Preparing to Preach in a Nursing Home

By: Mark E. Yurs

Clergy are sometimes expected to take a turn leading worship at a local nursing home. In some cases, the congregation places this duty on us, while in others, we gladly perform this service as part of our personal outreach to the community. In all cases it is a responsibility unique in its opportunities and demands. What special considerations should go into preparing for preaching at a nursing home?

Second only to the minister’s devotion to God ought to be respect for the congregation. The temptation may be to go easy on these elderly and offer something similar in nature to a children’s sermon. Pastors should resist such a temptation. One should preach to nursing-home residents as to all adults. Like the parishioners one faces in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, those in the nursing-home chapel are widely diverse. They are also educated and experienced. Advanced age and decreased physical ability do not necessarily mean diminished mental or spiritual capabilities. A children’s sermon may insult the intelligence of the lawyers and engineers who may be present, not to mention the one who taught Sunday school for more years than the minister has preached.

When speaking from a nursing-home pulpit to people who deserve respect, the preacher should not be afraid to talk about death. A desire to keep from being morbid in a situation that one may already find depressing could lead one not to raise the subject of death and dying. But avoiding it is no help. The residents are dealing with grief in its wide variety of forms, and it all points to their own mortality. They have said – or are still saying – goodbye to their spouse, their house, their yard, their home community, their hobby, their physical health, and much more. These good-byes mean that their souls are sore. They are ready to hear what God has to say about death.

This is not to say that every sermon should be funereal. A preacher at a nursing-home pulpit should bear in mind the whole range of human concerns. The best homes are filled with laughter, friendship and undiminished zest for living. Nursing-home residents, like their counterparts in the home sanctuary, are concerned about family life, relationships with children and grandchildren, personal finances, getting along with others and the welfare of their neighbors. Like the rest of us, they fight guilt, temptation and the dry times of prayer. A preacher should vary the subjects of sermons.

Christian duty can be a ready topic. As with any congregation, the nursing-home preacher should expect the hearers to accept Christian service. It is not sold on the estate sale before moving to the facility. I Corinthians 12:7 applies to the nursing home: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the good of all.” Helping people find something they can do just when they think there is nothing may be the best sort of therapy a pastor can offer.

It may be especially helpful for a minister to suggest ways the resident can work for the home parish. She may have been extremely active in the years of strength, serving on various boards and committees or as an officer or teacher. Now, unable to serve and unable to attend worship in the home church, she may no longer feel that she is a useful part of the community. The pastor could rejuvenate this person by giving her something to do for the church so long served. One resident of a nursing home at which I’ve preached used the abundance of time on her hands to pray for the church and its program, members and teachers. Another wrote notes of appreciation and encouragement. Both found their form of service a source of invigorated life and joy.

A minister would be wise to refer to current events when preaching from the nursing-home pulpit. At issue is not merely the general need to relate spiritual truths to the present day. It is important for nursing-home residents to keep abreast insofar as they are capable. The activity department of the home may even have a current-events class that fosters this interest. The purpose of such a class is not simply to give the people something to do; rather, its aim is to provide the intellectual stimulation that helps minds remain active, strong and oriented to the wider world as well as to immediate surroundings. Sermons can help meet this need.

A local pastor who takes a regular turn preaching at a nursing home should plan the preaching. The residents of the home deserve the best of one’s work every bit as much as do the people of one’s regular congregation. For most of us, this calls for planning, for selecting texts and themes well in advance of the day of the sermon. If one preaches once a month at a local home, one can look at the church year and civil calendar and plan 12 sermons without extraordinary effort. These sermons can then grow over time, and they will bear all the marks of something well prepared.

A pastor who puts time into sermon planning and preparation might get upset with those residents who sleep through the service. There is no reason to be put off by these folks. Instead, under God we should believe that they are helped by the songs, the prayers and the idea of being present at worship. These familiar words and movements may be more benefit than a well-crafted speech. This is especially the case with those residents who are suffering from some form of disorientation.

Meanwhile, one should be prepared for anything, for it could happen. My seminary intern year was spent working as a chaplain of a nursing home sponsored by my denomination. One Sunday while the senior minister I worked with was preaching, a woman from the congregation shouted, “Ah! Go to hell!” The minister handled the situation with grace, which means he did not say anything to or about her but went on with his message. Actually, his heart broke, for he knew how embarrassed the woman would
have been had she been in her right mind. Rather than relate other such stories, I suggest having a nurse or aide nearby to help with any disturbances should they arise. By way of encouragement, I can say that in 11 years of nursing home preaching, one year of which was full time, I have experienced only two such times of difficulty, and they were handled with ease.

In delivering a sermon, volume may not be as important as careful enunciation. Speaking in too loud a voice, particularly if using a public address system, may also deter the proper function of congregants’ hearing aids.

When greeting the people after the service, a pastor should consider arthritic hands. I have cultivated the habit of glancing at a resident’s hand before I grasp it. If it is obviously arthritic, I simply hold out my hand and allow the resident to grasp it as best as he or she is able.

A preacher should spend time in the home, at least with his or her own parishioners. As with any preaching, nursing-home preaching cannot be divorced from a knowledge of the people. Since nursing-home preaching is itinerant work for most of us, we will never come to know the whole congregation well. Still, we can get to know our own members who are residents. That knowledge can help create the atmosphere out of which quality preaching grows.

The chief difficulty with nursing-home preaching is that we might not think about it until it is time to do it. Then we will stumble through ill-equipped and ill-prepared. When that happens we lose an opportunity to do good for the sake of the kingdom. While it is true that most nursing-home residents appreciate even the smallest of efforts in their direction, that does not mean they deserve only the smallest. By carefully working through the above considerations when approaching a nursing-home assignment, a pastor can develop a fruitful and rewarding ministry.

(The above material appeared in the January/February 1993 issue of The Christian Ministry.)

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