Pastoral care (14): Emmaus, the mother of all visits

Emmaus, a small town near Jerusalem, was the scene of an interesting exchange between the Risen Jesus Christ and His disciples. And that is precisely what a really good pastoral visit should look like.

The Lord’s encounter with the disciples of Emmaus, which is recorded in Luke 24: 13–35, is a prime example of a successful pastoral care visit, more or less as it might unfold even in our day. From this biblical encounter we can derive five rules for ministers when providing pastoral care:

  • Jesus perceived His disciples’ state of mind and recognised their needs.
  • He accompanied them on their path and showed them companionship.
  • He listened to them carefully.
  • He answered their questions and thereby provided them with orientation at the same time.
  • He ultimately took His leave of them again and allowed them to carry on in their own personal responsibility.

The starting point was quite dramatic: Jesus’ disciples from Emmaus were in despair. They were filled with sadness, disappointment, doubts, frustration, annoyance, uncertainty, concern, and fear for the future—a little bit of everything. A sense of purposelessness and disorientation had arisen within them. Without a word, they decided to make their way back home full of grief. It is interesting to observe how the Son of God interacted with His disciples in this special situation. He did something here that sometimes takes ministers a lifetime of study, and in so doing, He set a monument to practical pastoral care.

Perceiving and recognising concerns

Jesus knew that these two disciples were in a bleak mood, and thus sought to draw near to them. Although He was astonished that they did not realise what was happening to them despite all of the instructions He had given them beforehand, He did not reproach them, but reacted in an objective and loving manner.

A glimpse into the congregation often reveals the state of mind of individual members, and whether they have positive or negative thoughts when they look into their future. How are the social bonds within the congregation? Are there cliques? Is there isolation? Are there conflicts? What do the members of the congregation talk about? Are those who claim to be doing well actually doing well? With a great deal of understanding and the necessary time, this can all be discussed in a pastoral care dialogue.

Accompanying and showing companionship

Jesus accompanied His disciples for a time, albeit in a direction leading away from Jerusalem. But right from the start, His intention was to move them to turn around and return to Jerusalem. He had no reproaches in store for them, but instead offered only fellowship and companionship.

When applied to the work in our congregations today, this means that we share in the lot of our members—not only take note of it. Those who bring to expression: “I have time for you! I am here for you!” will always find a willing discussion partner. This also includes the sensitivity to leave our own point of view behind and put ourselves in the shoes of the other person. As Christians we can also pray with our brothers and sisters. Praying with others often prevents misjudgements!


Jesus Christ listened to what was oppressing His disciples. Lonely people are either often very quiet or else anxious to talk and get things off their chests. The disciples of Emmaus talked. And Jesus listened to them carefully.

Listening is a gift that not every human being possesses. In pastoral visits, the proportion of time spent listening is considerable. People who feel they already know everything ahead of time or who keep interrupting are a real nuisance. One can recognise someone who is listening by the way in which that person imparts a feeling of closeness and connectedness. Posture, gestures, and facial expressions signal openness and understanding. Active listening is comprised of inquiry, confirmation, and empathy. It is not one’s own person that stands in the foreground, but rather the other person. Personal experiences, ideas, and solutions are indeed worth gold—but everything in its own good time.

Providing answers and orientation

Jesus put His disciples on firm ground, reinterpreted the words of the old prophets for them, and spoke to them like a teacher who is able to turn theory into practice. He answered the famous question people often ask—“And what does that have to do with me?”—with familiar words.

It is the same today: pastoral care visits often deal with questions of faith. One can certainly expect a clergyman to answer these questions clearly on the basis of faith and doctrine. He may not immediately have an answer to every question, but he will know someone who does have answers. Overall, he imparts a sense of sympathy, and in all decisions and matters of life, he asks the questions: what does God have in mind for us? What will bring us closer to the Lord?

Moving on and letting go

Last, but not least, after everything had been said and discussed, the Son of God went on His way and left the disciples. He had perceived their need, accompanied them for a time, listened to them, and provided them with new orientation. One cannot do any more than that.

Those who love sincerely can also let go with trust. For the minister, this means letting his fellow believers follow their own path once his mission has been fulfilled. It is not the length of a pastoral visit, but rather its quality, that makes it good. The sisters and brothers will make their own decisions, and are ultimately also responsible for them. Moving on and letting go does not imply disinterest or indifference, but is rather an expression of trust in the other person’s strength.

Photo: Prostock-studio -

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Peter Johanning
Congregational life