One of my joys while studying in seminary has been serving in a couple nursing homes in our city. For a young man with limited ministry experience, my time working in a nursing home has helped me grow as a pastor and put my shepherding skills to use.
Here are four simple lessons I've learned along the way.
1. The Blessing of Encouraging Saints
When the apostle Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that they “must help the weak,” he also instructed them to remember Jesus' words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). There is more joy in serving than in being served.
Every season of life has particular challenges. Many residents in nursing homes experience pronounced feelings of loneliness, frustration, uselessness, and pain. I'm able to be a friend and engage them in conversation; I'm able to rehearse the gospel to them while at the same time encourage them to serve in little ways, like praying for unbelievers around them.
In turn, then, I witness faith in the midst of great trial, weakness, and loss. The blessing flows two ways: I'm encouraged even as I try to encourage others. Tempted as I am sometimes to fool myself into thinking I've scaled the mountains of Christian maturity, it's good to be reminded I'm but a neophyte in the faith. I'm a dwarf in the presence of towering spiritual Redwoods, and I have much to learn.
It's a precious blessing to be the vehicle by which the Lord encourages his people in their faith.
2. The Unique Context to Hone Preaching Gifts
“It doesn't matter what you do, your first 200 sermons will be terrible.” I don't recall where I first read this quote from Tim Keller, but I do remember feeling the odd combination of discouragement and encouragement at the same time. If I want to improve as a preacher, I must keep on preaching and take up every opportunity to do so.
But residents in nursing homes aren't guinea pigs for aspiring preachers; they are, like all of us, sheep who need to be shepherded. Many residents are especially patient and kind with your homiletical shortcomings—they're just glad you're there and that you care. (I will say that some residents can be blunt if you're losing them, which is a gift in its own way.) Moreover, nursing home services are usually small and modest, which gives some relief to those intimidated by larger settings. And for those training for ministry, preaching in a nursing home ministry provides more frequent opportunities to exercise this gift. Even with a rotation of three or four men, it's been wonderful to work my way through 1 John, Philippians, 1 Peter, a smattering of the psalms, and now the Gospel of John.
The first time I preached at the nursing home, the man who coordinated the ministry accompanied me. He was a few years ahead of me in seminary and, although far too kind and generous in his critiques, he did offer lots of invaluable feedback. Two years later, I've grown in my ability to handle a biblical text, communicate it faithfully, and apply it in tender, Christlike love. As with sanctification, I'm not where I want to be, but I'm glad I'm not where I used to be.
3. The Burden of Evangelizing the Lost
It's a constant burden to remember that each person within earshot, whether in a room with one or many, stands under judgment if he or she not trusting Christ for salvation. It's even more sobering to realize that for many I may represent the last call to repent of sin and turn in faith to the Lord.
On one occasion I met an elderly woman in a wheelchair playing some game on her iPad. I got to know her a bit and learned she was recovering from a recent surgery. After some conversation I asked what she was trusting in for salvation. She gave a sad and all-too-common response: “I'm hoping that I've lived a good life, always doing my best and volunteering to help others.” I kindly told her that wasn't enough. I then pled with her in tears to jettison any trust in self and instead to look to Christ for pardon of sin. I read Romans 5:1-11 and prayed with her, asking God to open her eyes to see Jesus as the only way to be saved. To this day I'm still praying for her. In moments like these I resonate with the poetic gravity of Richard Baxter: “I preached as never sure to preach again / And as a dying man to dying men.”
4. The Sobering Reminder of Death
Flowing from the previous point, serving in a nursing home brings into greater clarity the thought of mortality. Everyone to whom I minister was once my age, full of youthful vigor and health, but now experiences the debilitating effects of old age. Having served in two nursing homes over the last few years I've built strong friendships with many residents who have since passed on. It's sobering indeed to remember that, apart from the Lord's return, I too will die. Rather than ignoring or suppressing the thought of death, I must allow that insuperable reality to pervade and inform my life. Memento mori—remember that you will die. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!” (Rev. 14:13).
I'm grateful for these lessons (and more) that I've learned as I've served. My hope is to encourage those already involved in this ministry or to perhaps spark the interest of those looking for opportunities to be used of God. Though commonly overlooked, serving in a nursing home is by no means a less important or precious ministry in the sight of our God.