“What’s wrong with just sitting there?” That was the question posed to me by my Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor. I presented a verbatim of visit with a patient who was conscious, but unable to speak. Discomfort doesn’t begin to describe my feelings. I’m a fixer and I thought my job as chaplain was to fix people, to help them process their circumstances and come to terms with their illness and loss; never mind how “off” that sounds, it was my perception of my responsibility at the time. But if someone can’t talk back, it’s hard to process. I was missing the ministry of presence: just be there.
Proclamation begins with presence, so just showing up is a big deal. That is a key to any nursing home ministry: just show up. People are hungry for a loving touch and an encouraging word. Show up and, when you’re there, don’t rush. Don’t be in a hurry to get the service going when you’ve been invited to lead worship and preach in a nursing home. Take some time to greet each person. Sit down and relax. Enjoy being with them. Simply being there, being present, probably makes the biggest impact for any nursing home outreach.
In my current ministry setting, our church is charged with serving two local nursing homes. We periodically take a team on a Sunday afternoon and sing and pray and preach. It’s a blessing to be with people so hungry for human interaction and to hear the Good News.
One point of connection is prayer. Ask for prayer concerns. When I first started doing this, I thought I would get mostly requests for personal health. I’ve been surprised, however, to hear people mostly requesting prayers for others. It’s been encouraging. Most residents don’t share requests, but the few who do generally want prayer for other residents and the staff. It’s been an opportunity for personal growth for me to see the unselfish nature of these precious persons whose ill health has taken so much from them, yet many are blessing others.
Encourage people from your church to join you. This ought to be a ministry of the people of God, not just their shepherd. I find that even though many Christians do not feel thoroughly equipped, they do have a desire to make a difference. When we in essence “hog” these ministry experiences for ourselves, we’re neglecting to offer an opportunity to experience the blessing of being a blessing. The presence of your church members multiplies the effectiveness of your nursing home ministry.
Jesus said, “Come to me… I will give you rest…” (Matt. 11:28). Loss creates discomfort and pain. Nursing home residents often have lost a great deal before they arrived in that facility. Many are widows or widowers. Nearly all have lost a great number of friends. Some have lost family who are still living but rarely visit. A large percentage of residents suffer from depression due to their lack of mobility, self-determination, and declining health. Physical pain is a constant companion for a great deal of them. A large percentage of residents are medicated with psycho-active drugs to help ease their anxieties. Professionals strive to offer ideas to change the environments in which these people live twenty-four hours a day to lessen their need for medication. Our job in the nursing home is to proclaim the Good News. It is Good News that we serve a Lord who has suffered on our behalf and because of his suffering is able to join us in our suffering. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.
The Good News about Jesus offers comfort and your presence in the nursing home represents the presence of Christ. While you’re there, proclaim the constant, comforting presence of the Lord, who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.
We’re all commanded to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. Just because people may be old and infirm doesn’t mean they are unable to be a blessing to others. Every person needs to be challenged. Our presence in the nursing home, particularly our consistent presence over time, can give us an opportunity to use some of the relational capital we’ve built up to graciously challenge residents to grow in their faith and trust of God, to love others and treat them with dignity and respect, to be Christ’s representatives to other residents, guests, and staff members.
Another helpful challenge is the challenge to pray. Loneliness is one of the greatest challenges of many of the residents to whom you will speak. The follower of Jesus can commune with God at any time. We are never truly alone. The cultivation of a growing and vital prayer life serves as a boon to persons who desire a sense of companionship and the security it provides.
Nursing home ministry offers the preacher and opportunity to preach and demonstrate the Good News by providing a ministry of presence, using words and actions that communicate comfort, and gently challenging words of encouragement to love God and neighbor. When you have the opportunity to go, take fellow servants with you and you’ll be blessed as you provide a blessing to others.