Ministry to the Sick and Dying

It may surprise some of you that I would ask the question of whether it is the pastor’s job to minister to the sick and dying.  However, there those who advocate to young pastors that this should not be part of their ministry routine, but rather that should be the work of others in church.  I have heard one leader say that the role of the pastor should be that of a rancher that oversees the large herd, rather than a shepherd who cares for the flock.  Now trust me, I fully understand that there are pastors of extremely large churches who logistically could not go and visit every member of their church who may end up in the hospital. However, must of us are not, or will not serve in a church that size and even if you do, I am convinced that you should make time to minister to the sick and dying.  In fact I am friends with several men who pastor very large churches, yet make the time when it is needed. 

Let me quickly add at this point that I am not advocating that the role of ministering to the sick and dying fall solely on the pastor.  That would be absurd!  Regardless of the size of the church there should be people in that church, including other ruling elders who all participate in this essential ministry.  In fact, I have found great joy in going to the hospital or to hospice care to be told several other members of my church of the church had already been there and to be told that I really didn't need to come.

In the Presbyterian Church the pastor is called a “Teaching Elder” as he serves as a one of several elders in a church who are called “Ruling Elders.”   All the elders are called to serve the church in various capacities, however the primary distinction between the two is that the Teaching Elder has been adequately trained, appropriately gifted and called to Preach and Teach.  All elders are “of once class of office, ruling elders possess the same authority and eligibility to the office in the courts of the Church as teaching elders . . . [1] As we look directly at ministry to the sick and dying note what our Book of Church Order states “It belongs to those in the office of elder, both severally and jointly, to watch diligently over the flock committed to his charge, that no corruption of doctrine or of morals enter therein. They must exercise government and discipline . . .  They should visit the people at their homes, especially the sick[2]

Why would it state “especially the sick”? As I mentioned last week being a pastor or teaching elder is far more than preaching and teaching!  Like Christ we are called to live in community with our people and have a ministry of presence.   The ministry of presence is most potent when it is done in a time of need!  To have people surround you that love and care for you is a powerful gift.  To have the one who weekly brings God’s Word to you, and points you to Father through the Gospel, visit and pray with and for you in a moment of crises is healing. 

I have not been the pastor of a mega church, and probably never will.  My last church was made up of primarily young families, so the need for regular hospital visits was very low.  However, I have served at a church that required regular hospital visits and spent significant time with those in hospice care.  I found this ministry essential not just for the people I ministered too, or the church, but for me personally. 

This ministry kept me connected to not just the people I was ministering too, but the suffering and struggles that all people face.   When we as pastors keep our lives full with study, preaching, teaching, meetings, and talks over a latte, we can easily miss the stench of death that is only a breath away from any one of us.  Sickness and sorrow remind us that we are not home yet and all of humanity is connected by a common thread of aging and death.  Everyone who is sick in the hospital, whether rich or poor, young or old, wears the same ghastly, posterior exposing gown.  They are forced to reveal themselves just as they are!   And most of the time that is not pretty!  Yet somehow when we walk in that room and show dignity and respect, we connect with that person in a unique way.  Trust me, when you minister to someone in a time like this, when they come back to worship, they will listen when you preach!

This ministry also kept me connected to heaven and sober reality of hell.  Though it may sound like poor time management, I cherish the times where God gave me the privilege of being with one of His children as they are called home.  Believe it or not these where peaceful joyous times of reflection on life and rejoicing in the hope of the Gospel.  At times I read Scripture and often sing with and for the person.  A funny memory I have is of a close friend and wife of one of my elders who in her mid-50’s was ravished by cancer.   Vivian was a Calvinist who didn't like John Calvin.  I won’t elaborate here, but it was an ongoing discussion that we had over the years.  As she was slipping away, I told her to give John Calvin a hug for me.  She got a slight smile on her face and slowly said, “I am going to kick him.” 

I have also been called by family members to the bedside of dying crusty stubborn old men who claimed to not care if they were going to hell.  Yet through regular visits and sober discussions have seen God bring life to a dead soul days before they were taken home.  The joy of having that family see the difference in these men was tremendously rewarding!  I have faced the reality of hell as people have slipped into eternity dead in their trespasses and sins. 

Here are a couple practical suggestions for hospital visitation.
  •  Plan on a brief visit to the hospital.  There is normally no need to stay any length of time unless you asked or you sense the person needs you there.
  • Make sure there are no procedures being done to the patient.  If there are, just stand outside the door and the nurse or aid will tell you when it is okay for you to come in. If you have concerns about this, just stop at a nursing station and ask if this is a good time for you stop by. 
  • Think about what you are going to say.  Be careful to not ask any stupid or inappropriate questions.  There is tendency to want to fill silence with something, and often what is said is not helpful.   For example rather than ask, “How are doing?” ask “How are you feeling?”   
  • Pray for them and then leave.  I always wash my hands and then touch their hand or arm when I pray for them. 

A helpful tool that I would recommend is “The Hospital Visitation Guide” by Sandra Johnson.  You can get a copy here

[1] Presbyterian Church in America Church of Book Order 8-9
[2] Ibid 8-3

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