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Visitation Coaching

by Tim Isbell


I'm posting this resource for pastors and parishioners on how to make Christian visits to hospitals, rehab facilities, private homes, and other settings where people recuperate and live out their last season. There's also a short section on visiting in prisons/jails. 

I started practicing Christian visitation when I was a layperson, and the frequency increased throughout my years as a local church pastor. Along the way, God taught me a few things to pass along to others. God has a habit of speaking through scripture and in times of prayer. So this post offers some pointers in these as well as in the basic logistics of a Christian visit. 

Keeping the main thing the main thing

Most of this web page describes "best practices" for visiting people in need. Bringing our very best practices, even embellished with some light reading material, are not the most important thing we bring to the setting. The most important item is for us to carry in the Spirit of Jesus. Especially in these settings. we are ambassadors of Jesus (2 Corinthians 5.20); we are one of those living letters written about by the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 3.3).

In Armchair Mystic, Mark Thibodeaux says it this way: When I visit those sick and imprisoned, for instance, who is it that I bring to them: my God or myself? Upon my exit, are those I visited saying to themselves, “How good is this man,” or are they saying, “How good is God”?

Visiting in hospitals

While driving to the hospital, pray for the patient and the support team around them. And, especially invite God to make his presence apparent during the visit. Either in your car or the lobby, stop long enough to select a scripture to share. To see my personal list of scriptures for such situations just click on Visitation Scriptures List. Scan the list and ask God to point one out for you to use with the parishioner. Then head to the hospital room.

On the way inside, find a restroom and wash your hands. Most hospital rooms today also have hand sanitizers just inside the door - use that, too. When you get near the patient's room, stop at the nurses' station to be sure it's an appropriate time. Since I'm a pastor, I usually say something like, "I'm the pastor for _________; is it okay for me to visit?" This is especially important if the patient's door is closed or if a medical worker is with the patient. The nursing desk can give you some guidance on when the patient will be available. Before I was a pastor, when I walked in I'd just say "I'm a friend of ___________ from the church; is it okay for me to visit?" Since I am now an ordained minister, I carry the identification card issued by my Nazarene tradition. This card is renewed annually. And I also carry business cards that identify me. But in all my years of visiting hospitals as a layman and a minister, nobody ever asked for identification.

This kind of light contact at the nursing station communicates that, even if the patient hasn't had any other visitors, somebody cares about this visitor enough to make the trip. Especially when the person is hospitalized for several days, this helps the staff know who you are. 

If the patient is in intensive care, the hospital severely limits visitors - usually to immediate family members - and clergy. And in intensive care situations, most hospitals limit the number of people in the room to 1 or 2 at a time.

Next, enter the room, greet the person, and stand by the bed. Standing indicates to the patient and anyone else that you won't stay very long. Chat for 10-15 minutes. Then, unless you feel "checked" by the Holy Spirit, ask something like "May I share a scripture with you before I leave?" You can do this even if there is medical staff or another visitor in the room. You can talk about the scripture for 1-2 minutes, but this is not a time to teach or preach. After the scripture, ask "May I pray for you before I leave?" My experience is that this is always welcome. If possible, touch the patient's shoulder or hand and pray briefly for them, then leave. The whole visit takes under 20 minutes. On your way out of the hospital, remember to use the hand sanitizers and/or wash your hands again.

Sometimes you will walk into the room, and find the patient sleeping. I don't usually awaken them though sometimes a nurse thinks it's okay, and they wake them for me. But if not, I'll sit quietly near their bed for 5 minutes praying for them, then place a business care or something with a note on it on their tray.  That way when they wake up, they'll know they had a visitor. And other family members who visit later will see the card and know how to contact you.

There are, of course, exceptions to short visits. Sometimes you may be waiting for them to pass away - which is very unpredictable. In these cases, if they are a long-time Christian you might want to bring a hymnbook. Even though I am a poor singer, sometimes I sing hymns to a passing saint. I keep copies of a few hymns in the glove compartment of my car for such times. The patient never seems to mind my quiet singing; often they are unconscious - but I always assume they know what's going on around them. Sometimes there are others there, such as family members.

Three final thoughts:

  1. You do not need to make an appointment with the patient before visiting them; it's normal to just to drop in during visiting hours.
  2. It's fine to take some light or devotional reading to leave with the patient. A periodical is best, so the patient knows that they don't need to return it but can just discard it when they finish.
  3. Whenever you go to a hospital, expect to wait. So take some work to do.

Visiting around surgical procedures

To provide a Christian touch to a person going into surgery, contact them a couple of days ahead and ask to come by their residence the night before surgery to read a scripture and pray for them. Or, if you are a pastor you can visit them in pre-op before the surgery. The best time to walk into pre-op is about 45 minutes after your patient enters Admitting. It may take a little searching to find pre-op. If it's early in the morning and the Information Desk is closed, check with Admitting. 

Design your pre-op visits to be no more than 5-10 minutes. Usually, hospitals only allow one person at a time in pre-op, and there may be a family member already with the patient. They usually welcome you and, if necessary, the family member willingly steps outside for a few minutes while you visit. After you read a scripture and pray for the patient, it's time to go to the Surgery Waiting Area until they go into surgery. Often family member(s) or friend(s) gather there, giving you a chance to meet them, too. You are invariably welcome to sit quietly and wait with them. But it is also appropriate to leave. Before you leave, find out the time the surgery should finish, and invite a family member to phone you with how it went - or arrange to phone them.

Visiting in prisons and jails

It is tough for a Christian friend to visit a parishioner in prison, and when they do it usually uses up time slots assigned for visits of the prisoner's family. The best way for a parishioner to contact a prisoner is to write letters. Prisons and jails are very restrictive about what you can send through the mail, so check with the prison before you send anything.

At most prisons and jails, a pastoral visit does not count against family visit time. But pastors must go through a screening process to get inside a prison. Contact the prison chaplaincy office to find out the process, which will include very restricted days/hours. Once you have access, you can do the same sort of visit as in a hospital, but usually, you'll have to meet them through a glass window and talk through a phone. There are many biblical stories about people in prison or captivity which are very helpful in prison visitation. Unfortunately, I have not developed a list of these, so you're on your own.

Visiting in homes

Often you will want to visit a person in their home. This works for a broad range of situations such as shut-ins, people recovering from illness, people who have suffered a loss of a loved one or a job, or many other situations. While using scripture and prayer is common in hospital and prison visitation, it is not quite as common for a layperson to use it when visiting in someone's home. Even so, especially pastors need to look for opportunities to bring scripture and prayer into home situations.

There are a couple of differences in home visitation. It is usually best to make an appointment, though this may not be necessary for a shut-in you visit regularly. And you can stay longer - something like 30-45 minutes usually works fine.

For another useful scripture, list to help people discover who God says they are (or can become), check out Identity in Christ.

May God bless you as you live out your life as part of Christ's body.


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