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Should the pastor visit every hospitalized member?

By Steve Farish

Steve Farish has both a law degree and a seminary degree and is the senior pastor of Crossroads Church in Libertyville, IL.

I am tempted to answer that in a day when there are so many demands upon a pastor’s schedule, and because his chief task is to preach the word in season and out (2 Timothy 4:2), he may safely delegate the visitation of the sick to others. But I must say instead that absent extraordinary circumstances, such as a large church membership where visitation of all the sick by the senior pastor is simply not feasible, the pastoral metaphor of Scripture constrains me to conclude that just as the shepherd cares for the sick sheep, so the pastor should demonstrate special care for the sick church member (John 21:15-19; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:2). Even Jonathan Edwards, who considered himself to be a poor conversationalist, would visit sick church members when they called for him. Martin Luther and John Calvin both exhorted the sick to call on their pastors as soon as possible.

This is not to say that the pastor must visit a hospitalized church member every day he or she is in the hospital, unless that person is greatly distraught or in the last stages of a terminal disease. Providentially God does open avenues for special ministry during times of illness. For example, all of us probably have seen marginal church members whom God touched deeply through our prayers and words during a hospital visitation, and those members have repented of their inactivity upon release.

Hospital visits need not be lengthy; indeed, I find most church members who are sick enough to be in the hospital appreciate brief visits. Almost always I pray with and read Scripture to the sick person, and like most pastors I find the Psalms to minister especially deeply to the hearts of the afflicted. In our church we also frequently practice anointing with oil and prayer over the sick by the elders, according to James 5:14-15.

Having said all these things, the wise pastor will also train others, especially deacons and other staff members, to aid him in hospital visitation. It seems to me such training is in keeping with the command in Ephesians 4:12 that pastors should equip other church members for works of service.

For further reading: Thomas C. Oden, Classical Pastoral Care (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994) (see especially volume 4, chapter 2); Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1974), pp. 102-04; Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1967), pp. 65, 177.