This is a sketch of how to put together a community visitation, drawn from Shalom Mission Communities traditions and experience. The outline is meant to remind communities and their visitation team of possible steps to take. It should not limit, but rather is intended to stimulate the imagination.
Purpose: The purpose of a visitation is something like a community health checkup in the Body of Christ. It is, first of all, a ministry of listening and accompaniment. The visitation may be scheduled because it is a good periodic community practice (every 1-3 years). The visitation may be helpful as a community assesses a new direction it feels called to take. Sometimes a visitation is called for because the community is in crisis and needs outside support to find guidance and meaning in a time of conflict or loss. In such a case a series of visitations may be helpful.
It is important that the visitation be conducted by persons representing communities with compatible visions. A visitation can be like a blood transfusion, so there must be a “blood type” match. The visitation team is committed to help the community fulfill its mission rather than change it. The visitation is not something done by outsiders for a passive community, but rather it is an occasion for the community to gather, spend time together and to review its own life with the help of a few experienced outside companions and facilitators. Visitations usually are scheduled for about three days, perhaps from a Friday noon through Sunday night–depending on travel needs of the visitation team.
Steps toward a Community Visitation:
I. An intentional Christian community requests an experienced community leader whom they trust to assemble a team of two or more people (or chooses a desired team) that will conduct a visitation. (This first step should be at least three months ahead of the expected visitation, if possible.)
II. Follow-up Phone Call: The visitation team leader follows up with an extended phone call or e-mail exchange to get acquainted with the community’s current reality and needs. S/he might ask about the following:
– Current membership profile (Who are the persons in the various community membership categories?)
– What do members have in common? What brings them together? Do they live in same neighborhood? Share household life? Eat meals together? Pray together at set times? Carry on common work? Common ministry? Share finances? Chores? Worship? Decision making? Childcare? In what does the community have koinonia?
– What are the current agenda items the community is working on? Would the community want the visitation team to facilitate a meeting on a difficult topic?
– Is there a theme or need the community wishes the visitation would focus on?
– Request copies of key community documents like covenants, by-laws, position papers, newsletter, etc. Is there a web site where these things can be found?
– What are the main ministries the community supports?
– What is the extended community of supporters and friends beyond the core members?
– Would the community like for the visitation team to offer some particular teachings or workshops as part of the visitation?
– Does the community have suggestions of other persons who might be on the visitation team?
III. Assembling the Team and setting the date: In coordination with the community, the visitation leader gathers a team of two or more persons and settles on a date for the visitation. The team leader will share all s/he has learned about the community (see II. above) with the other team members to orient them toward the visitation.
IV. Community preparations and participation in a visitation: The visitation is a valuable time for the community to come together for review and renewal. It is helpful if folks can free up their schedules to make several meetings possible during the visitation. Here are some suggestions that you might consider in preparing for visitations:
– Circulate a questionnaire in which community members can express themselves with confidentiality about their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with various aspects of community life and leadership. These questionnaires are sent to the team several days ahead of their arrival, if possible.
– Schedule an initial meeting of the whole community with the visitation team at their arrival. This is an opportunity for everyone to get acquainted, ask questions in both directions, talk about the visitation plan.
– Give the visitors a tour, an opportunity to eat or meet with folks in their various homes or places of community activity.
– Have a sign-up sheet with scheduled times that permit anyone who wishes to meet with someone from the visitation team. (This sign-up sheet can be passed around at the first meeting with the visitation group or members can request this ahead of time.)
– Schedule meetings with community leaders, committees, or other groups who might want to meet with the visitation team.
– Schedule some free time for the visitors so they can consult with each other, take naps, and prepare for their concluding report.
– Schedule a concluding meeting with the whole community and the visitation team at which time the team will report what they have heard from the community and the Lord, make commendations, identify concerns and make suggestions as they are led.
– Pray for God to use the time of visitation to clarify, encourage and renew the community in its calling as disciples of Jesus in community.
V. Follow Up: The visitation team will usually delegate someone in the group to write up their recommendation, concerns and suggestions to leave with the community. What the community does with these notes is up to them and their discernment. Often a visitation creates a certain bond of trust and connection so that further calls and consultations might follow if useful. The visited community normally pays for the travel costs of the visitors or makes a donation according to what they can afford.
For further resources, see David Janzen’s The Intentional Christian Community Handbook for Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus, Chapter 27, “Becoming Accountable—Visitations and Community Associations.”