A lot has been written about what we learn or didn't learn in seminary. I loved my time working on my M.Div. and doctorate. It was an incredibly fruitful and edifying process. But it wasn't complete. It's not supposed to be complete. You don't learn pastoring just by going to seminary. You learn exegesis, hermeneutics, theology, languages, philosophy, homiletics, historical theology, missiology, and more in seminary. But the actual practice of ministry is something that can only be learned on the field. I'm incredibly thankful for the practical coursework I had, but the best on-job training for ministry comes by actually doing ministry.
One thing that seminary can't prepare you for fully are hospital visits. You can read about visits, hear from experts about how to do a gracious and encouraging visit, and even do case studies about hospital visits. But nothing replaces actually doing visits. And when you do visits, you'll learn way more than you could have ever imagined in seminary.
You'll learn way more about your church members - Something happens to modesty in the hospital, it's left at the door. There's no telling what you'll see, or smell, from people you see on Sunday mornings when you visit them in the hospital. You might also hear them tell more about their procedure or sickness than you ever care to know. But as a shepherd, you love your people whether they're in the Sunday best at the visitor center or in their hospital gown talking about their catheter being too tight.
You really do have a ministry of presence - Hospital and nursing home visits are less about what you say and more about you being there. Many who are in long-term care have no visitors, even family. Your presence there is possibly their only non-clinical human contact in a day. Just by being there, you're able to minister greatly to the one in the bed. So don't worry if you don't have the right words to say in the right moment. If all you do is speak a word of prayer, read Scripture, and hold their hand, you've done more than you can imagine.
You can bless not only the patient but the staff - A few months ago I did a visit at the ICU where the patient was brain dead, and they were awaiting the family's approval to remove life support. The nurses and doctors who work in those situations see death happen every day, and it's never easy to watch a wife say goodbye to her husband of 50 years, or a mother say goodbye to her child. Thank them for the work they do, and assure them of your prayers for not only the patient but for them.
You're going to have some stories - Every pastor has had one kind of funny/awkward hospital visit where you just have to laugh and keep your head about you. Just walk out and go "I should write about this." I've been shown scars, seen full bedpans, fed someone who couldn't do it themselves, been mooned by an open hospital gown, and been asked to photograph a trauma victim for a possible lawsuit.
What have you learned from doing hospital or nursing home visits?
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.