By Chris Hulshof
When I first accepted a position on a church staff, nursing home visitation wasn’t in my job description. There was another pastor on the leadership team who had that responsibility.
That all changed one day when the pastor sent me a text message that he was sick and would be out of the office for the next few days.
He asked if I’d handle his regular rounds of visiting shut-in members of our church. I agreed and quickly tried to imagine how this was going to go.
As a new pastor, nursing home visitation wasn’t something I’d tackled before. Further, my ministerial education didn’t include any theoretical or practical training in this kind of thing.
What took place that day, however, was transformative. There was something about each visit and experience that I needed. I came to realize I needed these visits more than our oldest church members needed to see me.
If we’re not careful, ministry can be life-draining. These regular nursing home visits, however, became life-giving to me.
Through these life-giving moments, God taught me three valuable lessons that equipped me to better shepherd the congregation entrusted to my care.
1. I learned the unvarnished history of our church.
I was as much of an outsider as one could be to the congregation that had called me to their pastoral team.
They were a small, rural church in a small, rural town. I had moved there from a large church ministry in a large metropolitan city. The church and the community were unfamiliar surroundings.
The “family tree” of the church consisted of about a dozen families that, over the years, became the largest contributors to church membership.
I wasn’t related to anyone in the congregation, but it seemed as if each of them were related to any number of people in the congregation. Inclusion was difficult. I wasn’t one of them.
Understanding the church’s history was even more difficult. What many congregants told me about the church was what they wanted the pastor to hear. It wasn’t necessarily a true reflection of the historical record.
Nevertheless, as I spent time visiting our “senior saints,” I learned from them the unvarnished history of our church. These men and women were always more than willing to share both the strengths and weaknesses of the church.
I learned how ministries got started and who started them, why the congregation was a mix of close family relationships, how God had blessed the church over the past 125 years, and the challenges and struggles the church faced during that time.
These weekly history lessons helped me understand how to minister in a community where I was a transplant and an outsider. It helped me understand their unwritten rules of congregational life and how to minister in a paradigm unfamiliar to me.
Becoming acquainted with our church’s past equipped me to better minister in the present and strategize for the future.
To this day, I tell my students, “If you have a chance to do nursing home visitation, take it. You’ll learn more from a few visits with the elderly members of your church then you will from a year’s worth of committee meetings.”
2. I learned the enduring quality of memorization.
The highlight of these visits often came as our time together was drawing to a close. I’d end each of these visits by reading Scripture and praying.
Sometimes, an elder and I would bring bread and grape juice, and the three of us would celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. It was in these moments I came to realize the power of the mind.
As I sat with our elderly church members, I usually read something from the Psalms. At that moment, as I began reading, all of their years of Scripture memorization and Bible study came flooding back.
I may have been reading Psalm 1, but they were saying it along with me. Years ago, they’d committed this passage to memory or had spent some time studying it, and now it was at their recall.
For each of these church members, the ever-increasing effects of age had taken a toll on their physical abilities. They weren’t able to do the things they once did.
What they’d committed to memory long ago, however, was still very much there when called upon. The fortress of their minds was still intact even though their bodies had surrendered to the elements of age and time.
To this day, I’m still struck by these moments, and I wonder if the things I knowingly or unknowingly commit to memory will be worth it when my body breaks down and all that remains is the inner fortress of my mind.
3. I learned the extension of congregational care.
There’s a dual nature to congregational care. When you care for those who are physically unable to attend church, you’re also ministering to their sons and daughters who regularly attend on Sunday morning.
As they see how you care for their mother or father, they, in turn, receive care from you. In caring for those who are shut-in, you are, by extension, also caring for other members of their family.
Max was a man who’d always shake my hand at the end of the service but never seemed to have anything to say. It was always a quick and curt interchange.
That all changed when I started visiting Max’s dad, Greg, in the nursing home. Greg was a retired truck driver who’d often tell me harrowing stories of driving a big rig through long, northern winters. His mind was still sharp, so the stories were riveting.
What Greg liked most was reading a newspaper, but by the time he got his turn with the daily newspaper, it was missing pages and so marked up it was almost pointless.
Every morning when I visited Greg, I brought along a newspaper of his very own. It was a gesture of friendship that wasn’t lost on Greg or his son Max.
A curious thing happened in my meetings with Greg. As I got to know Greg and care for him, it impacted my relationship with Max. Max also began to care for me.
By caring for Greg, I was caring for Max. By taking an interest in what Greg liked, Max took an interest in me and what I liked.
When we care for members of the church who are limited by the consequence of age, we’re also caring for those who are active in the church. The converse is also true; when we fail to care for those who are shut-in, we’re also failing to care for their family as well.
A Lost Art
In a culture that places an inordinate value on youth and image, caring for those who lack both can be a lost art in church ministry.
Pastors who practice this art, however, will come to see how church members who are most connected to the past can have a positive impact on shepherding the local church in the present, as well as the future.
CHRIS HULSHOF (@US_EH) is an associate professor and department chair for Liberty University’s School of Divinity where he teaches Old Testament Survey, Inductive Bible Study, and a Theology of Suffering and Disability. He also earned an Ed.D from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where his research focused on the intersection of disabilities, theology, and church ministry.