Visiting the sick has traditionally been a ministry for both clergy and laity. People of faith feel a spiritual responsibility to visit the sick, especially those in the hospital. When Jesus told a story about compassionate ministry to his disciples, he used an example of ministry to the sick: “I was sick and you visited me.”

Several years ago, I went to visit an elderly patient who had undergone surgery. I was astonished to find more than two dozen friends, family members and fellow church members waiting in the hallway outside the patient’s door. Upon seeing the large crowd in the hallway, I immediately thought something had gone wrong following the surgery.

I asked one of the bystanders if an unexpected problem had developed. He said, “No, we’re just here to show our support.” I visited briefly with the patient who was barely awake and not really cognizant of the well-intentioned friends holding the hallway vigil.

Surely, I thought, there is a better way to show support than to clog the hallway of the hospital. Also, it was quite obvious that the well-wishers’ chatter was disturbing other patients on that floor.

As I departed, a couple of nurses came and politely asked the crowd to relocate to a nearby waiting room. These friends had good intentions but did not know how best to show support for their friend.

Hospital visitation is an important ministry, so important that it needs to be performed sensitively and cooperatively. If you are willing and able to visit friends who are in the hospital, consider these suggestions which may help you fulfill your ministry objective effectively.

First, check to see if the patient is allowed to have visitors. Some patients have restricted visitation either because they are highly contagious or because their immune systems are weak. Others request to have no visitors because their illness is too serious to allow them to entertain guests.

Second, limit visits to five or 10 minutes. Unless you are designated by the patient or the family as a sitter, a long visit may exhaust the patient. The patient is in the hospital for rest and recuperation. Brief visits are the most helpful. Offer greetings, best wishes, prayers and then depart promptly.

Third, avoid telling medical “war stories.” Everyone seems to know some story of a surgical mistake, a physician’s error or the patient who “didn’t make it.” Telling these stories will only raise the patient’s anxiety level and perhaps impede the recovery process. Positive and reassuring conversation is usually most appropriate.

Fourth, use discretion in delivering gifts to a hospital patient. Since the patient may be on a restricted diet, avoid taking food unless the patient or a family member has approved it. If offering flowers, make sure the patient does not have an allergy. Cards are almost always the most welcome and appreciated gift. (If a patient is in for an extended stay, a snack tray or food basket for the attending family members might be appreciated.)

Finally, if you feel you need to remain for an extended period, please use the waiting room and not the hallway. Most hospitals prefer that no more than two visitors be in the patient’s room. During your wait, you might offer to run errands that would be helpful to the family.

Visiting patients in the hospital is a wonderful ministry, especially if you are mindful of the spiritual and physical well-being of all the patients in the hospital. Your hospital ministry can be effective and appreciated if you respect the needs and wishes of the patient, and abide by the regulations of the hospital.

Barry Howard is senior minister of First Baptist Church in Corbin, Ky. He holds bachelor’s, master’s and master’s of divinity degrees, as well as a doctorate of ministry from Columbia Theological Seminary.

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