I am no expert in ministering to people in suffering. It is a privilege to be with the sick and dying, but it can also be scary, hard work. I have great respect for chaplains, calling pastors, solo pastors, and other believers who spend a lot of their time comforting the sick and suffering with the gospel.

As you minister to the sick and dying–and we all will have opportunity to do so–here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Be patient.  Ask lots of questions.  Don’t assume you know what they are thinking or feeling.  Ask them.

2. Ask direct questions.  I have found especially with older generations that they don’t respond well to some of the “jargon” questions like “how is your walk with the Lord?” They are not used to thinking of Christianity in these terms.  Ask more direct questions like “How is God helping you?” or “What Bible verses or hymns have come to mind?”

3. If you can sing, open up a hymnal and sing some songs. If you can’t sing, try anyway.

4. Avoid questions that can be answered with a yes or no questions. If you ask, “Is it hard being sick” you may not get very far. Avoid leading questions too. For example, “Is it a great comfort to know that Jesus has forgiven all your sins and you will spend eternity with him in heaven?” may be good theology, but it’s not exactly a question. Better to just state that truth and ask a real questions.

5. Learn to live with your own feelings of inadequacy. No one knows exactly what to say in these situations. It usually feels a little awkward at first. But don’t let that keep you away. Be bold, and be yourself.

6. At some point I think it is appropriate to ask very specific questions, especially if the person is avoiding the harsh realities of the situation.  You may have to say something like “There’s a chance you may not get better.  Are you scared of dying?” Obviously, you don’t lead with this question as you visit the little girl having her appendix taken out, but in other situations you can’t avoid talking about death. Well, actually, you can avoid it (and you may want to), but you shouldn’t.

7. Don’t fall into the trap of talking only about all the medical jibber-jabber. Most people will start out by giving you the medical play-by-play. That’s fine and probably therapeutic. But don’t try to be their doctor. Move past talking about prescriptions, treatments, and the new medical vocabulary everyone is learning. Get to the gospel and the soul.

8. Don’t interrupt. Ask follow up questions. Be slow to correct their thinking. If they need to be challenged, do it after they know you care and take their feelings seriously. Nothing is more discouraging than a friend or pastor who quickly corrects all fears and immediately shines up all your struggles.

9. Remind people of things you know they already know. We forget. We doubt. It helps to hear others tell us the same truth one more time.

10. Open the Bible. Read the Bible. Teach the Bible. If our theology doesn’t help when people are sick and dying, what good is it?

A Few Scripture Suggestions

Verses to give assurance:

  • Romans 8:1 (no condemnation)
  • Romans 8:28-39 (nothing can separate us from Christ)
  • John 11:25-26 (I am the resurrection and the life)
  • 1 John 1:9 (if we confess our sins God will forgive us)
  • Ephesians 2:1-10 (by grace we have been saved)
  • Luke 23:39-43 (thief on the cross)

Verses to sympathize with hurting people:

  • Psalm 40 (stuck in the miry clay)
  • Psalm 42 (as the deer pants for water, so my soul longs for you)
  • Romans 8:18-27 (whole creation is groaning)
  • Hebrews 4:14-16 (Jesus as our sympathetic high priest)

Beloved passages that are almost always appropriate:

  • Psalm 23 (the Lord is my shepherd)
  • Psalm 46 (God is a refuge)
  • Psalm 103 (God’s compassion and mercy)
  • Matthew 6 (God’s care and do not worry)
  • Romans 8 (mercy, suffering, hope, assurance)

I also recommend the Heidelberg Catechism, especially questions 1 and 2.

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26 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On Ministering to the Sick and Dying”

  1. Barbara says:

    Wonderful practical advice, thank you. I will be printing this out to keep in my Bible. Come to think of it, most of these points would apply to any situations in which we are trying to share the love of Christ with another person. Be patient, really listen, don’t just talk about the medical Jibber-jabber or you could say the sports score or the latest political nonsense… all really helpful. Thanks Pastor DeYoung!

  2. Kyle says:

    The timing of you posting this is very providential. Our church has had 6 weeks of death and sickness that have been very unexpected. This is exactly what I needed to read.

  3. Sandy Grant says:

    Thanks Kevin for the article.

    A few extra thoughts from another non-expert pastor in these matters.

    1. Really agree with singing the hymns. It sometimes cuts through when speaking doesn’t.

    2. Sometimes we get called to the bedside when the person is apparently unconscious or non-responsive. I was advised to always presume they can hear. So speak to them gospel words of comfort as if they can still hear, even if they cannot respond outwardly.

    Once again, singing hymns can be very powerful. It strikes a chord to resonate with. Just a fortnight ago, I was at the bedside of a 101 y.o. member of our church. She was dying and was not herself, restless and agitated. Speaking to her seemed to agitate her (mostly). Singing a familiar hymn calmed her.

    3. Sometimes when you are called to the bedside all the family is there. It is sometimes appropriate for a pastor to ask the family members if they would be willing to give you a few minutes alone with the seriously ill person. It can make it easier – for you, and certainly for the sick person – to speak directly, like Kevin advised.

    4. Other Scriptures that might be helpful…
    * Psalm 71, e.g. v9 “Do not cast me away when I am old…”
    * Psalm 86, e.g. v1 “O LORD …answer me, for I am poor and needy”
    * Psalm 103, e.g. v12 “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
    * Mark 9:14-27, e.g. v24 “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
    * John 10:10-30, e.g. v11 “I am the good shepherd…”
    * John 14:1-14, e.g. v6 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…”
    * Philippians 1:18b-23, e.g. v21 “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
    * Philippians 4:4-9, e.g. v7 “And the peace of God …will guard your hearts”
    * Revelation 7:9-17, e.g. v17 “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

  4. Bob says:

    Listen. Listen. Listen.

  5. Kyle says:

    Anyone looking for a REALLY helpful book, Andrew Bonar’s “The Visitor’s Book of Texts: A Vital Tool for Pastoral Visitation.” He gives some general directions in the beginning. One of the most important is be brief, sick and dying don’t need 15 min. + exhortations. Short and sweet. And then he outlines in the rest of the book different words of comfort to bring to the bedside. I’ve found this book to be a handy guide and take it with my Bible to all visitations.

  6. Colin Mattoon says:

    I am a hospital chaplain in Kentucky and I really appreciated this post. This is good solid advice I would give to folks wanting to do visitation as well. The only thing I would add (and this is not a criticism, just an expansion) is to clearly and concisely pray the gospel for people. When you pray for them and their healing also pray that they would find comfort in the gospel and clearly lay out what the gospel is. Depending on your conversation you may emphasize different elements more than others (God’s love isnt earned by works, we will recieve a new heavenly body, etc). Often this can be the most meaningful time I have with a patient. Sometimes its hard to keep it short, but work at it and it gets easier. Practice doing this for others in your church (as we should be) and it becomes second nature at the hard times.

  7. Colin Adams says:

    Kevin, I don’t normally comment, but I just want to say thank you for this. This is highly practical and useful for me in my pastoral ministry. Thanks, brother.

  8. Another insightful and thorough post. Thank you, Kevin.
    This is great wisdom written here, however, to me there seems to be something missing.

    What about praying for healing? What about expecting God’s mercy to come that way?

    Of course, the Gospel must help us to suffer well and face death. Of course, of course, of course…but is there any place for praying in faith, with expectation for God to heal?

  9. Dan says:

    As a weakness, I enjoy hearing advice like this. How would advise approaching non-Christians who are hostile to Gospel who are sick? There is a guy who has been taking his Dad to my church that is currently in the hospital and I always feel awkward visiting him.

  10. Greg says:

    I too, will print this to review prior to future visits. I also thank others for their comments. I feel compelled to add another Scripture reference that recently blessed someone I visited. In a previous visit this person had revealed a faltering faith and guilt and frustration that that was the state of their heart. (I don’t recall that I or my partner asked specifically ‘How is you faith doing?’ or if they just offered it up. It would be a good question to work toward.) Through a group Bible study God gave me Luke 22:31-32 where Jesus prophesies of Peter’s denial of him. The point I made, which God used to comfort, was that Jesus knows our faith will persevere, though there are moments/days/season where we might falter. This is shown in his words “when you have turned again”. Jesus is certain Peter will turn to show his faith again. So too with all who are His – our election is sure (John 10:28). Furthermore, the struggles with faith amidst the suffering of the sick and aged can be fruitful just as Peter’s was. Jesus, certain he would not forsake faith completely, said “strengthen your brothers” – knowing Peter would not only turn, but be fruitful. The cancer patient I visited also used this with their family, some of whom were faltering in faith – struggling with anger toward God.

  11. Kp says:

    Thank you for this.

    I am a graduate school student, going after my masters in social work. Next week I start my internship with a hospice agency. So I’m not meeting people as a pastor or a chaplain but I hope to be able to speak to people about faith and Christ if they bring it up.

    I’m not sure what you can say to someone who is dying, what comfort you can give. But I appreciate what you’ve said here. Thank you again.

  12. DI says:

    I am not a pastor, but this is such good wisdom and advice for Christians as we love and minister to one another. I’ll be printing this out for future reference. Thank you and God bless you!

  13. Andy says:

    I’m also not a pastor, but I’ve been near many deathbeds in an occupation I had in what seems like a lifetime ago. There are no easy answers or words for this. From my own thinking it’s a matter of perspective. I absolutely know as a believer when I die I’ll be with Jesus. Not that it’s funny, but it’s odd that we would struggle to find the words to say to someone who’s dying when we could go on forever about all the things Jesus has done for us. I would suggest to allay those fears of the unknown to share that love and to share that faith. If you have many visits plant the seed and let the Spirit go to work to receive those words. Deep down someone may not feel they are worthy to receive Christ, was Paul? was I – start there and thanks be to God.

  14. A. Amos Love says:

    Kevin

    Excellent list.

    Thought this complimentary website might be a benefit
    to you and those who visit the sick and dying.

    God’s Words of Comfort & Healing 

    Everything is a totally Free Download at:

     web.me.com/love101

    Ten chapters of scriptures – Audio and Text – about…

    God’s Words of Comfort & Healing

    Prayer – Healing – The Word of God – Faith –
    Love – Mercy – Trust – Joy – Forgivness – Comfort

    And lots of 8×10 wall posters proclaiming The Word of God.
    For decorating kids rooms
    and hospital rooms
    and class rooms
    and…

  15. Taylor says:

    having some experience on the other side of the spectrum:

    6a. Don’t assume that a title, or even a calling expressly qualify you to ask the hard questions. They often are best asked out of existing relationship. The church is a community. Take advantage of that and minister accordingly, and with others.

    which leads to 5a.

    5a. Recognize that you may feel inadequate because of the gravity of the situation. Use those feelings not to shrink from ministering, but to choose your course carefully.

    and, most importantly,

    11. Don’t just speak Church. Be Church, do Church. When our infant son died, we got to see firsthand what that looks like. I am thankful for so many people who took the time to speak to us. But I remember actions, not conversations. I remember receiving flowers from Japan (in Texas) before anything others. I remember the friend who covered my shifts at the gym and clocked in under my name. I remember the couple who gave us their time, their protection, and more as they helped us arrange details of the funeral. I remember so many little picture’s of Christ’s sacrifice in the way that the Church loved us. Speak, certainly. Live as well.

  16. Steve D says:

    Full disclosure: Five years ago I was in the hospital, gravely ill. I was on a transplant list to get a liver and kidney. During the year 2006 I spent about 10 weeks total in the hospital.

    I strongly agree with what Taylor said and would like to add as well.

    12. LISTEN! Too many people think that they are doing some good, but they don’t listen to what the patient is saying.

    13. Silence is golden. There are times when just being there is very comforting. Be comfortable in the silence.

    14. Resist the temptation to teach, preach, and lecture. Be conversational when you speak.

    15. “At some point I think it is appropriate to ask very specific questions, especially if the person is avoiding the harsh realities of the situation.”

    This is a very loaded statement. I was not told exactly how close to death I was. That was a decision made by the doctors because they felt that I hadn’t gone past the point where a transplant couldn’t be done. However, I found out later that I would probably have been dead within 2 weeks without the transplant. As a pastor or lay counselor, you may not have all of the information. I could have been accused of not dealing with the harsh realities. However, I was unaware that they existed.

    A good book to understand the process that dying people go through is “On Death and Dying” by Kubler-Ross. She is not a Christian, however, she defined the psychological stages that people go through when they are aware of their impending death.

  17. Sandy Grant says:

    Thanks for the further comments, and especially the encouragements to listen and even just to sit quietly together.

    Something else which came to mind that I have found helpful is to take them the weekly church bulletin they might be missing out on, or the monthly diocesan/denominational newspaper or Christian magazine (if you have one and it is reasonable).

    In addition, when we run out of things to say, but it seems right to hang around, I sometimes ask them if they would like me to read an article from the newspaper aloud. Often that is appreciated, especially if they are having trouble reading themselves (for the various reasons that occur in hospital), so long as it is not too long!

  18. Steve D says:

    Sandy-
    You brought up something that I was going to say and forgot. Bring news of the outside world! Hospitals are self contained little towns. News from the outside world is very much treasured. I like the idea of reading the newspaper. It serves another purpose in starting conversations. I also had one of the pastors in my church shave me as an act of service. An act I will never forget.

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  20. Dan Phillips says:

    I expressed my appreciation for this over at my place; to the list, I have no “but.” I do have one “and”:

    Don’t overthink. Confronted with this very good list, and with the immensity of the responsibility and the forest of potential wrong-turns, in my pastoral ministry I would have had the urge to balk, hesitate, punt. But what matters is that you be there, out of love for God and your sheep, as wisely informed as you can be by His Word, and show that you love and care.

    Because, at least for a temperament such as mine, if you wait until you’re sure that you will be equal to everything that might happen, every need that might arise, every decision you’ll have to make — you simply will not go. Ever.

    Hope that helps and encourages.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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