Pastoral care has never been one of my strengths.
On many occasions, my wife has told me "People think you are caring, but you are about an inch deep with empathy." I always knew that she was telling the truth, but justified myself by thinking of the times that I had demonstrated empathy, even if it wasn't felt. After all, I made phone calls and paid hospital visits to those who were sick (though admittedly, I wasn't excited about it). I sent cards and flowers to those who were hurting (eventually). I even emailed or texted people that I didn't want to talk to when it was absolutely essential. I fulfilled my pastoral duties, all the while telling myself that the days of "old school" pastoral visitation were over.
I thought I was doing a good job. I even encouraged my congregation to care for each other. "Stop thinking only about yourself and reach out to your brother or sister in their time of need," was a common message. "Surely this is what Christ wants from his church."
But to be honest, I was disappointed when one of our members was hospitalized or in assisted care and only a handful of people visited him or her. I felt as if, the congregation was waiting for me, the "hired gun," to represent them at the bedside of the afflicted. This often left me frustrated. I reasoned that maybe the problem was with me. Maybe I wasn't making my point clear enough for the congregation to understand. Maybe I was not the leader that I thought I was. Or maybe, I was dealing with a group of cold hearted people. Looking at the issue from that perspective took the pressure off of me, and that felt a bit better.
Then I got sick. Really sick.
I am still not sure exactly what happened. I was preparing for my third short mission trip to Uganda. I had applied and received my visa. I had raised most of my support. I had cleared my schedule to accommodate my two weeks away. The last step that I needed was a typhoid fever vaccine.
Three days after my shot, I could not eat or drink without everything coming back up. I was struck with vertigo so severe that I could not even walk two steps without falling. I was dehydrated and eventually spent 30 hours in the hospital attached to an IV. After being released from the hospital, I spent the next four weeks in the house trying to regain my balance, appetite, and visual focus. I was living in a surreal place that I have since termed "Loopy Land."
Let me tell you, Loopy Land is not a nice place to visit and it is a terrible place to live. But my time there was not a total waste. I emerged from my trip to Loopy Land with a much better understanding for the plight of the sick, and far more understanding of what it takes to do the ministry of visitation well. Here are seven things for pastors to keep in mind to ensure that their ministry to the sick is a blessing and not a burden:
1. Not everyone should visit the sick …
In my four weeks of agony, well intentioned people paid me visits. Some visited more than others. I greatly appreciated everyone who took the time to stop by the hospital or my home to see me. However, not everyone that stopped by uplifted my spirit. In fact, some individuals actually drained me. I felt worse as a result of him or her coming to see me. I now understand the importance of the gift of mercy. Not everyone has it. Not everyone should visit. A few good visitors are better than bunch of bad ones. Do what you can to connect those with mercy directly to the sick, and gently steer those who don't have it in other areas that they can help the person in need.