On hospital visiting as a pastor

Photo by Erkan Utu on Pexels.com

This is prompted by a twitter discussion recently about whether non-conformist pastors opt to wear a clerical dog-collar when visiting the sick. Dog-collars tend to be part of the traditional uniform of the clergy, particularly though not exclusively among Anglicans.  A lot of us would tend to frown upon then  seeing them as emphasising a distinction between priesthood and laity.

However, over the years, I’ve heard several pastors say that they opt to wear one on hospital visits.  They find that this helps to get them through reception onto the ward to see a church member especially when outside of normal visiting hours and they have also found that it limits the likelihood of interruption when praying with the person and their family.

I have personally not found an issue with turning up at our local hospitals in the West Midlands in my normal attire. Though my experience is pre COVID and there are more restrictions in place, when we had a pastor come in to visit my mum as she was dying, we found that this was also straightforward, in fact the hospital staff proactively asked if we wanted a chaplain to come, or a minister of our choice.

Similarly, I’ve generally found that whether I’ve been there in an official capacity or as a friend/relative, that medical staff tend to respect when a patient has a visitor. If they interrupt because the patient needs treatment or specific care, then it’s because what is needed at that time.

My usual practice would be to phone ahead.  I’d speak to the nursing team on the ward, explain who I was and ask if it was okay to pop in. I would usually indicate a time.  To be honest, I think this is basic courtesy, we are the ones who have to work around the medical staff, not the other way round.   So, I wouldn’t expect to be allowed to turn up on speck, unannounced. Pretty much, every time without fail, I was given permission. I think there was one occasion when the person who answered insisted, I came in during normal visiting hours.  Once I arrived, I introduced myself again to the nursing team.  Sometimes, I would also be able to help with conversations between the patient/family and the medical staff to make sure that they understood what was happening.

What would I do when there?  Well, it would involve the following:

  • A normal conversation -as you would when visiting them at home (if they were able to communicate.
  • I would check with them that they were fully informed about what was happening including diagnosis and prognosis.  They didn’t always know. I’d ask if they were okay for me to speak to a nurse, doctor and get them to come and talk.  Sometimes the patient and family will say that actually they prefer not to know. 
  • I’d read Scripture with them.  Do you known what, I don’t think there have to be any set Bible passages. One time I visited an elderly gentleman and asked him what he would like us to read.  He said “Dave, I’ve never really read Deuteronomy.  Let’s have a look at that.”  As a result of this, we did a teaching series on the book in church shortly after.
  • I’d pray with them and the family.  We would talk first about what they would like to pray for.  Did they want to ask God for healing? If yes, then we would.  I’m a firm believer in God’s children simply coming to the Father with their heart’s desires and trusting him to give what they need. We would also pray for them to be able to keep trusting God, to be holy and faithful through suffering and to find comfort and peace in difficult days. WE would also pray for their witness where they were.
  • Sometimes you might find yourself visiting someone who appears unresponsive, particularly in the later stages of end of life.  It’s often said that the last thing to go is our hearing.  So, I’d talk with them as normal, just without responses.  I’d read Scripture and I’d pray still. 

It’s worth remembering why we do these things.  First of all, it’s for the patient themselves. It’s part of their pastoral care and its part of their discipleship. We want to help prepare and equip them for whatever stage of life they face whether that’s treatment and cure, miraculous healing or terminal illness and dying. 

At the same time, we are also there to comfort and to disciple the family and friends of the person in hospital.  To help them face the situation and also to model for them how to support the patient.  For many, it may be the first time they’ve found themselves at a hospital bedside. In practical terms, as a repeat visitor, you can also help walk them through what to expect.  In many ways, we rightly function as an extended part of the family.

Finally, we are also acting as an encouragement and a witness to others, as we live out the hope we have.  There may be medical staff who are believers and it is such an encouragement to them to see their patients face illness, with the support of their church family and with faith.  There will be medical staff, other patients and non-Christian family and friends who will also see the patient’s faith and even overhear prayers and Bible readings and they may hear something of the Gospel through this.  It may even give the patient opportunity for further conversations with others on the ward.

I believe that there’s a great blessing in ministry to the sick and dying.

%d bloggers like this: