Effective hospital ministry

Visiting hospital patients is an important ministry. Knowing what to do and say can make your visits more profitable.

E. Harold Roy served for four years as a hospital chaplain. Currently he is pastor of the Wooster Seventh-day Adventist Church in Wooster, Ohio.

Most of the illnesses you will encounter in your hospital visits do not have strictly physical causes. One study of 500 cases at the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans found that 77 percent of the illnesses were psychosomatic. 1 Solomon put it this way: "As he thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Prov. 23:7).

Often it is spiritual healing that the patient needs most. Since fear, stress, and anxiety cause so many people to be come sick, helping them to deal with these will facilitate their recovery. And this is where you, the pastor, come in. As you visit the hospital patient, you are a most important part of the healing team. How should you go about this healing work?

Your visit is important

Realize the importance of the hospital visit. Working with and for human beings is the greatest work in the world. When you go to the hospital to see the patient in the name of Him who said, "I was sick, and ye visited me" (Matt. 25:36), you are following in the footsteps of Jesus, who spent more time in ministering to the sick than He did in teaching or preaching.

Your church members will forgive you for almost anything except failing to visit them when they are sick. In the early days of my ministry a little boy from my church went to the hospital overnight for a tonsillectomy. He was terribly disappointed that his pastor did not come to the hospital to see him. Of course, the reason I did not go was that I did not know he was there. But I had to do some quick explaining and peacemaking.

Usually your members will call to let you know when someone is ill, but some times they need to be reminded that the pastor is not all-seeing and all-knowing. Especially when you are assuming duties in a new church it is good to ask the members to let you know when someone is ill.

Remember that the individual is still important. In an age when we emphasize ministry to the masses, we must not for get the individual. In the hospital you have a one-soul audience. Often this is where you can do your best spiritual work. Much of the work of the Master was for the one-soul audience--Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syrophoenician woman, Zacchaeus, and many others. Much of His teaching and many of His parables concerned one person--the one lost sheep, the one lost coin, the one prodigal son.

Making visits effective

Decide when is the best time to visit. I knew one young minister who made a routine hospital call at 11:00 p.m. An other made such a call at 10:00 p.m. It is hard to believe that a minister would be so inconsiderate of a patient. Visiting the sick should have first place in a minister's work, not last. Patients need their rest at night. Save late-night visits for emergency cases only.

Usually between 10:00 a.m. and noon is the best time to make hospital calls. By this time the patient has been fed, bathed, and visited by the physician. By avoiding the usual visiting hours you will be able to visit more privately with the patient and to talk more confidentially. In the case of patients of the opposite sex in wards you may, of course, need to stick to regular visiting hours. Avoid visiting at mealtime. Patients often feel ill at ease eating in your presence when you cannot eat also.

A hospital call should not normally take more than about 10 minutes. Occasionally a member may have some spiritual matter or a problem that will take longer. If the patient is seriously ill, you may need to stay longer, strengthening and encouraging the family by your prayers and presence. On one hospital visit I made several years ago the young patient had taken a sudden turn for the worse. That day I stayed for three hours, praying for the patient and endeavoring to comfort the family until the crisis was past and the young man was out of danger.

A good time to visit surgical patients is the night before surgery. Try to be there at about the time regular visiting hours are over so you can talk privately with the patient. The problem with visiting on the morning of the surgery is that the patient has often already had his preoperative medication and is groggy before you arrive.

Sometimes a patient does not sleep well the night before surgery. Reassurance from the pastor that God will be present in the operating room can be a great help. A text such as Joshua 1:9 or Isaiah 41:10 can bring comfort.

Be informed when you visit. Know the nature of the patient's illness before you enter the room, either from the family or from the physician. Your visit with some one with a minor illness will certainly differ from a visit with a terminal cancer patient.

Introduce yourself at the nurses' station and tell the nurse in charge that you would like to see Mrs. Brown or Mr. Jones. If the patient's door is closed, it is usually for a purpose, so ask the nurse if the patient is busy. Never open the door and walk in without knocking. It can lead to embarrassing encounters. If a "No Visitors" sign is on the door, it usually does not apply to the minister, but check with the nurse to be sure.


Be pleasant. Approach the patient with a smile and a friendly greeting. Don't be gloomy, and don't try to be a Jolly Jim. The patient takes his illness seriously, and you should too. You may want to say something like "I hope you had a good night" or "I hope you are resting well."

A smile and a pleasant greeting will go a long way. As one author expressed it, "The most professional thing which any clergyman can do is to be his best self."2

Have a positive attitude. Speak in terms of health. One writer states, "The chaplain should be the harbinger of life, not of death.. .. One of the first duties of the chaplain is to diffuse round the patient's bedside a spirit of happiness, of joy through faith."3 Another writes, "Let the pastor's emphasis fall on health rather than sickness. Whatever the reason, most patients recover. In short, think of disease as an enemy to be fought and overcome."4

Bring only good news to the patient. Don't discuss other cases of illness, except to tell how well someone has recovered. An aged saint where I was pastor several years ago went to the hospital for an operation. Just before her surgery someone told her of a fatal tonsillectomy. Needless to say, this type of thing can cause a patient a great deal of worry and undue alarm.

When you enter the room, don't shake hands unless the patient extends his hand first. Stand or sit where the patient can see you easily. Otherwise he will be uncomfortable.

Dress conservatively and neatly. I don't usually wear black clothes to make hospital calls. I find something lighter and brighter more appropriate. Some patients dread seeing the minister approach because his somber demeanor makes them think of the funeral director and judgment day.

Never discuss the case of an unconscious patient in his presence. He may be able to hear, but not to respond. One woman told me of being so ill that no one thought she could recover. The physicians had given her up to die. Her family and others stood around her bed discussing these facts. "I heard everything they said," she told me after her recovery, "but I couldn't respond."

Always speak well of the patient's physician. If the patient is to recover satisfactorily, he must have faith in his physician. This confidence is just as important as the medication. It can be especially reassuring to one who is undergoing surgery. Ministers should never meddle in things medical. Never suggest a change of physician or of medication. Stick to things spiritual.


Be kind and courteous. Ask the patient if there is anything you can do for him. Fulfilling a seemingly small request can mean a lot to the patient. Some patients may want you to bring a book, magazine, or some other item. Several have asked me to make telephone calls for them. One wanted a bottle of ginger ale. Before fulfilling a special request for food or drink, check with the nurse to see that it is all right.

Be a good listener. "Great religious leaders of all time have been those who listened to the voice of God on one side and to the voice of the people on the other."5 The minister's listening serves two important ends. It helps the patient to express, and it helps the minister to understand.

By listening carefully you may detect that the patient is fearful. Many patients have guilt feelings. Some may feel they are receiving punishment for something they have done. One woman had had an affair with a young man when she was in her teens. She now feared that she was going to die and that God would not accept her. Such people need assurance that God loves them and forgives them, and that they are not being punished.

Use all your sources of help. One of the greatest means of comfort and healing is the reading of the Holy Scriptures. The patient's physical condition and spiritual experience, as well as the conversation and mood during the visit, will determine the scripture to be used. It is best to use a passage of from one to six verses containing a thought you would like the person to retain after you leave. You may want to leave a booklet of Bible promises in which you have marked the passage you read.

In The Art of Ministering to the Sick, Cabot and Dicks remind us that "prayer is the minister's greatest single method in work with the sick. "6 The question often arises: Should I offer prayer with every patient? Probably not. But if the patient is a member of your church, you will nearly always want to pray with him. With others, your relationship, their responsiveness, and the presence or absence of visitors will all influence your decision.

In most cases a one-or two-minute prayer is long enough. Pray in a voice loud enough for the patient to hear, but subdued enough that not everyone else does. If there are other patients in the room, they often appreciate being in eluded in your prayer.

As soon as the prayer is over, the pas tor should leave as quietly and reverently as possible. Assure the patient that you will continue to pray for him (and be sure to do so) and that you will return to see him soon.

In hospital visitation you are following in the footsteps of the Saviour. You will receive deep appreciation from those you visit, and one day you will receive the Saviour's commendation: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant. . . enter thou into the joy of thy lord" (Matt. 25:21)

1 Cited by John A. Schindler, "Your Mind Can
Keep You Well," Reader's Digest, December 1949,
p. 51.

2 Edmond Holt Babbitt, The Pastor's Pocket
Manual for Hospital and Sickroom (Nashville: Abingdon
Press, 1949), p. 16.

3 J. Bennett Roe, Doctor and Chaplain, p. 7.

4 Andrew Blackwood, Pastoral Work
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1945), p. 103.

5 Richard C. Cabot and Russell L. Dicks, The
Art of Ministering to the Sick (New York: Macmillan
Company, 1946), p. 189.

6 Ibid.

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E. Harold Roy served for four years as a hospital chaplain. Currently he is pastor of the Wooster Seventh-day Adventist Church in Wooster, Ohio.

June 1988

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