Pastoral Care Week: Walking the Neighborhood


When Eugene Peterson was in seminary in New York City, Dr. George A. Buttrick was pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, overseeing a large urban congregation. He was renowned for his preaching, and held his position in the church from 1927-1955. He then went on to Harvard and other universities and seminaries as a distinguished professor. Buttrick was known, as a biographer puts it, as one who “combined the scholar’s mind, the pastor’s heart and the preacher’s passion.”

After Sunday evening services each week, he would invite seminarians back to the manse for fellowship and discussions. There was no agenda, just a simple give and take between pastor and students.

I will let Peterson take it from here.

On one of these evenings he was asked by one of the students something about preaching. Something on the order of ‘What is the most important thing you do in preparing to preach each Sunday?’ I think we were all surprised by the answer, at least I was. His answer, ‘For two hours every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, I walk through the neighborhood and make home visits. There is no way that I can preach the gospel to these people if I don’t know how they are living, what they are thinking and talking about. Preaching is proclamation, God’s word revealed in Jesus, but only when it gets embedded in conversation, in a listening ear and responding tongue, does it become gospel.’

The Pastor, p.86f

That is one of the best and truest sentences I’ve ever read:

“Preaching is proclamation, God’s word revealed in Jesus, but only when it gets embedded in conversation, in a listening ear and responding tongue, does it become gospel.”

A pastor cannot do his/her job unless his/her words and actions are “embedded in conversation.” What happens on Sunday is of a piece with what happens during the week. A romantic dinner with my wife is connected organically to the life we live together when we are relating to each other as we act out our normal routines day by day: ”fixing, eating and cleaning up after meals, going to work, keeping house, paying bills, doing chores, relating to our children, planning our family calendar, watching television. The special occasion celebrates, fortifies, and enhances the relationship that is built in the everyday.”

Without the daily work of marriage, that romantic dinner might as well be a blind date.

Unfortunately, this is how many ministers operate. They want to stand before the crowds on Sundays without walking through the neighborhoods and making visits on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There is proclamation but little conversation. They are not conversant with the lives, families, work environments, daily pressures, relational situations, and personal questions of those who hear them speak each Sunday. They may be knowledgeable about books, ideas, giving “leadership” to an organization and overseeing programs, but how much do they know about you and me? As speakers, teachers, visionaries and motivators, they may be very good at what they do, but they if they do not live attentively among their people cannot rightly be called pastors. “I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me…” (John 10:14).

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have people who specialize in public speaking in the church. I am saying we need a whole lot more of them to be pastors. There is no substitute for “walking the neighborhood.”

In one of his classic books on ministry, Eugene Peterson wrote about the pastor’s work between Sundays, calling it, “ministry amid the traffic,” away from the church building and program. He contrasted this with the oft repeated job description, “running a church.”

Today, he might write, “The between-Sundays work of American pastors in this century, though, is growing a church.” As Michael Spencer once pointed out, the ethos of growth has overwhelmed the contemporary pastorate. This has changed the pastor’s role. No longer is he/she devoted primarily to “the cure of souls.” Now the job consists of being an entrepreneur, who not only administrates a corporate entity, but who is also expected to energize and transform it into a brand name enterprise. “The Gospel is a product and the world is a market niche.”

In contrast, Peterson has consistently said, “our most important work…is directing worship in the traffic, discovering the presence of the cross in the paradoxes and chaos between Sundays, calling attention to the ‘splendor in the ordinary,’ and, most of all, teaching a life of prayer to our friends and companions in the pilgrimage” (CP, p.73).

In this sense, I therefore heartily encourage congregations everywhere to rise up and tell their pastors to “take a walk” — around the neighborhood, that is.

18 thoughts on “Pastoral Care Week: Walking the Neighborhood

  1. What befuddles me are churches where the issue is not if the members can call the pastor a friend, but if they can call him an acquaintance.


  2. Which why I could never attend a mega-church. I’m happy to say that I can call my pastor a friend. That would be rare to happen in a church of 1000.


  3. Methods may change and home visitation per se has become less common in many communities, especially in the suburbs. The underlying point is that the pastor must be involved in real conversations with real people outside the “temple” in order to speak the gospel with any sense of reality.


  4. You without a doubt will not have as much time for sermon prep…..but are more likely to be seen doing what you’ve been blathering on and on about…… Great trade off…. IMO…


  5. These days pastors should probably call ahead first. However some circumstances require immediate care. In one parish I received a call on one of my first nights in town, that one of our member’s pig farm was on fire. After getting directions, Marge and I both drove out to the farm. We could smell bacon several miles away. But it was important that he and his family receive immediate support. To make matters worse, he had let his insurance lapse a few days before the fire.

    Another time, in the middle of the day, I received a call from the hospital that a member’s 16 year old son had been killed in a tractor accident. His mom received the call while she was at home making his birthday cake. This couple are still two of my best friends, bound together by tragedy, suffering, and the Church.


  6. I’m turning this around a bit in my mind. I’m very much an introvert, so I am glad I am not a pastor! I was wondering what it would be like to have a visit from my current pastor. It would be a surprise, to say the least. Last time I received a pastoral visit was after my first child was born. It was embarrassing, to say the least. All I could think was how my house was a mess and so was I. I appreciated the thought, but still…


  7. Excellent points! On the lighter side, many years ago we were in the waiting room of a doctor in a small town in Kentucky and noticed this sign on the wall: “Halitosis Is Better Than No Breath At All”.


  8. ” . . . Peterson has consistently said, “our most important work…is directing worship in the traffic, discovering the presence of the cross in the paradoxes and chaos between Sundays, calling attention to the ‘splendor in the ordinary,’ and, most of all, teaching a life of prayer to our friends and companions in the pilgrimage” ”

    recalls the words of St. Gregory:
    ““Let us seek from the Lord, not deceiving riches, not earthly gifts, not fleeting honors, but light. . . .
    If we have been enlightened after our blindness, seeing now that Light by our understanding Jesus, whom we see in our soul, we follow . . . .
    Let us see whither He is going, and let us find our way by following His footsteps.”

    (from St. Gregory’s Writings based on Gospel of St. Mark)


  9. You have a load, there, Jake. Perhaps you have a member of you church who could help you with the visitation and check in with you. It is going to be real work, however it gets done. God’s grace be with you.


  10. This is an extremely important post. As for implementing, there are different ways to go about it. It depends on the kind of neighborhood one’s church is located as to the strategy employed, and to the pastor’s personality. Introverts and extroverts may go about it in different ways. I like some things that have been said here already:

    1. Use the phone: people appreciate a call. It lets them know you are thinking of them, their concerns, health, or whatever. It can also pave the way for a later person-to-person meeting.

    2. Literally walk the neighborhood. This can serve more than one purpose. You will meet people, while taking care of your body.

    3. Living in the neighborhood is always a good idea. Living out of the neighborhood sends the wrong message in several way.

    4. If you are bivocational you DO have a head start many times. This may not be true if your job is out of the neighborhood.

    5. Take time to talk with your people before and after church. Meet and greet. But actively listen while doing so. Show that you are listening by asking questions to clarify. Learn how to remember names. This can be hard unless you are a natural . But there are some memory methods that will help. Another thing that just came to mind: carry mints with you to keep your breath fresh. Bad, stale breath is a turn-off. Many years ago, when I lived in Dallas, TX I learned this while training to be a Billy Graham Crusade counselor. Breath mints, spiritual law number 1 (slightly kidding). Remember the old Listerine television lyric : “He said, that she said, that he had halitosis!”.

    6. Be involved in the neighborhood. Schools, neighborhood associations, improvement projects can all be important ways to selectively become involved. Also give attention to local neighborhood businesses, such as small markets of various types, eating places, medical services. Help attend to the needs of the neighborhood. Don’t be afraid to eat with sinners.

    You may not have as much time to spend on sermon prep, but your sermons may become better.


  11. I like this. And I’m glad it’s different from “prayer walks”, where you walk around the city’s walls spritzing olive oil and praying in tongues to drive the bad spirits away.


  12. I would argue that living in the neighborhood is even more important. Yet sadly I know several pastors who do not live in the area of the their church.


  13. Yes that is true but getting into the spaces where our people are is the goal. I am guessing that picking up the phone and dialing people is going to be my “walking the neighborhood”.


  14. I suspect that, as a bivocational pastor, you have a head start on “walking the neighborhood” by virtue of your spending substantial time in the lay workplace rather than in the church office surrounded by other staffers all day.


  15. Honest question. As a bivocational pastor, do you have any suggestions on how to “walk the neighborhood” within a truncated time frame? Thanks for the feedback.


  16. Always one of my favorite themes. This is the gospel come alive for me. Thanks, Chap Mike, and have mercy on those poor pirates…..


  17. I’m reminded of Elijah:
    “And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”
    In modern golf parlance it would be, ” Drive for show and putt for dough.”
    With Jesus it’s never about numbers or flash or bluster. It’s about the little people in the little places and every pastor, and every layman for that matter, does well to take that to heart. It’s not American exceptionalism. It’s not the most, the brightest, the biggest or the best. Lacking intimacy and mundanity it becomes questionable.


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