Resources‎ > ‎

Visitation Coaching

by Tim Isbell


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 that I'm sure he wants to pass along to others. So I'm posting this coaching resource for pastors and parishioners on how to make Christian visits in hospitals, prisons, and homes. Because God has a habit of speaking through scripture and prayer, both of these are vital elements of Christian visits. As you read through this web page, you will discover another link to a Visitation Scriptures List. I've included a Word file of this Visitation Scriptures List as a download in the Attachments at the very bottom of these web pages.

Keeping the main thing the main thing

Most of this web page describes "best practices" when visiting people in need. But bringing our very best practices, even embellished with some reading material or the like, are not the most important things we bring into the setting. The most important thing 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).

Bringing the Spirit of Jesus into the room presupposes that we are in a healthy relationship with Jesus as Lord. At the end of the day, nothing else we bring will help all the much - nothing but the Spirit of Jesus. We may leave a trinket or two with the person, but the best thing we can leave with them is the Spirit of our living Lord.

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”?

Okay, now let's look at some best practices.

Visiting in hospitals

While driving to the hospital, pray for the patient - especially ask 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 (or download the Word file attached to this web page). As you sit in your car or the lobby, scan the list and ask God to point one out for you to use with the parishioner. Then head for the hospital room.

On the way inside, find a restroom and wash your hands. 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, the 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.

Then 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 for them, then leave. The whole visit takes only 20 minutes. On your way out of the hospital, remember to 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.

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 okay just to drop in during visiting hours.
  2. It's fine to take some light or devotional reading and leave it 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 have to wait. So take a book to read, and be patient.

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 house/apartment 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 (picture is a typical pre-op area). 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 you can't find pre-op and the Information Desk is closed, check with Admitting. 

Design this contact 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 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 around 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 who 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, check out Identity in Christ.

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


Go to IsbellOnline News to subscribe to feeds of new content like this page. 

Tim Isbell,
Feb 27, 2011, 10:22 AM