Pastoral visitation seems like it’s fast becoming a lost art. Though my dad was never a pastor, the one thing I saw him do for years was visit people in their home. Often this was connected to his bus ministry through the church. Every Saturday he would spend hours in homes and on the street, visiting with parents and kids who would ride his church bus the next day. I was usually with him during these times and what he did has stuck with me. But he would sometimes visit people from work or extended family as well.
All of this ingrained in me the value of the pastoral visit. At the same time, I have seen this dwindle among many current pastoral ministries. In part, I cannot help but wonder if it’s because no one has shown them how to do it? Though, I have not always done it well, I want to share what wisdom I can about pastoral visitation.
In this post, I want to focus on visiting people in the hospital. I don’t claim to be an expert on pastoral visitation. Nevertheless, here is what I do based on the examples I’ve seen and the experiences I’ve been through. I hope this practical advice will aid you in your ministry.
Before you leave for your visit, make sure the person is still in the hospital. I know that sounds self-evident, but several times people have been in for what turned out to be nothing serious and were home quicker than I expected. The result was showing up only to find them no longer at the hospital! It only take a few seconds to call and ask for a room number. It might save you a drive or the embarrassment of walking into the wrong room.
Pray before you go in the hospital. Before you get out of the car, pause and ask God to be bless the time you will spend with the person. Ask God to give you genuine concern for the person you’re visiting and encouraging words to say to them. I know some want to be a witness to the world by praying in public, perhaps in the hallway or elevator. I understand this and to some degree participate as we pray as a family when we eat out. At the same time, I am mindful of Jesus’ words about public prayer being an easy path to pride and legalism (Matt 6:5-6). For the pastor, it’s probably better to let his words and his attitude be a better witness than his prayers.
Take a Bible with you and plan to use it. This is where most people fail first. Remember who you are and what you are intending to do. As a Christian, this is more than a social call. This is more than just making sure the person is getting along well. This is a time to bear another burden’s with them and build them up in the faith (Gal 6:2; 1 Thess 5:11). The best way to do that is by opening up God’s word with them (Col 3:16). This doesn’t mean you have to lead a Bible study or something even close to formal. Just reading the person a few verses will be of great benefit to them. What you read will, of course, be different depending whether or not you are visiting a Christian or a lost person.
Get to the gospel. If this is a believer undergoing minor problems, this might be as simple as making it the focus of a closing prayer (see below). If the situation is more serious, you may need to get there more quickly and emphasize the unending love of Christ as the hope for his people (Rom 8:31-39). If you’re visiting with an unbelievers, then more pastoral wisdom may need to be exercised. Do you know this person well? Has someone asked you to visit them? Have they ask you to visit them? All of this will factor into how hard you press in on their need for Christ. At the same time, you shouldn’t leave without first planting some gospel seed.
Be humble with the hospital staff. Gone are the days of ministers having implied respect with the general public, especially healthcare workers. Don’t assume everyone there is impressed that you’ve arrived or is even glad you’re there. Consider it a privilege and carry yourself accordingly. Practically, this means some of us will need to dial down our personalities a little. Go light on the levity, remembering that some people may be facing life and death around you. It also means you might just check it at the nursing station before you walk into the room. Simply asking if “John Smith” is up for visitors will go a long way to letting the staff know you don’t want to hinder them doing their job. Along with that, try not to visit during shift change (often this is 7:00am and 7:00pm). This can be a crazy time where the on-coming nurse needs to introduce themselves to their patients and getting familiar with the person’s treatment in short order and it’s a good witness to be in the way!
Prepare yourself for the worst. I have sometimes stepped into rooms and found the person in a much more dire condition than I would have imagined. I have sometimes even had to make myself close my mouth, which had gaped open at their appearance. I cannot imagine this is helpful for the person to see such a reaction! Regardless of what the person looks like or is going through, try to maintain—even pray for—an expression of confident hope and joy. This doesn’t mean you cannot weep with those suffering pain or loss. It simply means you should put them at ease rather than magnify the weight of their circumstances.
Be sensitive to their situation. We live in an age of medical privacy and by entering into the room, you are inherently removing something of that privacy. When a doctor or nurse comes in to check on them, ask the person you’re seeing if they want you to step out for a minute. At the same time, some people are less concerned with privacy. Once I was visiting an elderly man when, in the middle of our conversation, he said, ‘I need to go to the bathroom,’ grabbed the urinal, lifted the covers, and proceed to relieve himself. His comment was, ‘I’m not shy if you’re aren’t embarrassed.’ Furthermore, some may be even more open and even ask you to do something like help them to the bathroom. Here is a moment when you can either freak out or display Christ’s attitude of love, counting others more significant then himself (Phil 2:4-7).
Pray before you leave. Again, this is something I learned from my dad. It doesn’t matter what else happens, you should always end the visit with prayer. This has the effect of taking the focus off of the physical problems and putting it on God himself—his goodness, his mercy, his power in any situation. When I pray, I try to include specific things that have come up in the conversation, both medical and spiritual. Is the person feeling downcast? Pray that God lift up their spirit. Is the person not responding to the treatment they’re being given? Pray that God would cause their body to begin responding and be healed. I almost always end by asking God to draw the person’s mind to the saving work of Christ.
Ask them if you can serve in any practical ways. The last thing I do as I leave is ask if there is some other way that I can help. Do they need something to read? Do they need me to tell a family member how they’re doing? Can I get them something special to eat (assuming it fits with their physician-directed diet!). Should I check on family left at home? As John Bunyan used to say, ‘We can many things after we pray, but we cannot do much before we pray.’ Prayer is essential, but James says we shouldn’t stop there (Jas 2:14-17).