After serving for four months, my biggest surprise as District President also surprises many of our professional church workers and lay leaders: Visiting our 160-plus churches and mission congregations in a three-year cycle is one of the primary expectations of District Presidents.
This is a pleasant surprise, but still a surprise. For more than a decade, my roles on the District staff had me traveling to churches. However, this doubles the number of churches I will visit yearly.
This Ministry of Visitation runs counter to what many people expect from a District President. Instead, it’s assumed the District President will primarily work from the District office, coordinating the work of the District. If the District President were to travel, it would be to circuit meetings or installations of pastors.
While coordinating the work of the District is vital, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod sees the Ministry of Visitation as just as important.
It’s fair to ask, why?
The Back Story
From the beginning of Synod’s existence, the Synodical President strove to visit each LCMS congregation between national conventions. When the Synod grew too large for the Synodical President to visit all the churches, the Synod was unwilling to give up this ministry.
The solution? Create Districts. District Presidents would then handle the “Ministry of Visitation” to each church.
For the first 15 years I served as a pastor, I don’t think I ever heard about this “Ministry of Visitation.” This is because, over the decades, new priorities arose for Districts and District Presidents. Visitation became just one of a number of duties.
LCMS President Matthew Harrison was instrumental in returning focus to the Ministry Visitation. The most significant change occurred in 2013, when the LCMS changed Circuit Counselors to Circuit Visitors. The title itself suggested a culture change, shifting priorities toward the Synod’s beginnings.
The churches I served either started new congregations or were themselves new church starts. One of our most important resources in these endeavors was the Book of Acts. While the Book of Acts tells the story of the Gospel spreading throughout the world, it also reveals how congregations were supported.
In Acts 15:36, the missionary Paul says, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” (ESV)
It is clear the early church modeled the visits the LCMS wants to see in each District.
At a deeper level, I remember what I felt as a parish pastor when reading the openings to Paul’s epistles. For example, reading Ephesians 1:15–16:
“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers…”
Privately, I wished that someone would speak like that about our church. I see Ministry of Visitation a way to celebrate what God is doing in Ohio District congregations.
I am fully aware of the challenge of this visitation. Three years is not a lot of time to visit so many churches and missions.
This year, I plan to visit churches three days a week. I try to make two visits on Sundays, one in the morning and one in the evening. On Tuesdays, I usually attend a Circuit Meeting, then visit one of the circuit churches that evening. On Wednesdays or Thursdays, I’ll visit a church in the evening. During the day before the visit, I offer to meet with any pastors in the area who would like to visit.
Nuts and Bolts of a Visit
Ohio District churches range from around 20 worshippers a Sunday to 1,000 worshippers a weekend. One size does not fit all when it comes to visitation. While preparation for visitations varies, the purposes of the visits do not change.
- Learn about the health and vitality of your congregation.
- If appropriate, provide suggestions and guidance for your church going forward.
- Identify programs or ministries offered at your church that might benefit other congregations.
- Share with the congregation what is happening in the Ohio District.
Question of Location
My wife, Dorinda, and I are mulling over options of where to live near the Mission Support Center in west Cleveland. When I talk about such a move, I have congregational leaders asking whether visitation would be more effective from a geographically central location in the District. I think I’ll know which is more effective by the end of this triennium.