It’s intimidating. Some would say it’s downright scary.
What do you do?
What do you say?
Maybe more importantly, what shouldn’t you do?
What shouldn’t you say?
After all, you’re visiting a person in the hospital.
I had all of those thoughts and emotions the first time that the senior pastor of my church called me and asked me to go visit someone in the hospital. My pastor was out of town, and an elderly woman whom I had never met was having surgery that day. He called me and asked me to go see her when the surgery was over, to stand in for him.
My heart started to race. I was the youth pastor. I was comfortable talking to middle and high school students about their lives and helping them navigate adolescent decisions. When it came to senior citizens, I was totally out of my comfort zone . . . especially in a hospital.
I searched the internet for a list of encouraging Bible verses and chose a couple to keep handy. When I arrived at the woman’s room, I was greeted by a few of the woman’s family members. The looks on their faces gave away what they were thinking: Where is the real pastor? Nevertheless, I was able to make some small talk for a few minutes, share one of the verses I had found, pray with the lady, and escape unscathed.
In the years since that first hospital visit, I have grown a little more comfortable in those situations. Some visits are easier than others. It’s usually less stressful when I know the person, and the reason they’re there isn’t life-threatening or life-altering.
My most stressful hospital visit involved a man in his 40s who had just had both of his legs amputated because of an aggressive infection that hadn’t been treated properly. I didn’t know him, but the man’s nephew had asked me to visit him. That was tough.
Through all of my trips to the hospital to visit people, there are a few things I’ve learned that I believe will help you accomplish your reason for being there.
7 Tips for Your Next Hospital Visit
1. Know the Rules
Different hospitals (and different unites within a hospital) have different rules about restrictions about visitors. Who is allowed to see the patient? How many people are allowed in the room at one time? What times are visitors allowed? Knowing the rules will prevent you from making a misstep before you ever get into the room.
2. Understand the Situation
Do your best to learn about the situation and the person’s condition before you arrive. If you don’t know the patient, ask a family member about his or her spiritual beliefs and background so you can minister in a meaningful way. Being informed about what’s going on will also help you be prepared for what you might see when you into the room.
3. Bring a Bible
Don’t rely on the Bible app that you have on your phone. Hospital rooms are filled with beeping gadgets and digital devices. When you enter the room with a physical Bible in your hand, you convey the idea that you have a solid word to speak into the situation.
4. Wear Appropriate Clothing
It’s important to dress the part of a pastor when you’re going into a medical space. The hospital workers aren’t members of your church who understand you’re the youth pastor and are okay seeing you in a t-shirt, shorts, and a hat. They have expectations about how pastors (as professionals) should dress and present themselves. When you make a hospital visit, wear a shirt that has buttons and a collar, brush your hair, and leave your hat at home.
5. Introduce Yourself
If you know the patient, you need to introduce yourself to the family members and friends in the room. You might even want to introduce yourself to the nurse if he or she is in the room when you arrive. Sometimes you won’t know the person you’re seeing. In that case, introduce yourself by giving your first and last name, your position at the church, and how you heard about them. That last bit is important because the patient might be wondering who invited you. Upon introducing yourself, always ask, “Is this a good time?” It might not be.
6. Listen with Empathy
An easy question to open with is, “Well, what’s going on here?” It’s generic enough that the person can go in any direction he or she wants. If they want to share about what led up to them being in the hospital, they can. If they want to share about what the doctor has said, they can. If they want to complain about the weather or the cafeteria food or the uncomfortable room, they can. Do not say, “Everything is going to be okay.” You don’t know if everything is going to be okay. Whatever comes in response to your question, just listen and express empathy. Also, allowing space for silence is perfectly acceptable. Sit, listen, and empathize.
7. Encourage with Scripture
After a few minutes, ask, “Is it okay if I share a scripture with you?” You might not have medical training, but you’re there to share encouragement from God’s Word. I have shared many times from Psalm 23, Psalm 139:1-18, Isaiah 40:26-31, Philippians 4:4-8, and Colossians 1:15-22. These texts seem to me to strike a balanced tone of seriousness and hope. Be sensitive to the situation. Allow the Holy Spirit to guide you and speak through you. Then conclude with a brief prayer.
Preparing to Leave
As you prepare to leave, assure the patient that you will keep him or her in your prayers in the days ahead. Thank the person for allowing you to visit and ask the family to keep you informed about the person’s status. It is helpful to leave your contact card with someone in the room.
That is how you complete a hospital visit. In total, it should take you less than twenty minutes. Longtime pastor Stan Toler notes, “Unless they want a longer stay – which seldom happens – it would be best to limit your visits to a span of ten to fifteen minutes” (Stan Toler’s Practical Guide for Pastoral Ministry, p. 150).
Good luck and take heart. Hospital visits get easier the more you do them!
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