Make no mistake: Some people in your congregation–and others who are connected to your church–will end up in the hospital. When this happens, you can provide great comfort to the hospitalized person and to his or her friends and relatives.
You may visit the hospital to share in the joy of new parents who have given birth to a perfectly healthy baby. But you may also visit with a terminally ill person who has been knocked down in the prime of life. And no matter why people are hospitalized, they all have different personalities, different spiritual experiences and very different feelings about being in the hospital. These differences can make preparation difficult, but your visits can always bring a sense of hope to even the darkest situations as you share the comfort, love and peace of God.
The following guidelines will help you deal with your own uneasiness in these situations as well as the patients’ varying needs.
Help From Scripture
There’s no better way to be prepared than by being familiar with the Word of God. God gave us his Word “so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17), and our calling as pastors requires that we be “thoroughly equipped.” That means becoming so familiar with Scripture by reading and meditation that our words and actions rise out of a familiarity with it.
The words of Scripture are often extremely helpful in hospital visits. It can be helpful to memorize selected Bible portions so that the words come to mind at the right time. Here are some verses you might memorize or at least be ready to read:
• Deuteronomy 33:27
• Job 19:25—27
• Psalms 16:7—11; 23:1—6; 32:1—11; 33:13—22; 34:1—8; 84:1—12; 91:1—16; 103:1—22; 130:1—8; 139:1—18; 147:3
• Isaiah 40:27—31; 43:1—3a; 55:6—9
• John 3:16; 11:25; 14:1—6
• Romans 8:22—39
• 1 Corinthians 15:50-57
• 2 Corinthians 4:13—18
• Ephesians 2:4—10
• Philippians 1:6; 3:20—21
• Revelation 21:1—5
Remember that the process of reading, memorizing and meditating on Scripture will be used by the Holy Spirit as you visit the hospitalized person.
You might also take along a hymnal or chorus book. If you can sing reasonably well, do so, quietly, if the patient is comfortable with it. Ask the patient to join you if possible. Singing an appropriate song at an appropriate time can make your visit both memorable and comforting.
Know the Patient
If you don’t know the patient well, learn as much as possible about him or her before you visit. Ask yourself these questions to determine how well you know the person:
• Is the family situation a positive one? Is the family supportive?
• Is the patient without family?
• Are finances a worry?
• Is the patient usually shy, outgoing, arrogant, humble or…?
• Where is the person spiritually?
The more you know, the better the visit, since your knowledge will enable you to speak words that fit. If you know another member of the family well, ask him or her a few questions about the individual you’re planning to visit.
Make the Visit
Remember that every visit you make is a new one. Each person is different. And the patient may seem quite different in the hospital than at home or in church. The pressure of sickness, surgery and hospital practices can bring out the best or the worst in people. A patient’s response to that pressure may surprise you. That’s why you must remain flexible. Follow a set pattern that puts you at ease when you enter the room, but be ready to change course as the visit proceeds.
With this in mind, here are some guidelines that can help during the visit:
Visit When It’s Appropriate
If you think in terms only of your own schedule, you’ll be frustrated by the quality of your visit. Typically, you should also take into account the schedules of the patient, the hospital and the doctors. In the morning, patients seem more alert, but a morning visit may conflict with a doctor’s early rounds. Just before or after lunch, hospital staff and doctors are least apt to interrupt, but it may be difficult for you to be there at that time. Late in the afternoon, the energy level of many patients wanes. Ask God to make the timing of your visit right for the patient and for you.
Be Cheerful, but Never Flippant
A helpful passage comes from the book of Proverbs: “A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:13). God teaches us to have a happy heart, but remember that the heart of the person you are calling on may very well be aching, leading to a crushed spirit. Your task may be to lift that crushed spirit. Ask God to give you sincere cheer and to reveal it in the proper measure to the person you’re visiting.
Sometimes people are exceptionally perceptive when facing death or a life that will change because of a lingering illness or a disabling injury. Be sure that your “happy face” comes from a cheerful heart and not from a practiced smile. Don’t let your position tempt you to pretend a piety you don’t have or don’t feel. Answer questions with all the insight that the Lord gives you. But be scrupulously truthful. Only God knows all the answers.
Give Compassionate Responses
Study the following questions, and carefully consider how you will answer if a patient asks you any of them.
“Why is this happening to me? I’ve always tried to lead a good life!”
“Do you think God is punishing me because…” (followed by a confession or admission of guilt).
“Why does God let these things happen?”
Prayerful study will allow God to use you to provide appropriate answers. (Also see “Life’s Tough Questions” beginning on page XX.)
Read or Recite Scripture
The nature of your visit will greatly depend on the person you’re visiting. Very sick people or those in pain usually can’t tolerate a long visit. Reading Scripture might prolong the visit too much. If a doctor arrives to see the patient, that’s probably a good time to end the visit.
Others love to hear the Word read to them. They may have a favorite passage in mind. It’s good to ask, but be ready if they ask you to choose something. (See the list of recommended Scripture verses on page XX.)
Sometimes people need to talk. Give them the opportunity. It’s important that you hear the words that come directly from a person’s heart and mind. Talkative patients may take the conversation in a different direction than you had planned, but ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into what is just right for that visit. If you have listened well, it will certainly help you on your next visit.
If the Patient Approves, Pray
Most hospitalized people welcome prayer and may expect it of you, though occasionally someone may object. In every case, ask if the patient would like you to pray with him or her. Of course, if a health-care worker is waiting to see the patient, be thoughtful and courteous. Just bear in mind that many hearts have been comforted through prayer.
Remember that long prayers aren’t necessary. Praying too long may exceed the attention span of an uncomfortable hospital patient. A few words can be as effective as many.
Finally, never forget that you have come for the benefit of the patient, not yourself! Don’t think about your visit as one more task to check off your schedule. As a servant, your call is to minister to the patient, not to fulfill a task.
Conclude the visit with prayer and a friendly good-bye. Patients will appreciate the question “Is there anything I can do for you?” While the answer will usually be “no,” don’t ask unless you are prepared to respond to a request.