Basic to a pastor’s ministry is care for the sick. In James 5:14, church members are instructed to call upon the elders to pray over them and anoint them with oil when they are sick. Not every pastor gets this. A pastor once told me, “I tell my people, ‘You don’t want me to visit you in the hospital because if I show up it means you’re about to die.'” This was a pastor of a large church. He felt he had bigger fish to fry. He also hated going to the hospital. Some pastors do. I understand: you see things you didn’t want to see; you smell unpleasant things; some insist on showing you their scar. Like some of you, I’ve held a tray under the chin of a parishioner who suddenly began to hurl chunks. Like some of you, I’ve accidentally caught people in various stages of undress. Like some of you, I’ve had to fight holding my nose in the wake of putrid smells. Like some of you, I’ve had to help people wrestle through horrible news and where God might be in all of that. I’ve even had brand new parents put a dead baby in my arm and ask, “Would you baptize her?” I get is when pastors are slow to make hospital calls. Some have to drag themselves there. So, drag yourself there. We sometimes forget that our presence symbolizes the presence of God. You are an ambassador for Jesus and the church. Your presence brings Jesus’ presence. Your touch is Jesus’ touch. It’s the church’s touch. It matters. It’s central to our calling as we care for souls and help shepherd them through the valley of their sickness.
Over time, pastors tend to find their groove, their style, in how they make a hospital visit. Find your style and do it your way, a way that’s reasonably comfortable for you. But that said, let me share some tips that reflect how I do hospital ministry.
In regard to surgery, I try to arrive at the hospital when the patient is scheduled to arrive. I find it helps my parishioner to see me when they arrive. It encourages them and in an unconscious way reminds them that God is with them too. I chat for a moment, assess nerves, offer a Scripture and prayer in their behalf, and go on about my day. If I (or none of our ministers) can’t be there in person, a phone call the night before surgery or even that morning is better than nothing. Physical presence is better. Though I don’t always remember to do so, I try to follow up by phone later that day to see how things went.
In regard to a basic hospital visit, here are some pointers born out of experience:
- Utilize parenthesis prayer: before you go into the room, after you leave, and while you are there.
- Respect closed doors. I usually knock. If no answer, I try to leave a note or a card in the door and move on.
- Pay attention to medical directions posted on the door (gown and glove and mask?)
- Foam in / Foam Out. (Most hospital provide hand sanitizer outside a room door. Don’t take any diseases into the room with you; don’t take any out.)
- Don’t wake sleeping patients. Rest is critical in recovery from sickness and surgery. I only attempt to wake the parishioner if he/she has asked me to.
- Don’t be afraid to offer your hand in greeting—kind and gentle touch matters.
- I generally stand for the visit unless the patient asks me to sit, or I sense that the conversation might be longer than usual.
- Keep your visit brief—unless the patient engages you in a significant conversation (5-10 minutes max.) If the room is full of visitors, I usually bring a greeting, offer an open-eye prayer, and move on.
- It’s okay to ask the nature of the patient’s health issue—if you are comfortable with that.
- Don’t offer health advice. You may be a Ph.D. or a D.Min., but you are not an MD. Keep your medical advice to yourself. Don’t confuse the patient or say something stupid about an issue with which you don’t have all the facts or the know-how.
- Don’t make the visit about you and your health. (It’s okay to say, “I’ve been there,” but don’t tell your whole story or show your scars. It’s not about you; it’s about your parishioner.)
- Before you leave, ask, “Could I pray with you?” You might even ask, “How can I pray for you?” If the patient is not a Christian (someone I’ve been asked to see), I usually do open-eye prayers where I say something like, “I’ll be praying that the Lord helps you get better and so you can go home and get on with your life.” And if a non-Christian patient wants to talk, an evangelistic witness is appropriate.
- If a Scripture comes to mind, share it. God’s words are better than our words. I encourage you to memorize several Scriptures that are appropriate for hospital ministry, so you are always ready with the Word.
- Offer to pray, gathering up the concerns you’ve discovered during the visit, and keep it brief. I take the parishioner’s hand as I pray or at least place my hand on his/her shoulder.
Now, a final word: if you have staff, share some of your hospital ministry with them. You don’t have to go all the time. In our current set up in our church, I go to the hospitals on Monday, on my call Friday, and on the weekend if necessary. Otherwise, all our ministers have their day. This is a good thing. When staff ministers make hospital calls, they get a chance to know the larger congregation and to be seen as a church pastor rather than a niche minister. If you don’t have staff, involve your deacons and some women in the church to help you in this ministry.