I can honestly say that I’ve grown to love visiting my church members when they’re in hospital. I’m surprised to hear myself say that, since there was a time when I positively despised hospital visitation. I’m a rather shy guy by nature, who has a tendency to be awkward around people I don’t know. I would much rather preach than make small talk in the ER waiting room. But by the grace of God, the Lord has grown and matured me to the point where I actually find hospital visits enjoyable and encouraging.
What made the difference? Two simple things, really. The first was just plain old experience. Like developing any skill, if you do a few dozen hospital visits you’ll get more comfortable at it. But more than that, I’ve learned to do a few simple, specific things that have transformed hospital visitation from a labourious drudgery into a true means of grace—both for the person I’m visiting and for my own soul. I share these with you in the hopes of encouraging and equipping you to make the most of these precious ministry opportunities.
If you’re visiting somebody in the hospital, it will almost certainly be an awkward experience. You’re in a strange location with weird smells and beeping machines and lots of tubes, and the patient is probably wearing one of those less-than-modest hospital gowns. It’s a really weird context. But here’s the point: it doesn’t matter. Over the years I’ve learned to ignore my awkward feelings and just get on with doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I realize this is much easier said than done, but the older I get, the less I view feelings as the compass of my soul.
Many of us are under the impression that pastors need to speak Gandalf-like golden pearls of wisdom when they visit, and if they don’t know exactly what words to say, they’ve failed. That perfectionistic delusion needs to be put to death forever. Frankly, unless you say something massively stupid, it’s likely those you visit won’t even remember precisely what you said. But they will remember that you made the time to be there.
Prayer (and Scripture reading, see below) is what distinguishes a pastoral hospital visit from simple hospital chitchat. So, by all means, whenever you visit somebody in the hospital, pray with the individual before you leave. I didn’t always do this early on, and found out later that some people were actually offended that I didn’t pray (and with good reason). They thought, “The reason I wanted my pastor to visit me was so that he’d pray with me!” Even a 15-second prayer as they’re wheeling the person into surgery is better than none at all. And obviously, I’d encourage you to emphasize the promises of the gospel in your prayer, for it is quite possible that the sick person won’t be healed in this life.
Unless it’s some traumatic emergency situation, I always make time to read the Bible with the person I’m visiting, and almost always one of the Psalms. The common things of life are “made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:5), so let the Lord speak his power into the person’s situation. I’d encourage you to go with one of the shorter Psalms of comfort (Ps 23, 27, 34, 38, 46, 121, 130, etc.). Also, for those of us without the gift of the gab, reading the Bible gives us something worthwhile to say to break that awkward silence.
This is a tough one to navigate, so pray for wisdom and discernment here. Obviously if the person has something weighing on their souls that they’d like to discuss with you, stay as long as necessary. But under normal circumstances I believe you can have a very fruitful hospital visit in 20-30 minutes. You don’t want to overstay your welcome, and you also have other responsibilities to attend to.
This may be the hardest one on this list to do, especially for young, shy pastors. But there comes a point where you’ve just got to put one foot in front of the other, knock on the hospital door, and walk into the room. Sure, it will be uncomfortable and you might not know exactly what to say. Sure, the place smells weird and the nurse may interrupt your prayer. But at the end of the day, none of that matters. So ignore your fears and inhibitions and go do what you know pastors should do. Be a minister of the word, in season and out.
Hospital visitation is a unique opportunity for pastors to demonstrate Christian love and speak gospel words into the minds and hearts of those who, due to the circumstances, may be unusually attentive. Chances are they’ll remember your hospital visit for the rest of their life, even though they may not remember last Sunday’s sermon. So my prayer is that by the grace of God you too may come to the point where you can honestly say, “I love visiting my church members in the hospital”.