1 Thessalonians 5:12. Families will need your advice and wisdom. You are called to counsel them, using the Word as your guide. Pray for wisdom as you give instruction from Scripture.
4. To Guard using Scripture: See Proverbs 4:13, Luke 12:1, and 2 Timothy 1:13–14. False doctrine is nothing new in Christ’s church. As an elder, be sure to recognize and rebuke doctrine that is against Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity. Also included in this heading is guard yourself from false doctrine—know the Reformed Standards!
All seven of the above should be centered on the Word of God. Although technically elders do not participate in the ministry of the Word as the ordained pastor does, their office is one that centers on the ministry of the Word. Thus, the elder must govern the church according to the Word of God. God instituted marriage (thus the family as well) before the fall, and He provides “standards or norms” for marriage and family in His Word. It is the duty of the elders to remain within these standards, as well as call for obedience to them in the church. More purposes for family visiting could be listed, no doubt. But these seven are quite central. Doing all of them to the glory of God is the elder’s work, a fine but difficult work indeed.
1. Explain to each family why you are there—let them know you are not a “policeman,” checking to see if this is a moral family. Even as Christ came not to the righteous but to sinners, you are coming to sinners—saved sinners, but sinners to be sure. Remind the family that you are there not to find fault, but to comfort and encourage, out of love for them and love for the gospel.
2. Relax. Although your visit is important and “official,” you are not preaching a sermon in church (a sermon or “sermonette” should be avoided). Neither the elder(s) nor the family should dominate the conversation—it should be balanced. Pray for humility, and remember that you love the family that you are visiting, and Christ loves them as well. You may be nervous, but the family is perhaps more nervous!
3. Sittema encourages elders to open up, to be transparent. Let the family know that you are a normal person, briefly let them know of your walk with Christ (this may help with # 4 below). Do not give the impression that you are more spiritual or biblically literate than the family, or you may distance yourself too much from them.
4. Remember that spiritual discussions are difficult for many people.
Unfortunately, it is rare for a family to discuss openly assurance of faith, struggles with sin, the riches of God’s forgiveness, etc. Be sensitive to this, yet gently and lovingly keep the conversation on the things of God. Try to ask questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer.
5. When you call to set up a visit, be sure to firmly note that the entire family be present. It is important that you see the entire family. Do not set a date until one can be found where the entire family will meet you.
6. How often should you visit? This answer requires prayer and Christian wisdom. DeJong notes that in the context of the Reformation’s wake, elders would frequently visit families once a week! Many suggest once a year, which is, in my opinion, a good place to start at minimum. I would strongly suggest monthly phone calls, just to say “hello, I’ve been praying for you.” You would be surprised how effective a ten minute phone conversation can be.
7. Do your homework! Research the family a bit before you visit— know the names of all the members. Perhaps discuss upcoming visitations in consistory. As you do your homework, make it a habit to pray for the family you are visiting. It may not even hurt to tell each family that you have been praying for them. In the prayer that closes the family visit, make mention of the topics covered in the discussion.
8. Sittema also encourages elders to take notes of the visit afterwards. Be mindful especially of the areas where the family needs prayer, encouragement, and follow-up. Also, add the family to your prayer list, so you can pray for them in the weeks and months following.
9. Encourage fellow elders in their family visitation, and pray for them. Family visitation requires self-discipline, because, unfortunately, we do not always feel like making family visits. Set a realistic visitation goal, perhaps one or two evenings every month, for example. Work on keeping your goals, and encourage other elders along the way.
10. Plan your visit. Berghof and De Koster wisely suggest that elders who are visiting should plan on who will open with prayer, lead the discussion, take the initiative to leave, etc. Obviously you must be flexible, but a well planned out meeting will keep the discussion on the right track and make the most of the short time you spend with each family.
Putting it to Work
What does a family visitation look like? Many have made outlines suggesting the proper method of family visitation. While we cannot set a “rule” for methods, we can glean from what others have taught. Obviously, the elder must recognize the fact that the father is the spiritual head of each home. The conversation must reflect this understanding. Scripture must be emphasized, and prayer must also be a part of each visitation.
Below are several topics DeJong proposes for family visitations. As mentioned above, ask questions on the following topics in a way that requires more than a “yes” or “no” answer.
• How are the family members diligent in attending worship (utilizing the means of grace)?
• How is spiritual growth evident in the family members?
• How is there peace and unity in the home?
• How is the family open about discussing spiritual matters?
• When/where/how is family worship conducted?
• Where do the children receive proper Christian education?
• In what ways does the family have anything against anyone at church?
• How is the family involved in church functions?
• In what ways is the family a Christian witness to their neighbors?
• What are some evidences of true faith in daily life?
• How is the family’s financial situation?
• What are some doctrinal questions the family might have?
• In what ways is the father, as head of the home, a Christian example?
• How are the mother’s actions consistent with Scripture
• How do the children submit to their parents?
In closing, remember the elders duty is to lovingly govern, instruct, rebuke, comfort and build up the church of Jesus Christ. Family visitation is an excellent way to do so. We must never become negligent of this task. It may not always be enjoyable, but it is for the glory of God and the good of His people. You, as an elder, have been called by God to serve Him by being intimately involved with His people. God will give you what you need; keep praying for wisdom!
At the end of the day, remember that even though church leaders are imperfect and only hold office for a time, we have an eternal Overseer of our souls, who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8). Both the flock and her leaders are under the government and rule of their loving Shepherd, Jesus Christ. The role of an elder begins and ends with our Savior.
Mr. Shane Lems is a member of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan. He is currently a student at Westminster Seminary in California. With a Shepherd’s Heart is published by Reformed Fellowship and availible for purchase on our website.