Confession: I used to dislike hospital visits.
Fresh out of college, I came on staff at North Side and was immersed in a training program. It wasn’t one in a classroom or one that had a syllabus, but it was one that provided a new situation weekly in which I was forced to learn what to do.
My first week of work at North Side, Jeff (our senior pastor) took me along for my first official hospital visit. As we entered into the room of an elderly man who was very sick, his family somberly stood around his bed. They were very encouraged to see us. After asking about his condition, we tried to encourage the family, and we prayed together.
Walking down the hallway, Jeff looked at me and said, “He’s possibly got 2 days.”
“2 days for what?”
“2 days until he dies. Didn’t you hear the ‘rattle?'”
Making our way to the elevator, Jeff explained the “death rattle” to me (the sound that one makes when saliva is clogging up the throat nearing death) and I was a tad terrified and a little doubtful.
Two days later when I heard the news that the man had passed, I realized I better start listening to a man who had been in thousands of hospital rooms over 20 plus years of ministry.
Growing Churches and Hospital Visits
As the church continued to grow, it grew more and more difficult to meet the demand of pastoral care for those who were sick and those who had a family member who was sick. In most of the church growth literature, we read stories of pastors of churches who were telling their congregations that they were simply too busy to do hospital visits anymore. We heard about church plants in which pastors would set the record straight from the get-go that they would not do hospital visits.
It became a recurring punch line at church leadership conferences that “I tell my people, you better hope that you don’t see me by your hospital bed because that probably means you are about to die. It has to be real serious if I am going to make a visit. So, you know what? Now, my church doesn’t want to see me at the hospital.”
While all the “experts” and “successful” pastors were walking away from pastoral care, Jeff wasn’t buying it. No matter how much the “experts” tried to free his schedule, he wasn’t going down that road. As much as I have learned from him concerning an open-door policy approach to counseling, I have also learned so much about his sacrificial work ethic and his humble, shepherding heart.
Our elders decided that it was best if the pastoral staff went on a rotation system concerning who was on-call for the main purpose of protecting Jeff’s schedule so that he could be a good husband and a present father. He has to be in his house if he is to manage his household well (1 Tim. 3:4). Jeff agreed with the direction as long as he was on the rotation and could go as he saw the need.
The system has served our church well. The week I am on-call, I am on-call. The church has an on-call number that comes to my cell phone, and I can be called at any time. I have gotten calls throughout the week and I get involved promptly. Some weeks are slow, and some weeks are absolutely crazy due to our the number of members we have.
When Jeff was asked at this year’s South Carolina Baptist Convention, “What is something that your church does well?” Jeff replied: “I think we do an excellent job of pastoral care for a church our size.” We really do work tirelessly to make a growing church still feel small. We are not perfect, but we try our hardest.
One week that I was on call, I was finishing up a counseling session with someone and getting ready to go have lunch with my family when I received the news that one of our members had been rushed to the hospital with a possible heart attack. I wrapped up the session and scheduled a time to reconvene, I jumped in the car and told my bride that I wouldn’t make lunch, and took my shortcut to the hospital with expediency.
The hospital staff was helpful with directions and I finally came to the door where the family was. I knocked, they opened the door, and I was greeted with anxious eyes.
As I began to ask initial questions and try to calm the room down, I could tell something was off. It wasn’t the fact of the dangerous medical condition, something else was going on with the spouse of the patient.
Offering words of comfort, I was interrupted and asked, “Where’s Jeff?”
“Umm…he was at the church with someone when I left, but I’m on-call this week and so I jumped in the truck and came on over. I have been praying the whole drive over here, and I would love to pray with the family now, but is there anything else I can do for you?”
The spouse replied, “Yes, you can go back to the church and tell Jeff to come.”
A little taken aback, I replied, “OK, I sure will. When I left, he was in a counseling session, but I will tell him. What else can I do?”
“He needs to be here. You can go and tell him that he needs to be here.”
I tried my hardest to pray a prayer that day with that family that did not get in the flesh, but I was struggling. It wasn’t even so much that I was personally offended as I was overwhelmed for the expectations on Jeff. An associate pastor who can do a decent job at pastoral care in a crisis situation, who knew this family well, had left time with his own family, and had stopped everything he was doing to be with them at that moment was not enough for this spouse. As I prayed, one of the grown children quietly apologized to me for the parent’s offensive statements, and I covertly reassured that it wasn’t a problem.
When Jeff got done with his counseling session, he drove to the hospital using the shortcut he had showed me, and continued to minister to this family in the coming weeks through the patient’s recovery. He never complained but served the family with compassion, and I stayed at the church office with the on-call number awaiting an incoming call.
While Jeff met that expectation at that time, the family eventually left our church for another church in town over a trivial reason. Out of respect to this family, I am leaving out the reason why because I would rather no one close to the situation connect the dots. Let’s just say that my silence is not due to the HIPAA law (Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Acts), but more so due to the FIPAA law (Fearful that Indignant People might Attack Agnew).
I also remember another time that Amanda and I were going to see one of our own family members in the hospital. As we turned the corner, I saw a church member who looked relieved to see me and ran towards me. An emergency situation had arisen in a church members’ life. They had called their small group and they were all there. This was one of the group members that found me.
When I stuck my head in the hospital room just doors down from “the room of rejection,” I saw another set of anxious eyes, but these weren’t disappointed to see me. They filled with tears, ran up to me, and basically collapsed on me. The seriousness of the medical situation was serious and the dynamic in the waiting room was complex. I prayed as I talked in order to connect a bunch of dots in the room.
Our time with that family that night and in the weeks to come was wrenching. And yet, I was so honored to be there.
Why? Because the Bible shows me the calling concerning pastoral care:
- I have been called by God to “shepherd the flock among me” not “under compulsion,” but because I get to (1 Peter 5:2).
- I want to equip this church family with the gospel, but I also want to give my life away to them (1 Thess. 2:8).
- As I go and visit the sick, it is an act of worship as if I am attending to Jesus Himself in the hospital bed (Matt. 25:36).
- I have been comforted by Jesus so that I can in turn comfort others in their affliction (2 Cor. 1:4).
- As an elder, I have the wonderful opportunity to pray for healing over the sick (James 5:14-16), but this promise does not mean it is limited to church elders. There is still a priesthood of believers (1 Pet. 2:9), and I believe that a member of our church’s prayers by a hospital bed are just as powerful as a pastor of our church’s prayers.
- Jesus was present and active in praying for and healing the sick. In fact, you see him during on “off-stage” moment going to Peter’s house and finding his mother-in-law sick and he healed her (Matt. 8:14-15). You have to be in relationships with people to be in their homes and to know their families. I love this aspect of Jesus!
- I am called to bear one another’s burdens so I can fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).
- We echo the incarnational ministry of Jesus who came to the people (Matt. 1:23).
- It allows me to fulfill the Great Commission of making disciples by teaching people all that Jesus has commanded while they serve him from a hospital bed (Matt. 28:19-20).
- It allows me to encourage sick people to make Jesus look great through their suffering (Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:12).
I have grown to love hospital visits. Even though it adds tasks on the list, it is an opportunity to point to Jesus in some of the most difficult of times. It is an opportunity to shepherd people through some of the darkest times. In a time where more churches are getting away from this type of ministry, I am thankful for another item to be added to the list, because I believe it to be biblical and extremely worthwhile task for the Kingdom of God.