For those of us who are not medical professionals there is always the question of when is the appropriate time to respond to someone who is in medical care. Some Ministers go to the hospital to visit patients from their church every day. Some go to the hospital every other day. Some only go once a week, if the patient is not facing an urgent crisis. Obviously if there has been an accident or a stroke or heart attack the Minister would go immediately and likely every day. But more often than not the reason for the hospital stay is less life threatening.
Then there is the Minister her/himself and how s/he approaches such pastoral care. Some Ministers would identify their pastoral gift as their primary motivation and skill in serving their congregation. For them such a situation is exactly why they felt a call to Ministry and thus they would likely go to the hospital often, some more than once a day. For these colleagues hospital care would be absolutely at the top of the list of what is required of their time each week.
Something changed in the way families related to clergy in times of medical care about 25 years ago. I remember it well. Families stopped thinking of clergy as first responders, stopped calling Ministers in the middle of the night when loved ones went to the emergency wing of the hospital. I had been ordained about four or five years and then the calls just stopped. Ever since I get the call first thing in the morning, the family telling me what has happened over night and what is likely to happen going forward. Then they will add, “If you have time we would love to see you.” And of course I go that day. But that was a change, when I was first ordained that family would have wanted and expected me to be there with them throughout the night.
I am not sure why this shift occurred but it did. Some possible reasons for the change might be that people no longer feel the presence of a Minister will make a difference in the life or death of their loved one. What they want from the Minister is support, spiritual support, personal support, and they want her/him there. But there is no sense that the Minister arriving will be the tipping point to a medical recovery. They are also more aware and more compassionate about the Minister’s time and self-care, in the past people felt Ministers were on call 24/7 and would have no qualms about calling the Minister at any time of the day or night and expecting “him” (it was usually a him then) to come. Now families at the hospital will say, “I know you Ministers are busy so don’t come right away, come when you can.”
So when to go. I have thought, prayed, and talked about this with colleagues and my conclusion in 2017 is to understand what I can offer and what I can’t offer. I am not a natural warm and fuzzy person, I don’t give off the vibes that say, “Come hug me, come cry with me”. I am not cold either, I am very approachable, friendly and likeable but I am not the kind of person you will open up emotionally with easily. I know this about myself. So in these situations I know what I can offer, a non-anxious presence, a caring person, perspective, and the resources of the entire congregation (I can mobilize these quickly). And that is what I offer. I am also NOT a rescuer, there is NO need to be needed in me. That is the one downside of people who not reflective and are born with a nurturing spirit, they can easily slide into the need to be needed. It is always important to know whose needs are being met and what the person in the hospital needs. Do they really need to see you every day and by pulling on their emotional side are you helping them be open with their anxiety or are you picking that scab because it allows you to rescue them when they feel bereft?
I never assume my presence will make the difference, that I am necessary. What I do assume is that I come with the assurance that God cares, the church cares and that I care and I will convey this with words, presence and offers of help. What I always tell people is that what I lack in the warm and fuzzy category I make up for in the “being present” category. Even if my visits are short they remain a constant.
All of us are called to a Ministry of care. But being aware of what we offer and what the other needs is critical to being the most caring we can be.