Can I be honest? I don’t like going to the hospital, whether as a patient or as a visitor. There are a host of reasons for this, but perhaps one memory I have illustrates the point. I remember going on a hospital visit with a colleague to visit a member of the church only to find out after we entered the room that he was suffering from a highly contagious skin rash. Wonderful. Oh the joy. I stuck my hands in my pocket and did not remove them for prayer. I didn’t want the creeping crud. My colleague and I then walked very briskly to the nearest restroom and started vigorously washing our hands up to our elbows. I then prayed that I wouldn’t catch the infection. Praise God, I didn’t catch it. But this is just one reason why I don’t like to go to the hospital.
But as a pastor, you don’t have a choice about making hospital visits. Whatever hang-ups or issues you might have, they just don’t matter. If a member of your congregation winds up in the hospital, you need to go, period. There is, however, an art to making a good hospital visit. You have to realize that everyone is different—they may, or may not, want you to visit. Many people end up looking and feeling their worst when they’re in the hospital and so they don’t want someone dropping in. Also, if you’ve never been a patient, you won’t know that a hospital is the last place in the world you go to get rest. People constantly shuffle in and out of the room, prodding, poking, asking questions, and taking blood samples. So someone might be too tired to receive yet another visitor.
That being said, here are a few simple tips:
(1) Call ahead – make a phone call and tell the person that you’d like to visit them. This will give them (or family) the opportunity to tell you whether they want you to visit.
(2) Keep your visit short – I used to stay no more than ten minutes. Say a few words, ask how they are doing, and then offer a brief prayer. Tell the person that this is what you’ll do so that if they want you to stay longer, they can tell you.
(3) Put on a good poker face – I promise you will likely see, smell, and hear some strange and even disgusting things if you go on enough hospital visits. Whatever you do, don’t react. Keep a warm and sunny smile on your face regardless of what you see, smell, or hear.
(4) Don’t conduct church business – you may think that a hospital visit is a good time to talk to somebody about their recent failures to attend worship, but it’s not. Tend to the person’s needs, pray for them, and once they are better, then approach them about their failings. Follow this rule unless, of course, there are pressing matters and time is of the essence, such as if a person is on his deathbed and needs to deal with un-confessed sin.
(5) Bring your Bible – I promise you that if you make enough hospital visits you will encounter situations that will leave you speechless. I remember looking at someone who barely looked human because she had been so battered and bruised in a car accident. In such circumstances simply reading Scripture can be vital and beneficial. Make sure you identify adequate passages of Scripture for various circumstances ahead of time so you don’t stand there flipping around desperately looking for something.
(6) Be prepared to make a follow-up visit, whether at the hospital or at home.
These are some pointers on making a hospital visit. But whatever you do, don’t ignore one of your congregants if they do go to the hospital. I have seen other ministers fail to make a visit (or even the effort) and pay for it dearly. One of the quickest ways you can convey indifference is fail to make a hospital visit. And remember, there is no such thing as minor surgery. Minor surgery is what happens when other people have an operation. When you have “minor surgery,” it’s a pretty big deal. So don’t assume because something is “minor,” that it doesn’t warrant your attention.