When ministers visit the flock, they bring the ministry of the word to homes, hospitals, prisons, and any other place where God’s people find themselves in need of a pastor’s care. Ministers should give special attention to the sick, for they often struggle with discouragement and doubt. They need reassurance of God’s love for them in Christ Jesus our Lord. The Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order helpfully reminds ministers that they “should visit the the people at their homes, and especially the sick” (8-3).
Learning to visit and care for the sick skillfully requires a thorough knowledge of God’s word, sympathy for the afflicted, lots of experience, and the personal example and wise counsel of seasoned pastors, which is why I found encouragement in Brian Croft’s Visit the Sick: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Illness. The author is senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, a congregation he has served since 2003.
Wisely – and before turning to nuts and bolts issues of pastoral visitation – the author offers a biblical theology of God’s care for the sick, observing that “the progression of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation contains an unfolding storyline that reveals two key themes: God is sovereign over sickness and healing, and God calls his people to care for the needy and afflicted.” (16) The history of the early church testifies to his “using sickness, pain, disease and suffering as a way of sanctifying his kingdom people and magnifying the worth of Christ.” (25) If our doctrine is not right, our attempts at pastoral care will harm.
Visit the Sick answers a number of practical questions: How do I prepare myself to visit the sick? What should I say? How do I ask leading questions that guide the conversation from immediate concerns to matters of eternal consequence? How do I share the gospel with patients and families who are not Christians? How long should I stay? What passages of scripture should I read? How will faithfully visiting the sick change me?
And when you are with the sick, the author cautions, don’t forget about eye contact, appropriate touch, facial expressions, posture and tone of voice – things easily forgotten but vital to meaningful care.
A new pastor will not be on the job long before he realizes he needs help. Thankfully, the final chapter outlines a strategy for equipping the church to care for the sick through preaching, prayer, personal example, and communicating to the congregation about the condition and needs of the suffering.
Visit the Sick is full of pastoral wisdom, and is a book that I hope all my seminary students will read, for “in caring for the sick, we enjoy the gift of exercising our faith in Christ.” (45)